Horses are big…

…and they think very highly of themselves.  That’s a cool quote from an article I read recently.  It was funny that I read that article right after I wrote different words to make the same point in a discussion recently about the word “respect”.  What I’d said was that my mare Danke put herself on a pedestal and makes sure all the other horses know what space she is claiming as her own.

The discussion started with two definitions of respect.  You have on the one hand respect meaning, ‘to heed’ or ‘to take notice of’.  And on the other hand respect meaning ‘to honor’.  Horses don’t really relate to the latter definition like we people do.  Just to avoid confusion I avoid the word and when I mean ‘to notice’ I just say, ‘to notice’!   Or , more commonly for me, ‘to get on the the horse’s radar’.

The thing about horses is that while they may not relate to the notion of respecting (honoring) another being (horse or human) they are all about self-respect… in other words, ‘taking care of number one’.  Some call it an instinct for self-preservation.  In our interactions we would be wise to remember that the horse is, first and foremost, concerned about his/her-self and figuring out what works to get what he/she wants.  They want space or food or company or whatever they will do what works to get it.  And, that is good news because if they didn’t they wouldn’t be too trainable, eh?

What occurred to me during the course of thinking about this idea of self-respect was that we humans could learn something.  No one, certainly not your horse, is going to worry more about you than you.  If you want the horse to take notice of your boundaries then it is up to you to have the necessary self-respect to make it abundantly clear where those boundaries are–just like the horse does.  And you need to understand that is 100% natural for horses to be continuously testing their environment.  It is how they ‘live and learn’.  So, if you want your horse to respect (heed) your space then it starts and ends with how much you respect (honor) that space yourself.

Another lesson about respecting our own space we can learn from horses is to send the message early and often.  When a mare wants her space she doesn’t wait until the offending horse is on top of her.  She will make her point clear as soon as the other horse approaches her boundary.  Note the word ‘approach’.  The first messages go out subtly before the boundary is crossed.  A look, a cocked ear, a position.  Quite often this all that is required for the approaching horse to back off.  Only if the early message isn’t heeded will the she make a bigger fuss.  As riders we need to do the same.  The sooner you define your space for your horse the less energy you will need to defend it.

Horses also don’t hold a grudge.  They are plain with their message and then when they have what they want, all is well.  No offense intended and none taken.   That is another important aspect of the horse’s lesson for us.  Horses don’t take plain, sensible messages personally.  It is what it is and it is cool.  Let’s eat!

So, it comes to this.  Horses are masters of space management and getting along.  It is about self-respect, awareness, clarity, and peace.  We would be wise to apply these concepts when working with them,  Because… they are big!


  1. I love this message! I’ve been talking a lot lately about maintaining a safe distance with animals, not just horses. I keep a lot of poultry, many of them are males, some are turkey-sized. They can and will flog a person in the blink of an eye, but they’re ever so easy to stop if you catch them before they engage you. By catch, I mean use your body language to tell them you aren’t interested in a fight today and they should re-evaluate their intent. It rarely fails.
    I take this lesson to the stable with me. I’m always aware of the horse’s location. Is he approaching? Retreating? Which end is facing me? I then reposition my body and limbs accordingly. I also make good use of facial expressions. Horses that have been around humans for a lifetime know what an ugly face looks like. If you are vigilant, you can catch an accident before it happens.
    Regarding the notion that self respect makes it possible to train a horse, the opposite holds true too. A horse who’s self-respect has been impaired through mistreatment is not particularly trainable. Gabe came to me this way. He was half starved, frightened and his self esteem was in the gutter. He had no compunction when it came to spiting himself. He had a hard time deciding whether he should relax and eat treats or grind his teeth and threaten me. Many freebie treats and targeting sessions later, he decided that he was in fact a good boy, even when he didn’t guess right. The rewards finally fit into his concept of self.

    • Excellent points. I like the word ‘vigilant’! Thanks for posting!

  2. “It is about self-respect, awareness, clarity, and peace.” And consistency! My mare Biggie (aka Sonho) gets very put out with me if I am not consistent when I ask her to do things……..

  3. Really excellent commentary about being safe around horses. Very eloquently stated.

    Thankfully my guys are not so big, but big enough.