Personal space - Epona TV blog

Caol Ila

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I thought that was a great blog post.

I've been getting more interested in writings by people like Vicki Hearn, who discusses teaching domestic animals what are essentially rules for getting along in human society and argues that our horses and dogs are for the most part able and willing to learn and indeed, embody these rules. That's kind of what domestication means. The process of training, she argues, has a lot in common with language itself. A good dog or horse trainer can essentially have a conversation with the animal.

The problem with the language of "the human must be the 'alpha' horse" is that (a) I'm pretty sure the horse knows fine well that we are not horses and (b) there's a lot of good empirical evidence out there that shows concepts like "dominance" and "alpha" in groups of horses really only exist in relation to concrete resources. You certainly want to be "in charge" in the relationship between you and your horse, but it has to be a different kind of "in charge." You want your horse to do a half-pass or a canter transition simply because you asked him to; no other reason, whereas you're not particularly interested in having his pile of hay for yourself. Something innate in the domestic horse (or dog) makes him trainable and the best horses *want* to please us and I think can enjoy the feeling of moving together with the rider, of carrying him or her. That's why it makes me sad whenever I see someone hanging on the inside rein, pulling the horse's head into a "frame." Because when you're sitting on a horse who seeks the contact herself, who wants that connection and when you and she finally "get there," you feel this great joy and lift in her movement, there is no feeling quite like it. It's what fuels my addiction to dressage. But if the horse is pulled on, forced to go on or behind the vertical, but without any release or indication of what the rider actually wants, I only see frustration from the horse. I think most horses are exceedingly generous and kind and you can spend your life riding like this and the vast majority of them will tolerate it.

And to be honest, I don't want my horse (who lacks a certain amount of charm when communicating with her own species) to use the same "language" she uses with other horses to talk to me. Most of her body language towards other horses involves quite aggressive posturing. Not what I want. I prefer more subtle, quieter communication. No aggression. That is what I mean when I say that horses can learn rules for engaging with human society and that they are different rules than they have for engaging in equine society. My horse knows, and it is deeply ingrained in her now, that she is not to pin her ears or threaten to bite or kick at me, ever, whereas she can (and does) pin her ears and snarl to her heart's delight at her equine neighbour across the fence. I suppose, in order to talk to her, I have to believe she understands the moral significance of biting, or of bucking off a rider, which is that she ought not do it even if she wants to.

Vicki Hearn starts her book "Adam's Task" with an anecdote about visiting one of these chimpanzees who was taught American Sign Language, when that was all the rage in academic investigations of language. Hearn notes that the chimps are in cages. They take the chimp out of the cage for a walk. This walk consists of two handlers, leashes, a tiger hook, and a cattle prod. The handlers explain that if the chimp gets upset or stressed by something, attacking her handler is, to her, one way of dealing with it. Hearn reflects that even though the chimp has some measure of "language," language itself does not negate wildness, that the chimp still does not assent to the rules of human society in the same way as a domestic animal. She (and the reader) realizes how much trust you place in language, as she sees it, and the assumption that your dog or horse just isn't going to turn around and attack you. An assumption based on prior knowledge, or belief, that your average well socialized horse or dog just is not going to behave like that but not knowledge that is applicable to wild animals.

Just rambling away, really...
 

TrasaM

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Nice article. Wonder what the horses take would be on humans not listening to them and invading their space without an invite. Uuum..:)
 

JillA

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I have several times seen Mark Rashid teach a horse about personal space, in a very few minutes.
Quietly and consistently - and fairly, because a horse does need to know where the edge of that space is to be able to not infringe. I have done it myself with numerous "bargy" horses (in other words horses who simply don't know) but walking forward with them behind me and every time I sense they are getting too close (yes, I know, you need eyes in the back of your head) I stop, turn around with the end of the rope between outstretched hands and if they are closer than that, firmly but unemotionally move them backwards. Backwards is something they very rarely offer unless they are asked - by a being above them in the general order of things IME.
In every case after a very few times I have a horse who no longer barges but quietly follows. They just didn't KNOW! And that includes a 17hh heavy hunter type who had been in the same field all his life, with his dam until she died and then on his own for several years. He just needed to know - and be able to learn - how to interact with the humans who he found himself living alongside. Otherwise he would have been - and was - dangerous to have around.
 

Caol Ila

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I have several times seen Mark Rashid teach a horse about personal space, in a very few minutes.
Quietly and consistently - and fairly, because a horse does need to know where the edge of that space is to be able to not infringe. I have done it myself with numerous "bargy" horses (in other words horses who simply don't know) but walking forward with them behind me and every time I sense they are getting too close (yes, I know, you need eyes in the back of your head) I stop, turn around with the end of the rope between outstretched hands and if they are closer than that, firmly but unemotionally move them backwards. Backwards is something they very rarely offer unless they are asked - by a being above them in the general order of things IME.
In every case after a very few times I have a horse who no longer barges but quietly follows. They just didn't KNOW! And that includes a 17hh heavy hunter type who had been in the same field all his life, with his dam until she died and then on his own for several years. He just needed to know - and be able to learn - how to interact with the humans who he found himself living alongside. Otherwise he would have been - and was - dangerous to have around.
Yes. Mark is very clear in all of his books that a horse has to be *trained* to respect a human's personal space and not run over or into them. They are not born knowing this. He writes a great deal about people who come to his clinics, complaining their horse is "disrespectful" because the horse barges through them. His argument is that "disrespect" verses "respect" is the wrong sort of dichotomy, because the horse doesn't see it that way. The horse runs over the human because it hasn't been trained in any particularly effective way not to.
 
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Good article.

I have a lot of problems with this "respect" business. Sounds so much like some ghetto kid threatening to "pop a cap in your ass" if you "disrespeck" them.:D

And the thing is, when I hear somebody carrying on like that, I tend to think "what an *******".

Too American I think for me.
 
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