I think if you ride, handle or train horses you have a duty to yourself and others to do everything as safely as possible. I might be a bit cavalier about use-by dates on food, and we’ve extended the 2 second rule to about a ten minute rule as regards food dropped on the floor (if you have to wrestle it back from the ants you’ve probably left it too long), but safety around horses is something we take very seriously, and the reason is obvious. Half a ton of fast-moving animal whose (highly successful) strategy for survival is “run away” makes life tricky for the slow-moving, dim-witted, half-deaf animals that are humans.
We’re not the biggest fan of hard and fast rules, but there is one we are particularly keen on. I think we might have heard it first from Mark Rashid, but there are certainly others who endorse it. I can only think of one possible scenario when this rule could be broken and I have to say it’s probably the result of an overactive imagination, and extremely unlikely to apply*. The rule is this: “Don’t run me over.”
I think horses have to be told about this rule in regard to humans because I don’t think it’s very relevant to horse-horse interactions. If something startles one horse, it probably startles the horse standing right next to it, too, and they will turn and run away in a synchronised sort of movement, fleeing the potential danger and managing to avoid knocking into each other at the same time. Humans, however, are completely different. First of all, they may not even realise the dangers inherent in a flapping plastic bag, or a car spraying water from its wheels, or a patch of grass that looks a little bit odd. Secondly, they might not even have heard or seen it. Thirdly, even if they do have the wits to hear the danger and respond to the horror of it, by the time they have got that message down to their clod-hopping feet they are lying sprawled on the ground swearing “it’s only an effin’ bird, you fool horse.” Horses need to have noticed these deficiencies in humans in order to respond appropriately, and although after they have knocked you to the ground a few times they will probably begin to realise your reflexes aren’t going to improve, there are ways you can help them understand your special needs better.
I’m not sure if this a subset of the rule, or just part of its interpretation, but for us “Don’t run me over” also includes don’t push me, shove me, rub your head against me, knock into me, or walk through my space as though I don’t exist.” I’m very happy to rub a horse’s sweaty forehead (who wouldn’t be?) but I do want it to be on my terms, not the horse’s. Again, possibly this is a bit unlikely, but imagine you were on a narrow mountain pass with your horse. What if he got hot and rubbed his head against you and pushed you off the mountain? Or, more likely here at Moor Wood, into the electric fence? Even if it’s just post and rail fence, it’s still likely to be very uncomfortable. I’m not sure about the dominance theories about who moves whose feet, but I do know that being able to move the horse’s feet is rather important in many ways (or rather, persuading the horse to move his own feet), and that if you feel the horse is causing you to back off and move, he is probably pushing you around more than is a good idea. Remember, the amount that is a good idea for your horse to push you around is probably around zero-ish.
So, when we are working with a new horse one of the first things we like to mention to them is that we’ve got this rule, and that we would very much like the horse to follow it. Depending on the horse and the situation, this is done with varying degrees of subtlety, but it’s always about consistency and repeating the lesson clearly and without rancour until the horse seems to understand it. A more nervous horse might be gently backed up to the appropriate distance having invaded our space, a more boisterous horse might be backed up rather less gently and have a “pshhhht” noise accompanying the rattling of the rope. We like the horse to respect a sort of “bubble” around us, and to understand that this bubble is mobile, and applies in a variety of circumstances (ie, it doesn’t suddenly disappear because we are opening the stable door and the horse would very much like to leave and that, yes indeed, flattening a human in this scenario also counts as “running over”).
This respecting of our personal space and being lead politely can have a very big impact on how the horse views humans, and can even sometimes be a bigger part of the puzzle than join-up with some horses. Knowing that these large animals have noticed that we exist and aren’t to be used as carpet can make being around them a lot more pleasant, and of course, hugely safer.
So, when I was asked to work with “Willow” – a somewhat inappropriately named Welsh Cob who clearly felt that her ample barrel-like chest was a perfect battering ram to apply in many situations – one of the very first discussions I had with her was around this notion of personal space. It went something like this:
Me: “I would like you to walk with your head by my shoulder when I am leading you, and to stop when I stop, and to respect my personal space and not bump into me. If you do that for me, I will not pull on the rope, I will not put any pressure on your head, I will not make you go backwards, and we can have some fun.”
Willow: “I’d like to walk with my head in front and when you stop I’d like to bump my lovely chest into you.”
Me: “If you do that, I will hiss like a scalded cat, shake the rope at you, and make you go backwards twenty steps.” [Demonstrates]
Willow: “Gosh, that was a bit of an overreaction! I just want to be near you.”
Me: “That’s sweet. However, I can’t help noticing that your ample chest is reinforced by an even more ample body, and I feel like you could flatten me. Please back up!”
Willow: “Are you sure?”
Willow: “ You never want me to invade your space?”
Me: “I don’t like to say “never” but at this stage I can’t think of a reason I would want you to run me over. Please respect my space.”
Willow: “Like this?”
Me: “Yes! Well done!” [Lovely rub].
Willow: “Ah, that’s nice. Now can we go back to normal?”
Some time passes…..
Willow: “How about now?”
Willow: “You said “never say ‘never’””.
Me: “I know. Please respect my personal space.”
Willow: “What, like all the time?”
Willow considers this and seems to think it’s reasonable, for at least 5 minutes before asking again if I really mean it, and the session goes on in this way, with her gradually improving and me continuing to explain that it really does matter to me that she not bump into me, stop too close to me, bump me with her nose or any other sub clause of the “don’t run me over” rule. I don’t think Willow is being stupid at all, she just wants to make absolutely sure that I mean what I say and that it matters sufficiently to me for her to consider making this pretty major change in her behaviour.
Of course, one of the tricky things about this situation is that sometimes it isn’t completely clear if the horse has transgressed or not. If you are horizontal on the floor then it’s pretty obvious, but if the horse is just a little slow stopping, should you correct them? You want to come across as a strong, calm person who enforces their personal boundaries fairly and consistently, not as an over-demanding control freak. So when, after much good work from Willow and a definite sense of achievement for us all, she got just a little bit close and I reminded her again of her responsibilities, I felt a little bit bad and wondered if I had entered into “control freak” territory. I fancied I could see her feeling a little offended, but I reckoned it was better to be a bit strict than to blur the boundaries, and we finished the session cheerfully enough.
Later that night, Willow and Finn-the-Babysitter, who had been sharing a little turnout area, were coming in for the night. Adam had been pruning some roses, and there was a tarpaulin with some rose cuttings still on the ground. Scrabble-the-Horse-Herding-Collie-Dog was sitting on the tarpaulin. I was leading Willow, Adam was leading Finn, and Scrabble decided at that moment to vigorously bring up the rear to ensure that no horse thought about stopping. He leapt off the tarpaulin and launched himself at Finn’s heels. Finn spooked, Willow spooked, and I was about 3 feet away from the narrow gateway. I felt, heard and saw Willow shoot past me, through the narrow gate, get to the other side and turn around, all without taking the slack out of the rope. I looked at the gate post and thought how very much my ribs would have disliked pressing themselves against its sharp edges, with half a ton of fast-moving horse adding its momentum to the equation, and I thought to myself “erring on the side of control-freakery was definitely the right thing to do.”
* The scenario in which it might be appropriate for a horse to knock you over? If doing so took you out of the path of a speeding bullet or a high-speed train, or a car. I did say I didn’t think it was a terribly likely scenario.