Sharing Time and Space — Communicating Zero Intent
‘Zero Intent’ is being in our horse’s presence without asking him to do anything. As long as he remains polite and we feel safe, we just want to hang out with the horse in the same way that horses hang out with each other.
Building a Connection Involves Relaxing Together
Learning something new and meaningful always requires a lot of mental, physical and emotional energy, especially when first getting started. Sharing of Time and Space becomes something we can do with our horse forever, whenever we can fit in a few minutes of quiet time.
To help with the nuts and bolts of starting this exercise, I’ve created three checklists.
If this is new to you, be sure to go through the detail of all three checklists before you begin.
This clip, #75 HorseGym with Boots, gives an overview of the process. I’ve edited the footage to show key points, leaving out the actual relaxed ‘chilling out together’ time or it would be like watching paint drying.
There are three older but quite interesting clips in the “Additional Resources” at the end of this post.
Checklist 1: INTELLECTUAL – Getting your head ready to do this
It’s up to you to decide how much close contact you are comfortable with. As long as you don’t feel intimidated, it’s fine to let a polite horse get up close and personal. Be aware if nudging might turn into nipping, as it does with this horse.
- The purpose of Quiet Sharing of Time and Space is to get the person accepted as part of the horse’s in-group. Horses perceive people either as something to be wary of, or as part of their social group.
- Wary horses will remain poised on the edge of fear and flight. They feel unsafe around people and they will be unsafe around people.
- Horses that see you as part of their in-group will relate to you as they relate to other horses as long as you consistently use body language they understand and remain within the boundaries of their understanding.
- The purpose of all training or educating of domestic horses is obviously to enlarge their boundaries of understanding in order to make them more comfortable in their strange life captive to humans.
- Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows you to become more like a horse. It puts you in the zone where time by the clock doesn’t exist, where life follows the natural rhythms of day and night, of seasons, of looking for food, of being constantly aware of danger, of interacting with group members. This can be a big stretch for some people. Other people find it hugely relaxing and life-enhancing.
Bridget is enjoying the winter sun while Boots grazes. How long we spend sitting with our horse depends on what we can fit into our lifestyle. Frequent short dates with our horse are more effective than longer dates.
- Quiet Sharing of Time and Space allows time for the horse to accept our relaxed presence in his space. This can be a huge stretch for some horses who have only had demanding forced interactions with people. Other horses may be all over a person like a rash and need to be shown how to stand back politely.
- Be mentally prepared to move your chair if the horse gets too overbearing. There is a fine line between friendly exploration with nose and lips and seeing if you can be pushed around. Moving your chair tells your overbearing horse that you don’t want to be near him right now. It is what horses do. They just move away to give the message that they don’t want to interact right now. In this situation moving away is a neutral action. If he follows you and continues to be overbearing, you’ll use your body language and swishies to ask him to back out of your space as described shortly in items 3 – 11 of Checklist 2).
- When you move your chair, position it side-on to the horse, not facing him. We don’t want to stare at the horse or send energy toward him from our front. Horses are extremely sensitive to orientation.
- Sit outside the enclosure fence if you feel unsafe inside it.
- Realize you will need to experiment with understanding when your horse is investigating you, when he is pushing on you, when you should move your chair or ask him to back off.
- It’s by experimenting that you start to get the feeling for the whole exercise. No one can give you a recipe. Every horse-human relationship is different. You’ll begin to feel what is probably the best thing to do next.
- Understand the powerful effect of the swishies to expand your bubble and make the horse back off or move away any time you feel intimidated.
- Pushing the horse away too strongly at first is better than not being strong enough. If you are not strong enough, you are teaching the horse that he doesn’t have to pay attention. Your signals turn into nagging. If you are too strong at first, you can always get lighter next time.
- If the horse is being overbearing, define your personal space strongly enough so he doesn’t want to come back right away. In other words, avoid nagging him back repeatedly. Be sure in your mind show him clearly that you don’t want him around for a while. Make being near you a bit of a privilege. You could lay a rail at a distance you find comfortable and ask him to stay behind it. If you and the horse are clicker-savvy, you can reward the standing away by going to the horse to deliver a click&treat.
