Some Thoughts on Boundaries

With my toddler's second birthday fast approaching, the subject of boundaries is close to my heart. The "just you wait until..." brigade has been out in strength, warning me of the need to enforce boundaries before my toddler turns into a monster. Funnily enough, different people with the same message gave me similar warnings about my horse when I decided to take more of a positive approach to his training. I am still waiting for him to turn into a monster - did I just get lucky? Could I get lucky again? Or could I just be doing something right?

We tend to think of setting boundaries as rigid rules which must never be broken. We are horrified if we find ourselves in the situation where our horse or child is testing the boundaries. What should we do about it? Is it a dominance issue? How can we re-enforce the boundaries ethically (missing the irony in trying to "force" anything ethically)? What will people think? How will we cope?

Perhaps the last two questions are the key to the issue. We rarely stop to consider why we have set those boundaries. Of course, we tell ourselves that it is for the good of our horse/child but very often there are other reasons, perhaps more subconscious. We are terrified of what people might think and we are terrified of the unknown. But suppose, just suppose, that the real question we should be asking ourselves is "are my boundaries reasonable?" If the horse/child in question thinks not then we have a whole new world to explore.

The only writer I have seen delve into this thorny subject is Alfie Kohn, author of "Unconditional Parenting", which I would recommend to anyone with children and also to anyone with an interest in the use of non-manipulative positive reinforcement with animals. It is a wonderfully challenging book which really got me thinking about how we can use positive reinforcement to enhance the personality of the horse/child, instead of just trying to achieve certain behaviours for our own advantage. One of his "principles of unconditional parenting" is to consider whether or not we are making a reasonable request of the child:

"Here's a very unsettling possibility: Perhaps when your child doesn't do what you're demanding, the problem isn't with the child but with what it is you're demanding. It's remarkable how few books written for parents even raise this possibility. The vast majority of them take whatever their readers want their kids to do as the point of departure, and then offer techniques for getting compliance. In most cases, these techniques involve "positive reinforcement" or "consequences" - that is bribes or threats. In some cases, they involve more thoughtful and respectful ways of interacting with children. But almost never are parents encouraged to reconsider their requests."

I find this so refreshing. And I would say it happens even less frequently in the equine world, hence my need to quote from parenting books.

We all need to be consistent when teaching boundaries, and it is great that this is so well-recognised. But sometimes I think we have gone too far the other way. From the point of view of the horse/child, our boundaries must often seem totally arbitrary and not sensible. If we could be slightly more flexible in our choice and implementation of boundaries then we could allow a lot more harmony into our relationships. Instead of trying to enforce an unreasonable boundary we can simply relax it slightly. The occasional relaxing of boundaries does not turn anyone into monsters, very often the opposite can happen and our horses can become safer because there is less confrontation. The biggest obstacles to our relaxing of boundaries are our egos and our fear of what the consequences might be. Those are not reasons to continue to enforce unreasonable boundaries, just reasons to explore within ourselves and our motivations for choosing our boundaries.

The accompanying photograph shows a time when my ego got the better of me. It was a sponsored ride and I wanted to do the photographer's fence and buy the picture. My horse refused the jump a number of times and ultimately I fell off. I decided not to try again. 'What? And teach your horse that refusing gets him what he wants?' I hear you say. Actually, since then I have started listening and generally allow him to refuse if he doesn't want to jump. He very rarely refuses, despite there never being any consequence for "non-compliance". If he does then there is a reason for it - on the day of the sponsored ride I am pretty sure that the reason was the hard ground at that particular fence hurting his shoulders (long-standing problem). My safety was compromised, not by my horse's "disobedience", but my failure to listen to him.

The opportunity to make choices and decisions is very often lacking from both traditional and "natural" horsemanship. Almost all forms of instruction, including most clicker training and positive reinforcement, involve manipulating our horses' behaviour to suit our own goals. But what about our horses - do they not have opinions too?

It is well-documented that we benefit from making choices, for example Alfie Kohn goes on to say (with references):

"When teachers give their students more choice about what they're doing, the results are impressive. According to one summary of the research, the advantages include 'greater perceived competence, higher intrinsic motivation, more positive emotionality, enhanced creativity, a preference for optimal challenge over easy success, greater persistence in school (i.e. lower drop-out rates), greater conceptual understanding, and better academic performance'."

There's no scientific evidence to suggest that horses might experience all of this, and I'm not suggesting that it all applies to horses. But our mammalian brains are not so different that I think the analogy is irrelevant. Why would horses not also benefit from a share in the leadership, after all, that is what happens in a wild herd? Different horses take on the leadership role in different situations, depending on their expertise and desires. My experience with my horse certainly convinces me that there is a psychological benefit to us sharing the decision-making and that this enhances our mutual trust and relationship.

Relaxing boundaries is not something that should be done instantly as this can indeed create monsters that are unhappy in their confusing new world of freedom. This is a mistake often made by people who suddenly decide that they want to switch to using pure positive reinforcement and drop all their boundaries. The changes should be made gradually, giving you both opportunities to feel your way and work out what is genuinely important to you. The journey becomes more about moving the boundaries than enforcing them and our goals can become more about the relationship and mutual understanding than the jump or competition. Whether other people like or approve of our new goals can matter less and less as we enjoy the benefits of our new way of "working" with horses.

You may laugh at my naivety but I am looking forward to having a two year-old. I am looking forward to learning more about myself, my son and our journey together. I refuse to call it terrible.....

Copyright Catherine Bell 2010