Does your horse have choice? An exploration of touch and consent…

Yesterday, I had the chance to work with an amazing mare.

Ever since beginning of my career as an Equine Sport Therapist in 2003, each horse I meet builds on my knowledge and understanding, and over the almost 14 years since it’s become increasingly obvious that each horse is a unique individual, with their own preferences, quirks, conditioning and genetic legacy. Every day, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I am humbled to be allowed to work with them and by their generosity in sharing wisdom and understandings that, I hope, contribute to me being a better human being. My love of horses is a deep, deep well, a constant filling of my cup.

Alright, enough of the sappyness and back to my story. I relate this particular story partially because of the rising awareness around touch and consent in human beings and where the line is, and partially because very little has been said about this subject when it comes to animals, particularly horses. I would hazard a guess that horses are one of, if not the most, touched domesticated animal. This literally just hit me as I sat down to write this article – we touch them to halter them, to groom them, to saddle them, to ride them, to train them, to bathe them, and often, to feed them. In my case, I massage them and poke them and align them. And for most horses this happens on a very regular basis. Compare this then, to a wild animal that has never been touched by humans, and we find a perfect spot for my story to begin.

This beautiful little mare, as her steward shared with me, had a large space bubble. We all have one, and the size and strength of the bubble varies with each individual. So often in our culture, because we have been no choice in the matter, our space bubble can be non-existent or, at the very least, hard to perceive by ourself and by extension, by others. For many of us, it has not been well received to say no to others entering into our space or touching us, especially as children, so we stop sharing early on that we are uncomfortable or don’t feel safe. Horses are the same – early on, many receive the message that if they don’t allow touch or closeness, that there will be consequences. That being said, many horses, like people, do enjoy touch and take comfort in it, and others quite frankly, don’t. 

Back to my story. This mare was adamant that people, especially strangers, coming into her space respect her boundaries. In order to communicate her boundaries clearly to me she used her ears, her tail, her mouth and her feet. She was clear and fair with me about what was and was not ok, how much distance she needed to feel comfortable and safe and what the consequences were if I overstepped those boundaries and forced her consent to be touched. I did my darnedest to listen, using energy work off the body and out her space, setting my own boundaries if needed, and sharing that I had no intention of touching her if she didn’t want me to. By the end of the session, which concluded with her yawning multiple times over the course of ten minutes and softening in her body, she showed her appreciation for my listening and support with a soft and sweet touch.

Let me give you some context. In most homes, this type communication and sharing from a horse would not be tolerated. She might be labelled “bad” or “dangerous”. She might have therapists like myself or veterinarians brought out to “fix” her. She might be forced into harsh, pressure-based training that would break her of these “bad behaviours”. Or at worst, she might be sent away for other uses, never to be seen again. In essence, she would be forced into consent of touch in order to survive.

God, that smarts when it sinks in. We have been born into a horse culture (and I would stretch this out to a culture in general in certain circumstances) that requires obedience or else. And I’m guilty. With Diva, when she wasn’t comfortable with me touching her head and face, I forced her to let me, deciding that I should be able to touch every part of my horse, because, well, she’s mine. In moments such as these, I became the entitled oppressor, forcing consent and demanding obedience, or else. Ugh. This is and was and will always be a rough pill to swallow, especially after being trained to force touch of all kinds on horses since I began my journey with them as a young girl. Thinking back over the over thirty years of interaction, it is hard to admit that I there have been many times where I never asked permission or even thought about consent, especially in the early days.

I see now that this action was driven by old beliefs and conditioning that I hadn’t yet challenged as true.

It was only after I started my work as an Equine Sport Therapist at age 23 that I began to acknowledge that a horse would or could or should actually have an opinion about what happened with their bodies. The slow and steady unravelling of my entitlement-based relationship with horses has stretched from then until now, greatly aided by the tutelage of Diva and horses worldwide, and it will more than likely continue for many years to come. A humbling, yet exciting prospect indeed, as I have no doubt that engaging in this type of work with our horses has the potential to fundamentally shift us as human beings, into a courageous activated person we feel quite happy looking at in the mirror in the morning.

We all make mistakes, and we definitely all make mistakes with our horses.  That’s a given.

The real matter up for discussion is how we handle such mistakes – do we get accountable, do the inner work and do better, or do we work to justify and perpetuate the pattern? Are we willing to look in the mirror at the parts of ourself that we are not so fond of – the entitled, oppressive, fearful, forceful, controlling parts – and then willing to transform them? The definition of health is adaptability. My adaptability promise to my mare Diva has always been this; to learn and do better every day. As a human who messes up regularly, I seem to have lots of opportunities!

Back to my story and what this mare shared with me (a message shared with me by thousands of horses).

  1. Trust is earned – it takes time and commitment to build rapport and a sense of safety in our horses. Permission and consent are an integral part of trust-building, as foundational as fairness and consistency and communication. If trust is not earned, the consequences range in a spectrum from this mare’s reaction to a personality shut-down.

I don’t know about you, but I’d rather not have a robot as my equine partner, as “easy” as they might be to deal with. On the other side of the coin, earning the true trust of a horse is not a complex thing. But it does require a few things of us. In my therapy sessions, I have had to learn a great deal about creating rapport and earning consent in order to engage in a touch based therapy with a horse I may have never met. After working with thousands of horses, it has become increasingly clear that the simple acts of, first, grounding and checking in with ourselves, second, making our intentions clear, and third, asking permission and gaining consent around said intentions. And if consent is not there, respecting that boundary as you would with any person.

