For the wise man looks into space…and knows there are no limited dimensions.

The wise words of Lao Tzu apply not only to outer space but also to the personal space we want with our horses.  There is no absolute answer to the question of what personal space is appropriate, because, of course and as usual, it all depends on the horse.

I have to thank one of my readers, Net, for raising this interesting topic in her comment on my Relapses post, which followed on my Lovely Manners post. Here is an excerpt from her comment:

“…I now allow him to cuddle…To me, he’s still being respectful – he is not allowed to push me and knows this…Some people, though, think I’m a fool and this is bad behavior to allow.  Given he still walks properly, doesn’t shove into me, and respects my authority I tend to disagree…”

If you want to read Net’s comment in full, simply click on the comments link above the Relapses post.  In her comment, Net asked me what I thought, knowing full well, I’m sure, that I would have lots to say.  I’m not going to disappoint her.

Let’s start by throwing some briquets on the grill (it’s grilling season, after all):  I find it interesting that aside from professionals who assist horse owners with handling problems, it is often those people who choose to have little personal connection with their horses (aside from riding) — who focus on the importance of personal space.

Personal space isn’t an issue for these two New Forest Ponies. Photo by Jim Champion

I also find it interesting that the close physical relationship of human behind to equine back doesn’t count as personal space.  Personal space only comes into play when all six feet are on the ground.  I’m sure that’s not how the horses see (or feel) it.

How humans view personal space. Can you hear the New Forest Ponies laughing?

The same people who are focused on the importance of personal space with their horses are often equally focused on RESPECT.  I certainly share the point of view that respect matters, since I think manners are in danger of extinction.  But I have no respect for the kind of RESPECT that is simply acceptance of domination.

I prefer to focus on courtesy than on respect and I think that’s the key to deciding what kind of personal space is appropriate between you and a horse. Honestly, I see as many violations of horses’ personal space by humans as I do humans’ personal space by horses, but seldom do the human invaders acknowledge their trespasses.

How many times have you seen someone play with a horse’s muzzle — and if a horse gives a nip in response (it may be playing back or an indication that boundaries have been crossed), the human accuses the horse of being rude?  It’s not the horse that was rude.  What would your response be if someone came up and started putting their fingers all over your lips?  I know that I’d nip pretty darn quick.

Then there are people who shout at their horses — or even scream — or simply talk loudly.  Horses’ hearing is quite acute, but do we think we’re being rude when we raise our voices?

What about that big slap on the neck after a good round?  How do you like it when someone gives you a wallop?

If we ask our horses for courtesy, it’s only fair that we extend them the same courtesy.  Because horses are individuals, how we treat them should take into account their individual personalities.  Some horses are naturally aloof.  Some don’t like their faces stroked.  Some can be trusted with a kiss; others cannot.

So if your horse shies away when your face gets in his face, why not respect his wishes?  And if he comes up to you to ask for a kiss, as my new boarder does, why not comply and make him happy?

Horses, as herd animals, already have exceptional social skills, far more advanced and structured than our own.  So if we want to make the most of our relationship with our horses, it behooves us to examine our own behavior and ensure that it’s consistent and appropriate.

The personal space we define with any horse should also make sense in the context of the horse’s job and his other handlers.  It’s always responsible to train our horses in such a way that they will be treated well by others, regardless of what the future might hold.   Still, the manners we require from a top event horse will be different from the manners we require from a therapeutic riding horse.

One last thing, while we’re on the topic of personal space.  It’s a good idea to check that your horse isn’t training you to stay out of his space rather than vice versa.  It’s not unusual to be more aware of where our horse’s feet are than where our own feet are… or where they’ve been moved to.

While lunging, did we unconsciously take a step backwards when we wanted to increase tautness of the lunge line rather than ask the horse to move out on the circle?  Did we step out of our horse’s way in the stall rather than asking him politely to make room for us?  Did we find ourselves veering off course just slightly while leading our horse past that grass on the way to the barn?

If the answer to any of those questions (or similar questions I haven’t posed) is yes, it’s because our horses are usually far more subtle and effective at establishing the personal space they want for themselves than we are in establishing personal space with them.

What are your guidelines for personal space?