What My Horse Taught About Finally Setting Boundaries

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Boundaries, in my opinion, are such an underrated thing. Many confuse boundaries with abuse or mean-spirited behavior. But boundaries, with humans or with horses, carry magic with them—a power that I didn’t discover until my late twenties.  

I learned the hard way that we teach people how to treat us. When I went to live at Cascade Stables, I was merely a shadow of a person. Coming from three years living in a cult-like environment in which I was eviscerated every single day for simply existing, I was relieved to reboot my life in the company of Buddy, my sparky pug mix. And of course, the horses. 

Little did I know that the year at Cascade Stables would bring me my very first horse, and that he would teach me how to build better relationships in my life. 

Chip was a big, opinionated gelding. Though gentle in nature, he had an argument for just about everything. He was sixteen hands of jet black thoroughbred sass. If he wasn’t swinging away from me at the mounting block, he was trotting when I asked for a walk, and galloping when I asked for a trot. Canter? Not before pitching a fit first. And trails? He selectively spooked based upon his opinion of the journey.

Without really thinking about it, I started doing with Chip what I did with any other horse: groom him, ride him in the arena, and take him on a trail. But we didn’t have a rapport yet. I didn’t yet understand what it meant to be a leader to him. So, we went through the motions with tension, arguments, and frustration.

How did our breakthrough finally come? Walking.  

We began by walking together. On the ground, under saddle, and in our relationship.  Through our walking exercises, I realized where a lot of our problems stemmed from:  we hadn’t gone over the basics of what it meant for me to be a leader. I needed to communicate to him what I did and didn’t expect. Just by walking, I communicated that he didn’t need to carry the burden of calling the shots. In turn, he was able to express when he was afraid or uncomfortable.  

When Chip and I finally went back to the basics, I realized from the beginning that I should have negotiated boundaries: where I ended, where he began, and vice versa.  

Before chip, boundaries had been an abstract concept for me. I equated boundaries with shutting people out of my life, saying “no” (if for no other reason than sometimes you’re supposed to say it), and not being a people pleaser. 

While a lot of this is true on a reductive level, it completely leaves out the key component: a desire for connection.  

With horses and people, we teach others how to treat us. In other words, we communicate what interpersonal interactions feel safe to us and which ones don’t. By showing people our relational comfort zone—be it what we feel comfortable discussing, how we expect them to treat our time, or how we need them to respond to our personal space—we create a clear picture of what we need to build a trusting relationship. 

If we want a friend or partner to be kind to us, we have to allow them to see what hurts us. If we want them to respect our privacy, we have to show them where our personal space begins. And if we want them to love us, we have to be vulnerable enough to show them how we receive love.  

We cultivate strong relationships by communicating these boundaries. Doing so draws out a sacred space where a relationship can move in and make itself a home.  

So here I was, thinking that boundaries were about keeping people away. Building my relationship with Chip from the ground up made clear to me that boundaries are in fact more about making relationships safe and a place for both people to thrive. 

Seeing just how much Chip and I were transforming in our partnership made me realize that I could apply this to the life I was rebuilding. When I finally started getting the hang of boundaries in my life, toxic friendships began to fade, which freed more space for friendships that were built on trust, mutual respect, and even vulnerability (including my future husband!)

My year at Cascade Stables taught me far more about relationships than I had ever anticipated.  While boundaries helped Chip and I reach a beautiful partnership (and some incredible trail rides!), they also became an integral part of my healing. What I thought would break me forever was, in fact, the catalyst to a strength I thought I could never ever possess.  

For that, I’m forever grateful for that jet-black ball of sass. 

Lindsey Rains is an online marketer and the founder of Hoof Print Marketing and Alta Mira Horsemanship. Having studied psychology at The Seattle School, she enjoys exploring the nature of mental health, relationships, and communication, especially as they relate to the horse and rider partnership.