Friday, June 1, 2018

Leadership Learning with the Boundary Box, Part 2: Safety and Emotional Fitness

by Mary Gallagher
I’d recommend reading Part One of this new series first. The Boundary Box® is a process I am developing, and my last post describes the basic premise and practices. -M
Horses are big scaredy cats—that’s why they have those long legs, you see, so they can get out of Dodge fast when Dodge turns into Scary Town. And as we all know, that happens incredibly fast with our equine friends. Everything is going great and then BOOM, a threat appears—a blowing tarp, shiny puddle, unfamiliar dog—just about anything sudden and unfamiliar can trigger their flight response. Our understanding of just how instinctively quick horses are with their feet when threatened can help us help them to become braver. 
Click to see Lori and Boots have a moment
Which, of course, helps us.
Hypersensitive to changes in their environment, horses are programmed by nature to act first and think after. Their success/survival depends on sensing danger early enough to be successful in escape. So that random spook is the near-instantaneous end result of the hyper-aware system that keeps the horse alive. 
Often, the first human response is to stop the horse’s feet. We pull on the rein/rope, tighten our hold, expecting the horse to respond with immobility when every fiber of their being says “Get away! Get away NOW!” The whole idea of stopping the feet does NOT help the horse to understand they are safe—in fact, it adds to their reasons to be afraid.
What to do?
Recognizing and making use of the horse’s desire to use their feet for safety is a skill all horsemen can learn to their benefit. Being present and helpful while the horse is coming back into balance is the best response to manage a spook situation. We, too, can overcome our sense of panic by learning how to help our horse through theirs with a few helpful techniques.
When riding, we can address a spook by riding the horse forward with purpose, or turning to face the source of alarm, un-tracking the hind legs and allowing the horse to face the perceived threat. When possible, I prefer to ride forward with purpose as if there is nothing at all wrong with a little spook. On the ground, we can allow the horse to drift a bit, but then have him change direction, repeatedly if necessary, in order to refocus his attention, giving his feet work to do, and re-instill his confidence in our leadership.
On the contrary, if we seek to punish the spook, we are just adding fuel to the fire that is feeding on his/our fear. The horse needs to become confident in our leadership, so we need to be calm and confident, keeping our emotions in check, and giving him direction toward a sense of safety. We can overcome our own fear and develop this ability by building skills through training, both in ground work and riding. 
Which brings us to
The Boundary Box.
(Read that first article yet? This next part will make more sense if you do.)
When I work with horses in the boundary box—a set of poles arranged in a square, say 12’ to 16’ across—I immediately begin building a language that will help us both become more confident in our partnership, and establish a sense of safety that will serve us in future experiences.
I start with rule #1— Establish a Safe Space, which means human feet inside the box, horse feet outside the box. One of the skills I want the horse to develop is learning to settle his emotions and feet. In this exercise, I want the horse to learn how to stop its own feet, so I will allow his feet to move while he respects the boundaries of the box, until another idea is presented or shows up.
When the horse is moving around the box, I move to different places inside the box so he has to think about arranging himself differently in accordance with the boundary (poles). His having to think about where to put his feet while in motion becomes work, and encourages new ideas about how he can make this process more comfortable. When he decides to try to find comfort by adjusting his speed, I allow that thought to develop into a downward transition  or change of direction. If that thought doesn’t occur to him, I will help him find a change of direction. Soon he will try the transition or direction change himself which will relieve him of the effort he is expending in running around the box. 

Here is a video of me working with Boots, the horse in the video above. He had been using speed to look for comfort, stopping on occasion to propose a direction change. I asked him to hang in there with the direction he was going, and here he arrives at the realization he can relax, after all.

Again, it’s not about punishment. We have to be careful not to become aggressive when a horse tests a new idea, because in trying the new idea he is releasing the old idea. I like to see it as the horse testing the situation, e.g., ‘if I change this, will it hurt me? Is it safe?’ Meanwhile, we can help by being aware of our body language and posture, modeling calm confidence, flexibility and attentiveness, while he is looking to settle himself. 
It is normal to feel scared when horses jump or spook; our own defenses kick in—we freeze or tighten our posture, if not jump out of our socks. It is tempting to become more rigid in our body and demanding in our gestures, in hopes of projecting more authority. But the beauty of the Box is that the boundary is clear and easy to communicate around—taps with the stick if the horse steps inside, change of direction if speed becomes an issue, settling to a stop when we’ve had success. That’s what the Boundary Box, particularly Rule #1, is for—to provide a literal, physical boundary for both of us as we practice our emotional fitness.
It’s a process. 

I offer this as food for thought for those starting out with the Boundary Box. Of course, working with a coach familiar with the box helps. The idea is for you to be safe by keeping your emotions in check so you can be present, clear in your communication, and the best leader for your horse. 
Friday morning ground lessons at Freedom Farm (10:30 am to 12 pm) are a great place to develop the kinds of skills discussed here. We work on safety, boundaries, synchronizing with your horse and many other aspects of horsemanship, all from the ground. The Boundary Box is a frequent favorite!

Bring your horse or we’ll furnish a school horse.

Feel free to contact me with questions and be sure to let me know if you would like to reserve a spot in our class.

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