Bubbles and Boundaries

Question: What does your bubble feel or look like for you? Have you set boundaries with someone lately? How have you felt when someone has come into your bubble too strong?

Horses are really big animals.

Attach a rope to one and see what happens to you and your fight or flight response.

This is where I want to talk about Bubbles and Boundaries.

  • Personal bubbles

  • Safety bubbles

  • Horses’ bubbles

  • Communication and language bubbles

Bubbles and Boundaries are a bit different.

Bubbles are spaces around you and your horse- to be interacted with, you can bounce off of them, use them for directing your intent and most important to establish boundaries for safety.

Boundaries are a something that is a kin to “a line drawn in the sand” that must not be crossed. If this line is crossed the response would be explosive. This distinction is important when interacting with the horse. Context is big part of speaking a language and being understood. Horses understand boundaries and bubbles as it is part of their language like a comma or exclamation mark is in ours.

Context is the set of overall circumstances that form the setting for an idea to be fully understood.

Intent or intention is the state of mind that directs actions toward a specific object (i.e. a horse).

HOW you say something and with what emphasis, energy and in what context can change the message or meaning ENTIRELY.

When you say ALWAYS! to someone it feels and means different than if you say “always”.

It’s no different when interacting with a horse. When you hit the outside of a horses bubble you could be asking “can I come closer?”, or you may be saying “I am coming closer”. You might have a veterinarian dental appointment you have to go to and there is no choice but going at a particular time. This context might require “I am coming closer”. On the other hand, if you are working on “Learning to Learn” together or having a general conversation using Horse Speak®, then the feel of how you approach the bubble can have a different context and intent behind it.

Horses’ bubbles are part of their body language. It helps them determine many things. What kind of a relationship they have with another horse? How a horse behaves when another horse approaches is powerful communication. One example would be, “you are my buddy so I will collapse my bubble quickly for you so we can hang out close together”, or it might be “I just met you so don’t come any closer”. There are infinite variations based on the specific context and intent.

What does it look like to have our own personal and safety bubbles and boundaries around a horse?

When you meet another person for the first time and they charge into, and through, your bubble it feels obtrusive and a bit scary. Your brain forms an immediate negative association with that person that can take a long time to overcome. Your reaction might be to back up, raise your hand or try to turn to move away. Some people have figured out how to put a safety bubble around themselves so before the other person has a chance to ram through their bubble they lean in and taken a hold of the intruders hand for a handshake therefore restricting how far the other person can come in. Politicians, actors and anyone who has learned to deal with the public has had to learn this.

Let’s look at a different situation. When you see a person that is very reserved, they can seem completely unapproachable. Their bubble 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 they might 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 bubble 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 probably won’t push too hard in the future.

When a horse is OK with the another to stand close to them then their bubbles are touching. Or if a horse wants another horse to move then they push on the outside of the other horses bubble. Their communication just like ours has intent and context. If a horse that is higher in the hierarchy wants to move through the space of the other horse then they have levels of intensity and intent to indicate to the other horse they are moving though the space and pushes hard if the other horse does not move. This can lead to a bite or kick if challenged.

These 3 photos show how the horses are interacting with each other and staying clear on their communication with each other based on how they situate themselves in the herd- or as Sharon Wilsie likes to say on the “chess board”.

Going in slow, deliberate, confident steps can help reassure the reserved person or horse that you aren’t 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 bubble before the horse rams right through. 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 best can I approach with a watchful eye so 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”.

What the horse needs to know is “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 dentist’ you will have to do as I ask, but I will stay aware of your emotional needs and support you all the way.”

What’s Next after Bubbles and Boundaries?

Well how about saying hello?

If you are interested in learning more we will be having talks at the Ranch here in Bend Oregon on ‘The Horse as an Ally”. Just fill out the form below.

Join our E-Newsletter