Good leadership means good boundaries. Human psychology has taught us that healthy relationships require boundaries, or a personal sense of safe limits on the behavior of others towards us.* Horses are keenly aware of boundaries, which are crucial to the safety of the herd; they test boundaries as a matter of survival. So when our horse gets in our space—gets us even a little off balance, fishes for treats, has us stepping back, or a million other seemingly harmless intrusions—they are testing our boundaries in order to test our leadership.
The way we establish leadership in a healthy relationship with our horse, in my experience, is by acting with unaffected emotions while setting clear boundaries that we can fairly and effectively enforce.
The problem—human behaviors. After decades of helping people work through problems with their horses, I have observed a number of human behaviors that cause confusion for the horse, adding awkwardness and risks to the relationship.
These are some common sources of struggle:
- Not being aware of boundaries and/or not making them a priority;
- Thinking and moving separately from the horse, unaware of the horse’s intentions or focus;
- Trying to stop the horse’s movement, rather than making use of the horse’s movement to stay safe and/or introduce ideas;
- Continually changing one’s mind (often without realizing) and therefore changing one’s body language;
- Confusing assertive response with aggressive reaction, e.g. acting with unchecked emotion, which loses the horse’s trust;
- Getting frustrated and giving up, instead of slowing down and simplifying;
- Obsessing on problems, missing the positive potential that could be developed in the horse;
- Boring the horse through repetition, rather than being creative in finding uses for what the horse knows;
- Trying to figure out horsemanship without qualified help (which would ideally be before the horse figures the person out first!).
It takes many years of experience and lots of horse hours to feel comfortable dealing with these issues, which are a natural and ongoing part of our horsemanship learning. Even trying not to make a mistake affects our relationship and the ease of our communication with the horse, causing heartburn for both. But there is always hope, thanks to our horses, who are by nature incredibly adaptable and forgiving.
And it starts with good boundaries.
The Boundary Box. With the idea that a good relationship begins with clear boundaries, I developed the Boundary Box. It began as a simple, creative use of cavaletti poles for a warm up exercise on the ground, and evolved into a flexible system of exercises providing a framework for developing positive communication between person and horse.
I wanted to simplify communication to its bare bones—a basic, consistent approach to body language that would be doable for my students and easily understood by the horses. I believed that as clear, effective body language—which, by the way, is the horse’s native tongue—becomes a habit, I’d see students able to consistently and predictably grow with their horses. I wanted to help them notice more about how their horse communicated with his body, and to become proactive in the development of their relationship.
Boundary Box Basics and You. The boundary box is a system of practice which starts on the ground, with a set of basic rules to guide you in exercises to strengthen every aspect of your horsemanship. The rules are simple, so it is easy to know what the correct response is, while your emotions stay in a neutral state. There is no benefit to skipping ahead; in fact, if you find yourself in a hurry to get results, there's a problem right there. These exercises are as much about YOU as they are about THEM (the horse). So expect a bit of feedback on your leadership style from the one who knows it best—your horse!
Sticking to the rules below makes it easy for both of you. The horse gets the idea pretty quickly and can maintain his role, while you use the given structure to work on becoming a better communicator and horseman.
Four Rules of the Boundary Box
- Establish a Safe Space—use the boundaries of the box as a way to become the alpha and gain trust. Horse feet out of the box, human feet in the box.
- Establish body language—use the boundaries of the box to begin establishing communication through body language right away. Simple stops and changes of direction.
- Make relaxation your default—learn to practice suppleness or looseness, getting in the habit of working with a drift in the rope as a way to more relaxation and less pull. You can’t force relaxation; make it a point to practice it. The rope is a tool and part of your body language.
- Synchronize with the horse—find the rhythm and energy of your horse and begin to synchronize with it, just as if you were riding. If your horse moves fast, stay closer to the center of the box so you don't have to run. If your horse moves slowly, stay closer to the edge of the box.
|Mary and Magnum practice; Mary is using her body position to influence her horse, and she's using the stick to help her see where her energy is directed.|
How to Get Started
The following is a sketch of how to get started with The Boundary Box exercises, to give you a feel for the four rules and help you become aware of the effectiveness of your body language.
What you will need:
- 4 poles arranged in a square (size can vary as you get the hang of it; start small, say 10 to 12 feet across),
- A training stick with string,
- Your horse with a halter and sufficient lead rope for him to be outside the box (12’ to 14’).
- Standing just inside the box facing the horse, who is on the outside, hold the lead line as if it were a rein, but brace it on your belly button. Start by going right—rope in the right hand (on your belly button!). Rope about 4’ long. Training stick in other hand, close to your body.