- Use assertive (not aggressive) body language. Horses higher in the group’s social order use their energy to enlarge their personal space as necessary to re-direct the behavior of others. Self-assertion is different from striking out at the horse in fear or anger. Horses understand the difference clearly as long as the handler is consistent.
- It may seem counter-intuitive to ask the horse to stand back in this way, but it is signal language used between horses and adds to creating mutual understanding with a horse who readily moves into a person’s space without invitation. The last section of this post looks at horses who are wary or afraid of approaching people.
Checklist Two: PHYSICAL – Keeping you both safe and comfortable
Bridget is using her swishies to ask Boots to step back after she got a bit overbearing and intimidating. Note the energy is directed at the horse’s feet.
- You need a safe, secure place to hang out together, e.g. a roomy corral or a small paddock. It may be possible to separate a corner of an arena or a big paddock or a nice shady area under a tree by using electric fence tape and standards (not electrified).
- Allocate ‘date time’ as frequently as possible. Shorter frequent dates are better than long infrequent dates.
- Sort out two swishies — supple willow twigs, bamboo canes or dressage whips about 130 cm long. These let you to enlarge your personal bubble for your own safety. They allow you to disturb the air at the edge of the horse’s bubble if you want to move him away. We usually don’t need to touch the horse with the swishies.
- Sadly, statistics indicate that many people get hurt interacting with horses. Despite the best intent in the world, unexpected situations arise. The sheer size, power and split-second reaction rate of horses cause injury or death, with no direct fault to either horse or human. While many more horses are hurt by people than horses hurt people, it’s important to have the risk radar on all the time people and horses are in proximity.
- It is not surprising that horses can make us nervous. If we feel even the slightest nervous tension close to our horse, the horse will instantly be aware of our tension and read it as a reason to be wary and aware, just as they read the body language and energy field of another horse.
- By knowing that we can, at any time, move the horse out of our personal space, we are able to relax into the moment. If we can relax, the horse has a chance to relax.
- Get another person to use the swishies on your bubble. Ask them to start swishing at ground level right and left (not up and down), then move up (still swishing right to left) until they are swishing above your head. Note your physical and emotional reactions.
- Use the swishies on other people and get both their physical, emotional and verbal responses.
- Horses are so sensitive to the moving air created by this swishing motion that we seldom need to do more than direct it toward their feet and legs.
- Always bring up your body into an assertive posture before you activate the swishies. The horse will soon learn to recognize the significance of your posture.
- Use as much assertive body and swishy energy as you need to move a pushy horse, but, once he understands, don’t use more than you need to make your point that he must move out of your personal space.
- Have carrot strips (or treats of your choice) to reward polite behavior. For a timid horse, keep the treats under your chair to act as a draw card for him to come and see you. For a pushy horse, keep them outside the enclosure in screw top plastic containers, but you can also have them under your chair if you want the horse to push on you so you can teach him to be polite by rewarding him when he stands back and relaxes. If you use clicker training all the time, your normal treat pouch may be fine.
- Comfortable chair.
- Something to read or write with or just relax into the moment.
- Grazing or hay for the horse is optional at this point. Ideally you want your horse feeling well fed before your date. To learn the procedure, it’s easier to be in a grass-less or well-grazed area.
- With little or nothing to eat in your ‘dating’ enclosure, he will pay more attention to you, which is what you want at the beginning. It makes it easier to read his intentions and relate to him. Being in a non-grazing area allows you to either entice him with carrots (shy horse) or teach him to stand back politely to receive a treat (pushy horse).
- For some sessions, you could put out several piles of hay. If you don’t want hay on an arena surface you could use big tubs, carpets, tarps, sheets or blankets.
- Eventually, once the horse is confident and polite, it’s nice to do Sharing of Time and Space in the horse’s usual grazing environment.
Checklist Three: EMOTIONAL – Getting your heart ready to do this
Boots is spending time with Bridget without needing to push on her. They are able to relax in each other’s company and enjoy the sunny afternoon.
