“Stand your Ground”
by Corrine Fierkens
The new-comer 9 year old grulla mustang outweighed the 23 year old red roan by about 150 pounds. The sound of his flying hooves, when it reached my ears, did not synchronize with the moment I saw them pound the ground as he barreled, full throttle and head snaked, straight toward the casually grazing patriarch of a herd of rescue horses.
It looked as if a mustang train wreck was imminent, when, moments before the grulla would have collided, the old man swiftly lifted his head and “postured” as if to call the grulla’s bluff.
The grulla veered off, barely missing the red roan (who went immediately back to grazing), and for the next few hours, continued to make futile attempts to dominate the battle scarred mustang who was once a harem stallion in the wild.
The roan could not be bothered. He snuffed out the imposing younger gelding’s attempts almost effortlessly. But how? I began to observe the older gelding daily and noticed there was one simple, but absolutely consistent aspect of his behavior. He stood his ground. Always. He could not be put off a chosen patch of earth against his will, and if he did become engaged physically, he defended his space with skilled “shoulder war.” Like a suma wrestler he used his experienced balance, bulk, and agility to put his challenger outside of his personally chosen boundaries.
I understood, then, more accurately the nuances of how horses establish rank without excessive violence, and realized one of the key differences between horse handlers who have “a way” with horses vs. those who cannot seem to gain a horse’s respect. Whether they are aware of it or not, skilled horsemen simply and consistently stand their ground and defend their personally chosen boundaries.
A horse will test the “rank” of a human handler by subtly – or in some cases not so subtly- attempting to make that person take a step away and “give ground”. It makes no matter how much ground is given- the perceived victory is the same. If a handler gives ground to a horse- in that horse’s mind, the human is the one being handled.
You can use this knowledge to your advantage. Begin by noticing how your horse respects or disrespects your space when he is in hand in different environments and circumstances. Does he try pushing you with his nose? Does he slowly inch toward you with his shoulder until you unconsciously step aside? Does he swing his butt into your space while he is tied up? Do you find yourself running around him instead of the other way around when you are trying to lunge him? Does he righteously demand attention? These are all examples of indicators that you are being handled by your horse.
If you want to change this pattern, start by clearly identifying to yourself where you want your boundaries to be, so that you can be impeccably clear with your horse. Secondly, do what it takes to learn how to safely and effectively establish and defend your personal space (just like horses- with the least amount of physical effort as possible). You may want to invest in some Pilates or martial art lessons to help you strengthen and learn to use your core for leverage. Also, pay attention to experienced professionals such as vets and body workers who have honed their ability to stay safe around a horse. Ask your trainer to help you understand how to maneuver and influence the horse’s shoulder from the ground. These skills will not only establish a tone of conversation and get both you and your horse in a good mind set for riding, but you may well discover that understanding these concepts from the ground will enhance your understanding and mastery of them from the saddle. (I’m referring to 1-using your core, 2-the power of influencing the horse’s shoulders; especially how it relates to Western Dressage, and 3-establishing certain boundaries.)
Finally, be mindful that any time you are handling your horse, the horse is learning. Consider all of it “ground work”; an opportunity to establish the tone of your communication as horse and rider. It is safer to mount a horse whom you are handling, less so to mount one who thinks he is handling you.
Corrine Fierkens is a professional Equine, Human, & Canine Bodyworker / Trainer serving clients primarily in the Douglas /Elbert County area in Colorado. Learn more about Corrine; please visit her at www.SheTouchesHorses.com