The Difference Between “Invade” and “Invite" is Paramount
Many times when I am asked to support a student who is having difficulty with communication or the development of a partnership while playing, I find that amongst the frustration they are also allowing their horses to rub on them, lean on them, let them nibble on coats, etc all within the pretext that it means that their horse “loves” them and that it feels good like its some kind of acceptance convention.
Students are not always aware that they are undermining a very important part of the development of this partnership by not understanding how space and respect are very closely connected. It is through the human controlling both movement and control of space that we begin to earn the trust and respect of the horse, building communication that he can understand. If you are consistent with this it will lead to acceptance of you (the human) as a part of the herd and in-turn confidence in you as the leader.
If we define “Rapport” as “heart connection” I can guarantee that there is lots of this going on between horses and humans. Rapport absolutely must be present first or nothing will be progressive, but “Respect” needs to become equally important soon after. We define “Respect” as “mind connection”. There must be a balance between Rapport and Respect as this makes a lasting impression of your leadership, in your horse’s eye.
From a practical point of view, learning how to maintain your personal space around a horse is crucial to your safety and your ability to communicate effectively. It is much easier for your horse to watch what your body language or your intention is asking from farther away. In addition, you have much more physical power and leverage at the end of your line when you are farther from your horse should you need to control a situation. You are in danger if you are close to your horse and your horse becomes afraid.
In horse groups, space and spatial awareness are important parts of herd language. Horses speak to each other by influencing the space between and around them. The lead horse will have a strong sense of his own personal space and will position himself to influence all other horses by taking control of space. The space around the good hay, the space at the water trough. the space in the run-in. The more submissive horses know the difference and yield to the alpha, as this is how the herd keeps the order of peace and security.
If you are to be a trusted leader for your horse, you need to be aware and control your own personal space similar to the lead horse would do out with his herd. Even in simple tasks with your horse, by keeping a soft bubble around you, you allow better communication. Ask politely at first..it doesn't have to be aggressive but the scenario may have to be revisited often, depending on how dominant your horse is. Be consistent every single time!
When your horse is in close proximity make sure he is not pushing on your space. Horses will tend to move you out of the space and “claim” where you are standing, only if it just inches at a time. That is not to say you shouldn’t hug your horse and share space with him but you must be aware of how that is done, as it doesn’t take long for horses to play the dominant games... and it can be very subtle. It is never an accident if you get stepped on.. your horse knows exactly where his feet are....and yours!
I have observed many times, where humans take little shuffles back as their horse moves into their bubble. It is important to clear that space and have your horse move out of your bubble, not out of theirs. Better yet get your timing and awareness better so that you don't let it happen in the first place. It may seem like a small thing to us but it is a very big thing to your horse in the development of leadership. Keep your feet still and move your horse’s instead!
Before you cuddle, make sure you can ask your horse to step away and to be out of “touching distance” until invited in. Know the difference between INVITATION and INVASION. Don’t LET your horse come in uninvited..ASK and ALLOW your horse to be invited in. This one thing will make a difference with everything you do with your horse.