- Deliberately turn in the direction you want him to go and begin to walk (in this case, go right). NOTE: The stick does NOT make him move—your body language does, as you turn and begin to walk off around the box. The slack will go out of the rope and your horse will likely follow you into the box to save steps—if so, start with a few taps on the withers until he exits the box. Allow him to drift, and be sure to make leaving the box as easy as possible.
- Begin your walk around the box again. Repeat the above sequence until the horse understands that your feet are in, his feet are out.
- Always be fair when asking your horse’s feet to leave the box. Many things have to happen here. The only way your horse knows how important this rule is, is by repeatedly testing it to see what happens. This is a good thing: your horsemanship will grow as you learn about the nature of the horse and how he is always testing boundaries, sometimes in very subtle ways.
Notice how each time he steps in the box is a little different than the last time, and that when he leaves the box, it is always a little different then the last. It’s funny and pretty amazing how, like a child, he can test this one rule so many ways.
Your emotional fitness grows with your consistency in enforcing this rule, as does your horse’s respect and trust that you can be effective without turning into an aggressor.
- After establishing a good rhythmic walk with no corner intrusions, try a stop. This is simple, just stop your feet stop without changing your hand with the rein (on your belly button!). Do NOT pull him to a stop.
If he walks into the box behind you, don’t get excited. Understand he has not seen this body language before and may be confused. FAIRLY tap him on the withers until his feet are outside the box, adapting to any drift that may be necessary by letting your rope slide through your hand a bit.
- When your walk around the box is consistent again, try your stop again. This time, notice when your horse is the most relaxed and try to stop when you think he is relaxed and receptive. Again, your horsemanship will grow as you begin to synchronize your body language with your horse’s movement. Because your horse is only walking, it is fairly easy to step in time with him.
|Kip's rope hand holds it like a rein, at the belly button. In this lesson I had him point his stick to help him see where his energy was going, while being careful not to poke Bob!|
Things to try when you have learned to do the basics without using (tugging or pulling) with your rope:
- Change direction by first stopping, then turning toward him, then changing your rope and stick smoothly to the other hand, and walking off in the new direction. No surprises, be smooth and clear so he can see and synchronize with the change in your body language.
Later we can do this in a smooth flow, changing direction without stopping, as the horse becomes accustomed to our body language, and we get the hang of switching the rope and stick back and forth. Always go slow enough for the horse to notice the changes in your body language as you stop and turn around. Again, no tricks—be obvious.
- In case you've learned the basics, but your horse is not synchronized with you and is looking away, it can be almost impossible not to tug or be tugged. Practicing the stop and change direction can help here, too. This will not only teach your horse the stop and turn, but also begin developing their attention, and encourage the shape that will alleviate tugging or pulling. If you are in this situation, try several 'stop and changes', rather than going all the way around; ask for it after only one corner, repeat, quietly and deliberately, several times until you and the horse are in better sync.
- After a successful stop, when you’ve had a good round, stand a while to appreciate your horse’s intelligence and your newly developing skill. Believe it or not, this pause to appreciate is a way of advancing your horsemanship.
Conclusion. Now you know the basics of The Boundary Box. A couple of final hints: Be sure to make your introduction to this exercise short and easy to build on for the next time. End the exercise sooner rather than to later to avoid ‘over- cooking’ your horse. The wise horseman knows that this is the faster track to success.One side of us wants to practice, practice, practice, and get on to the next thing, but the horsemanship skill of being present in the moment is what needs to be practiced. Much can be learned from the silence of being present with your horse. So let's practice, practice, practice being aware and present.
The Boundary Box is not meant to be your whole training program**, just a new beginning and understanding of what is possible for your future horsemanship. It’s all about being aware of, then quieting down your body language, making it simpler and more readable for the horse.
In time, it will become a dance.
Additional thoughts, next steps, and resources.
A little box work goes a long way to help with:
- New Horse relationship building (start out on the right hoof)
- Spooky horse (Safety and respect of personal space using a longer rope and the box inside the box)
- Older horse (checking where your relationship is on that day)
- Seasoned horse (cleaning up body language in preparation for more advanced communication).
- Make the box bigger, say 12’ x 12’ or 16’ x16’ (always a square, not a rectangle);
- Try taking away one side of the box;
- Make a corners-only box out of four cones;
- Make two boxes 20’ apart, can you leave one box and enter the other box without your horse changing.
- Sign up for a coaching session, or join our Friday ground class to fast track through the basics.
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*A Guide to Psychology and Its Practices: Boundaries
** If you have an extreme communication problem with your horse, get help from a qualified trainer. We want you to be safe!