Sharon Wilsie, professional trainer and creator of Horse Speak, explains the natural geometry of horsemanship at odds with the human need to touch.
Give Me Space
The “bubble” of personal space around a horse is circular, the same as ours. In fact, when a horse is calm and has time to think, he will instinctively move in predictable circles or arcs (part of a circle). Fearful or panicked horses run in straight lines. Normally, the size of the circles or arcs changes. When a horse yields his space to you by moving his head over and taking his feet with him, he is actually yielding his place along his circle or arc. Even if a horse seems to be walking straight toward the water trough in the field, watch carefully and you will see subtle shifts in the forehand to his right or to his left. And if you watch horses move in a group with each other, you will see them walk around each other in arcs, tracing the borders of their circular bubbles of personal space.
Horses clearly skate the edges of each other’s bubbles. In a herd, acute spatial awareness is developed so no horse will trip up another as they move as a group. Much of their language addresses these themes of space.
These two horses are on the edges of each other’s bubbles of personal space. Note how they arc toward each other. Photos by Rich Neally.
Because they are naturally motivated to preserve safety in the herd, horses value space more than they value contact. Humans, however, value contact more than we value space. We have hands and a need to touch. Our need to touch our horses can supersede our common sense and even get us into trouble. Our love of touch is, in fact, the root of awkwardness and miscommunication with our horses.
Horses need to feel their space is respected. A significant amount of their facial communication with us is about their personal space and how they perceive it is being violated. But we often just move into their bubbles of personal space and put halters on without asking permission or kiss their muzzles without warning—which is not to say we shouldn’t halter, caress, hug, and snuggle with our horses. But in order to be considerate, we might think about doing these things more tactfully.
To see when we are invading a horse’s bubble, we need to watch the eyes and lips more closely than the ears. Some domestic horses believe there is little point in asking humans to move out of their personal space. They may have been punished in the past if they did. A domestic horse that is used to having his space invaded will only show a hard eye and tight lips to convey: “I don’t like this.” This horse may stand perfectly still on the cross-ties while you groom and tack him up, but the look on his face is like the look on ours when we are at the doctor getting an injection.
Horses communicate about personal space all the time with their faces. Even when there are only two horses in a herd, sharing a grazing area or piles of hay, their facial gestures will say things like: “I don’t mind you close to me,” or “You—I don’t like you right now, and I don’t want you anywhere near me.”
Personal space is not the entire picture when it comes to Horse Speak, but it is one of the most observable interactions between horses we can witness.
The excerpt from the book Horse Speak: The Equine-Human Translation Guide by Sharon Wilsie and Gretchen Vogel is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books www.horseandriderbooks.com