This life lesson blog is a fictional re-creation of real life experiences with my students designed to maintain anonymity and confidentiality.


(in general use) a limit or boundary that defines the scope of a particular process or activity


She was middle aged, slightly overweight and looking a bit out of place at the far end of the covered arena. Each time she asked the Arab gelding, now walking loose in the arena,  to step towards the barrel, he instead moved in close, barely missing her face,  touching her shoulder,  forearm, and then her hand, opening his lips to take whatever food he imagined was held there. She stepped back, raised her hands in the air and gently “shoo”d him away. Instead of moving back, he took 2 steps toward her and continued to search for the hidden treasure he was sure was somewhere on her person.


Two more steps back, another raise of the hands and a quick “shoo”, with a similar response. This continued for several seconds until finally I pointed out to her that she had moved backwards, to the left and to the right, all in an attempt to avoid being stepped on and was now standing 10 feet from where she’d started. “What did you discover?” I asked. “He is a bit intimidating”, she said. “I felt like I had no choice. After all, he weighs almost 1000 pounds.”


It seems inevitable that a strong and powerful animal could get her to move her feet with very little effort. But it turns out she had a choice. I handed her a long flexible stick about 4-5 feet in length; a tool used to extend our reach, making us look to the horse like we are “horizontally enhanced”, thereby resembling his herd mates. I instructed her to move the stick side to side out in front of her at waist level as if she was pushing the air and clearing brush. I encouraged her to stand up tall, focus on the part she wanted to move (she chose the hindquarters) and walk like she was going to pick up lottery winnings that would ensure her early retirement as a wealthy woman.


Starting from the barrel where the horse had begun his push across the arena just moments earlier, the woman walked briskly and with a purpose, straight for the back end. Within a few feet of blast off, the horse noticed her. Raising his head and opening his eyes wide, he could “feel” her coming towards him. In seconds he was walking, then trotting to the opposite end of the arena.

Seeing him move away so easily and energetically, she stopped and took a good look at him. Immediately, he stopped, turned to face her, lowering his head and licking his lips as if to say, “I see you, I hear you, I understand what you’re doing and I’m willing to join you.” Curious and bold by nature, he was eager to meet the human who had shown real leadership in getting him to move his feet.  He walked toward her and when he was just 5-feet away she raised her hands to tell him, “that’s close enough.” Approaching him at the shoulder, she stroked his neck and rewarded his calm, respectful behavior.


Now it was time to return to the original activity of walking together to the barrel. Each time he challenged her by pushing into her space, she used the stick to establish and then reinforce her boundaries. Once the message was received, he would lower his head, lick his lips and calmly walk to the barrel. Now stopping at a respectful distance, the horse was treated with a small mouthful of grain offered at arm’s length in a pan by his confident, consistent partner.

It was her first Life Lessons with Horses and in just moments she had learned the importance of setting parameters-physical and mental boundaries; rules of engagement so to speak. More than once in my life I’ve suffered the consequences of not being clear about what I expected in my relationships with others, assuming they would know or accepting their directives on how things would proceed. I’d never think to protest or argue for fear I’d be rejected or feel unloved. It inevitably led to confusion and hard feelings-usually mine. Telling my hubby in a loving and calm tone that speaking to me with a pointed finger and a loud voice felt disrespectful, led instead to conversations in which I felt I had the right to express myself and share what was meaningful to me, rather than going along with his point of view and then walking away hurt and resentful.


Boundaries in relationships aren’t just about telling others NO when you feel “pushed” on, invaded, intimidated or in danger. Setting parameters from the start for how you want to be treated, making it clear what you want and need, as well as how far you’re willing to go to maintain a safe space, is just as important. I believe we need to be PRO-ACTIVE, not REACTIVE when it comes to establishing those parameters. My student learned that a horse will respect and follow someone who, right from the beginning is willing to make it clear what they want and where they want to go. Clarity is the result of deliberate focus and intention. Both are necessary to get where you’re going SAFELY and with a consistent outcome.


And it doesn’t have to be done in an aggressive or threatening way. When my student asked the gelding to move away from her with a swing of the stick, it was to establish in his mind that she was aware of her own space and was asking for him to acknowledge it as well, something horses completely understand. She did it in a way that got her point across without scaring the horse, so he was fine with it. While horses are very social and desire a life spent with others, they also know that feeling safe in their environment and in their body is the key to survival.


People have the same requirements of each other. Every time we take a step back involuntarily with others, we are encouraging them to invade our emotional and physical space and take charge of our wants and needs. The more we adapt our parameters to fit another person’s needs, the less we are able to determine and be responsible for our own. In the herd, that member becomes a liability, the one who will constantly seek out the reassurance and guidance of another, rather than taking responsibility for themselves. This is reserved for the the young and inexperienced who depend on the focus and intention of mature individuals who act in the best interest of the whole herd and is a relatively short period of time in the long life of a healthy individual.


As the lesson came to an end, I asked the woman what lesson she had learned from the horse that day. “I believe that we all have to make it clear right off the bat just how we want to be treated by others. With the horse, I started out feeling like a doormat and a vending machine and then eventually felt like a partner in a beautiful dance. Somehow when I let him know what I expected, it made his life easier because he didn’t have to keep asking me for something.” And, I asked, how will this change your own approach to the interactions you have with the people in your life? She shared a specific example. “There’s a friend who always chooses where we go to lunch because it’s her favorite. Not wanting to upset her or think badly of me, I just go along, even though it’s not really my kind of food. I need to find a kind but direct way of telling her what I want and be okay with her response. What’s funny is, I think she’d be thrilled to have me decide for once!”

And that is just the beginning….