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Bubbles and Boundaries

Updated: May 3


A Bubble is a “personal space” around a horse that is defended against intrusion by other entities. It surrounds a horse front to back, side to side and top to bottom. This space can be expanded or contracted by the horse depending upon the social situation. Other horses can perceive the extent of this space by observing body language cues indicating disapproval of closer approach. Ears, eyes, facial muscles, tail and feet are among the body parts used to communicate this. At first, these cues are extremely subtle and, while they are immediately obvious to another horse, they are likely to be missed by all but a trained human observer.


Most people who work with horses in this way say they can “feel” these bubbles as if they were physical things (who knows, maybe they are). Some call them auras, some force fields. What exactly this phenomenon is, or what it is called is far less important than the FACT that these bubbles exist and can be manipulated to facilitate our communication with the horse.


Horses use bubbles to influence and move other horses around. A horse will deliberately push their bubble against that of another horse to create pressure. They put this pressure on a particular place on the other horse’s body to influence them in a particular way- “move sideways”, “move back”, “move your head”, etc. as described by the “buttons” in Horse Speak®. Most of the time, the most subtle of communications resolve the issue amicably.


These 3 photos show how the horses are interacting with each other’s bubbles and staying clear on their communication with each other based on how they situate themselves in the herd- or as Sharon Wilsie (Horse Speak) likes to say on the "chess board".





If a horse doesn’t want to comply with a gentle request from another horse, tensions can escalate. As horse #1 puts more and more pressure on horse #2’s bubble, body language cues will get more and more obvious until horse #1 reaches a “boundary” where horse #2 just won’t take it anymore and lashes out with some more extreme reaction like biting or kicking.


We have all seen kerfuffles between two horses with pinned ears and bites. These only take place after significant lower energy negotiations between the two horses have failed to produce a result satisfactory to both. Eventually one of the horses will comply- either by moving or retracting the request. Thankfully, these conflicts are rare and are quickly forgotten by the participants. The horses are not “mad” at each other- just negotiating.


Interestingly, humans also have bubbles. Imagine a meeting someone for the first time. If you stand 4 feet apart (pre- or post-Covid) you would both most likely be comfortable chatting. Now imagine walking up to within 2 feet from them. Not only would this be difficult for you to do, but your new acquaintance would most likely move away to put more space between you. If you had approached to 1 foot (well inside the boundary for this situation), the other might escalate their reaction and push you out of the way.


Let us look at a different situation. When you see a person that is very reserved, they can seem completely unapproachable. Their boundary appears to reach across the room. If you walk toward them with intensity, they will likely feel threatened and might get angry or retreat.

But the context might be different than you perceive. They might, in fact, be curious and want to meet you but too shy to communicate this with their body language. In this case, they might sit quietly and wait for your approach. The best way to approach is quietly and slowly- matching their intensity. If you bump up against their bubble slowly and non-threateningly, they might contract their boundary long enough to allow initial communication. If you move at a pace that doesn’t push too hard, they can see that you understand bubbles and boundaries and probably won’t push too hard in the future.

The trainer can use this knowledge in their work by communicating using a language in which the horse is already fluent. To get a horse to move the way you want, subtle pressure can be targeted in a way that produces specific movements. Focus and clarity of intent make the process more effective.


Going in slow, deliberate, confident steps can help reassure the reserved person or horse that you’re not threatening and allows for continued communication with them. As uncomfortable as it is to have a human invade your bubble, a 1200-pound horse doing the same thing can be terrifying.

Experienced horse people have learned to observe and anticipate the behavior of a horse that does not understand the human’s bubble. They have learned techniques to immediately define and enforce their own bubbles and boundaries way before the horse gets too close. What this looks like depends on the individual circumstances at the moment- the “context”.


To summarize:

The next time you approach a horse ask yourself, ”How can I best approach with a watchful eye so I am seeing not just looking”. “How can I stay aware of their bubble and approach with the intent of ‘I care about us and want us to be allies’ ".


The horse needs for you to be the leader/mentor, "You can trust me to watch out for you and I will trust you to watch out for me, but when I say 'its time to go to the vets office' you will have to do as I ask- but I will stay aware of your emotional needs and support you all the way."


  • How could you use this information to keep the horse quiet?

  • With this approach could you establish that you are the leader/ mentor?

  • How would that benefit the both of you?

These are some of the questions we answer in the classes given under movingasone.org


Thank you for your time

Lucinda


In all classes we cover the whole Equine Mandala.

  • Their Central Nervous System and Brain

  • Their Language- Horse Speak

  • How horses learn Operant Conditioning, better known as pressure and release as used in Natural Horsemanship.

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