2. Oppression of horses is not actually ok.

We have been conditioned that it is. This mare had a full intolerance of oppression, which came up in her session, something that I have rarely seen and was so grateful to. Sadly, most horses live within a horse culture based in oppression and repression and often experience punishment for attempts to refuse this kind of treatment.

I saw first-hand the gift this mare had given to her person with her withdrawal from this kind of a system. Her human mom, inspired by the learning, has co-created her own horsemanship method based on softness, respect and understanding.

3. We are not entitled to touch any other being without consent.

Believe me, I have blown past this permission barrier many times, especially when riding lesson horses in my early years. With Diva, I don’t get away with it (thankfully). If I take a moment to ask her permission to work with her or ride her, her whole body posture and mood changes.

The only times she has ever said no, she was in pain and required body work or her saddle was not fitting properly. Most horses, I have found, very much enjoy connection and time with their humans, Diva included, especially when it is paired with mutual respect and consent. Diva’s consent barrier goes up to stop her from going into compensation unnecessarily – my job as her partner is to listen as best as I am capable to what she needs.

Thankfully, this doesn’t require you to be an animal communicator – most horse people have a sense of what their horse needs and can feel the yes or no of consent, whether through body language, behaviour, or a feeling. Often, the increased clarity around your intention can shift a horse that is not feeling safe to a space of feeling comfortable and capable of moving forward. A great example is sharing a picture in your mind of where you are headed to before you load them in the trailer. I’ll often place a hand on their neck (if their body language expresses that they are good with me touching them), share with them my intention and then ask them to give me a strong blink if they are on board.

4. A horse is not “bad” because they say no.

If you want to practice the equality and partnership you preach, no is a beautiful expansive word and not a nasty limiting one. When received with grace, you can actually work with the feedback that’s being offered in a way that makes your relationship far stronger.

Does it mean that your horse may not be interested in the things that you want to do? Yep. Does it mean that your, now expressive, horse is going to share their frustration in a variety of ways if you override their consent? For sure. Does it mean that your relationship will change? Absolutely. Does it mean that it will change for the better? Yes, it will shift into an actual partnership, with all the challenges and necessary growth any relationship encounters. 

5. Space bubbles are important and will change for each relationship.

I read a story a few days ago about a random stranger coming up to the writer in a public space and hugging her, out of the blue. A hug is great if it’s consensual and if there is trust and rapport. But to assume that this, or any other kind of touch is ok from a stranger is a major overstep. And to assume that there will be no behavioural backlash is naive (the writer of the story was pissed). 

Think about this in terms of horses. How many of us have jumped on the back of a horse (into the same position as a cougar) in a foreign country and gone on a trail ride? Amazingly, these horses carry us and all our imbalance around without much of fuss, more than likely because they have shut down as a survival mechanism. Some, I’m sure, love it, which is awesome. Some, I’m sure, have never known anything different and don’t give it a moment’s pause. 

When relative strangers ask if they can ride my horse, it’s a flat-out no. In my mind, a horse is not a machine and should never be treated as such. That kind of rapport takes a long while to build (years to be precise), especially with certain horses, Diva being one of them. She has a big space bubble with strangers and I often joke that she is working on the rejection wounds of my friends and clients, as she walks away from all their failed attempts at touch and connection. Rapport is earned with her, just like trust. With me, she is very clear – some days she craves touch and even backs up into me for a bum rub and massage, others she’s just not that interested. I’ve learned to not take it personally, because the reality is, it’s not. All it is, is feedback. 

The space bubble is unique with each horse on any given day, and changes with trust, rapport, physical comfort and even mood  – it is our job to listen and respect, just as we’d like our own space bubble to be respected by our horses. In an equal relationship, the rights are the same. We are not actually entitled to more rights because of our humanness. But we often believe we are because that is what we have been taught.

Self-admittedly, I’ve got a long way to go.

It’s a constant process of questioning why I do certain things and whether what I believe is actually true, of requesting forgiveness if necessary, and of trying again differently. Like one of my dearest friend’s shares, it’s all a bit of experiment because we’re paving new ground when it comes to horses, and we’re likely to make more than a few mistakes. It’s horses like the one I had the honour of meeting and Diva, the “difficult” ones, that give us pause, challenge us and pave the way for new ways that honour the spirit and sovereignty of all concerned. In different hands, their lives would be in question. In the right hands, they provide a rich environment of learning that shakes our very foundation and, in the process, grows us up into the loving, compassionate, resilient human beings we have the potential of becoming.

Asking permission doesn’t mean that you need to stop doing what you love to do, it just means that you take the time to gain consent from your equine partner before you move forward, just as you would with any human. I look forward to hearing about the difference you notice in your horse when you make this one simple step a part of your daily ritual together!

If you are wanting to explore and discuss more about this subject and others like it, with a group of engaged and aware horse lovers, my 8-month online-based equine wellness immersion, The Whole Horse Apprenticeship, begins March 15th. Learn more here.

May I meet you on the trail,

xo Alexa

Amazing photo by Devon Gillott

Watch my video on permissions from last year’s Apprenticeship below…