-By Charles Wilhelm-
I saw an article video on YouTube by another recognized trainer suggested that, basically, horses are entitled to their space and we should not just barge into their stalls but accommodate them. Sometimes areas like this are simply based on philosophy. There are many good and well-known trainers who have demonstrated their talent by the handling of the horses they work with. For me, I think of the nature of the horse and always remember there is a pecking order. When I approach a stall, a corral or any type of enclosure, and I when I open the gate and have to squeeze my way through because the horse won’t move, I consider that a lack of respect. Again, this is my philosophy and it is not a right or wrong. However, considering natural horse principles, that behavior tells me, the horse is attempting to be the leader. If I am to be the leader, the horse needs to move out of my way.
We do not have to be rude or obnoxious in requiring a horse to move. That in itself can create another set of problems. I did a presentation on the Bay Area Equestrian Network (BAEN) teaching stall manners that sums up my philosophy. When I approach a stall or corral, I want the horse to back away from the door or the gate. This allows me to enter safely. If I don’t ask the horse to move away and I finesse my way through the gate, I am putting myself in danger. I have seen videos where the horse is very quiet natured but something startles it. I always think about what could happen.
When working with horses, we always want to be looking ahead of the situation and thinking about what could happen. We all know that horses have a natural flight instinct. Once the flight instinct is engaged, a horse does not care if you are standing in the way. For our own safety, we must teach the horse to respect our space but we must also continue to be alert.
Should horses have their own space where we do not tread? No, I don’t believe that they should have a sacred place. When I am paying board for my horse, paying for the hay, I think of it like raising a child. I provide my child’s food and his room, however I have the right to go in. It doesn’t mean I disrespect my child or his space, but I am entitled to go in and out. Once my child pays his own board, then he can have his own personal space. But, with a horse it is a matter of safety. The horse must respect you wherever you are, including the stall.
I have heard many times: my horse bit me for the first time, my horse kicked me for the first time. It usually occurs in the horse’s space, the stall, paddock or corral, because it is a manifestation of the horse’s attitude. Once the horse shows an attitude, it is not good for your safety and it shows you do not have a good relationship with the horse. The horse must trust and respect you. As I understand the behavior of horses, there are two choices, we lead or they lead. If you accommodate a horse and let that horse be in control in his space, it is a safety issue for you. Also, the horse will also lose respect for you in other areas.
Over the years, I have seen people in the corral with their horses doing all kinds of things. The horses follow them around like puppy dogs. That is good and it is something magical but it is a very small percent of horses that will do that. Also, it does not mean the horse has respect for the person. For a long time, I believed that to be the leader of the horse, the horse had to follow me. That is fine philosophy-wise because it makes sense. Practically, it is not functional. On three different occasions, when I was leading a horse behind me, the horse spooked and actually knocked me over. The last time I was hospitalized with a concussion.
I have never had a horse here at the ranch that disliked me because I taught it to respect me in its stall or because I controlled the environment of the stall, corral or pasture. In fact, the opposite is true, we actually establish a stronger bond because the horses have learned to trust me.