- Let go of expectations, goals, presumptions, worry and anxiety.
- Just start and know it will improve each time you get out there.
- Nothing will be perfect; learning is a messy business.
- No one cares except you and your horse (and other people studying this).
- Others may laugh at you and think you are peculiar. That’s their privilege.
- Others may be really interested. It’s up to you how much (or little) you want to tell them.
- Observe what your horse does without staring directly at him.
- Observe (without making value judgements) what your horse is actually doing.
- For a session or two, you could record exactly what your horse is doing at regular time intervals (e.g., every two minutes or every five minutes). If this interests you, it is a great study, especially if you can also do it when the horse is in a paddock interacting with other horses. You may begin to see interesting patterns.
- Appreciate that everything the horse does is FEEDBACK. Feedback can be positive, negative or neutral and all of it has the same value.
- For this exercise of becoming more horse-like, you need to let go of all your horsemanship aims, goals, desires and dreams. I doubt that horses dream positively of people on their backs, driving them forward over, through and into things for no reason the horse can see (other than to get it over with).
- You can retrieve your goals when you need them and play with making your goals your horse’s goals. But first you need to understand his goals by observing and listening to his body language.
Bridget is moving her chair because Boots became a bit too overbearing. Moving our chair resembles another horse walking away to gain more personal space. It is an alternative to asking the horse to step back using the swishies.
- Be prepared to move your chair if the horse gets overbearing.
- When you sit down, put your chair side-on to the horse. Try to not stare directly at him.
- Be ready to defend your bubble with your assertive (not aggressive striking out) body language and your swishies as necessary to stay safe. Being with a horse requires that our risk management radar is always on.
- Be ready to notice when your pushy horse is standing back politely. Casually stand up, get a treat from where you stashed them and walk over to him to give it to him, then go sit down again. He might follow you right back to your chair and give you another opportunity to ask him to stand back politely.
- At first expect only a few seconds of politeness, then gradually ask him to wait longer and longer before you fetch the treat (or click&treat if you are a clicker trainer). Watch for signs that he is relaxing while standing away from you (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes).
The Shy, Anxious, Flighty, Timid or Suspicious Horse
Sharing time and space while the horse eats hay. This distance may be too close for some horses, so we need to experiment to find the distance at which the horse can eat without anxiety. Gradually, over time, we reduce the distance. At first, we may need to sit on the far side of the fence.
- If you feed hay, sit (on a raised surface is safer than sitting on the ground) in the horse’s vicinity – far enough away so he is able to eat his hay without anxiety. Alternatively, if the horse is grazing, take a chair to sit at a distance he finds acceptable.
- Once the horse can relax while you share his space, put out a familiar feed dish at a distance that the horse seems to feel comfortable with.
- When you notice him glancing at you, walk to his dish and drop in a bit of something he especially likes to eat. Then return to your chair and wait for him to make the discovery in the dish. Watch him without staring at him. If you run out of time, leave the dish and food there for him to eventually find, unless, or course, another horse will gobble it up first.
- As the horse becomes more confident over multiple sessions, put the feed dish closer and closer to your chair. Look for signs of relaxation (sighing, licking, chewing, head shaking, head lowering, cocked hind leg, relaxed tail, relaxed ears, soft eyes) that let you know he is feeling okay with the situation.
- Success for both of you is when he will come and accept food out of the dish in your lap and eventually out of your hand. It could happen in a day or two or it could take a long series of short, frequent sessions.
- If the horse acts fearfully when his nose contacts a hand, you will need to put in extra thin slices such as hands resting on the side of the bucket, one hand in the bucket under the feed, hand full of feed raised up a bit inside the bucket, until eventually the horse becomes confident about eating from your hand.
- Going through the slices too fast is more of a problem than going a bit too slow. Stay with each increase in confident behavior for at least three, maybe up to ten repeated mini-sessions before asking for more.
Bridget and Smoky Hang Out. https://youtu.be/-Y8OVYInnqY
Reading with Boots. https://youtu.be/dGMz5JxCjnE
Bob and Lorraine Sharing Time & Space. https://youtu.be/XSdI0DfjZLg