‘Boundaries’ can seem incredibly vague. Everyone’s parameters fluctuate on tolerance and type of relationship. I always start by talking about physical boundaries; kids will point out the fences around the pastures that keep the horses contained, or other boundaries for safety. We then talk about our ‘personal bubbles’; everyone’s is a slightly different size. Mine for example, is a little larger. I joke about having people standing too close behind me in line and how it makes my skin crawl! That’s my tell that someone has crossed past my comfort zone. So how can we tell when someone has crossed an emotional or relational boundary? Better yet, how do we appropriately enforce boundaries?
I teach an activity I learned back in practicum called, Ask, Tell, Command. It is a classic horsemanship ground activity that translates perfectly into the progression of enforcing boundaries and why they are necessary. The example used is a parent asking their kid to brush their teeth; first you ask (they still don’t do it), then you tell (still ignoring you), then you command they march right up the stairs and do it right now! You don’t start asking a kid by yelling at them and when they do it, there’s no need to keep after them.
The entire purpose of the game is to get the horse to take a step backwards with the minimum amount of pressure using your body language. With the horse standing facing you at the end of a lead line, first you get the horse’s attention and make ‘the mare stare’. For non-horse people, ‘the mare stare’ is the face your mom made at you when you were acting up in public that meant you had it coming for you later! Then, you ‘Ask’ the horse to take a step backwards by wiggling your finger on the hand not holding the lead rope. If they have not backed, you then ‘Tell’ the horse to back by wiggling the lead rope back and forth. If that horse has still not taken a step backwards, you are at the end of your options and you ‘Command’ by raising all the energy in your body and take a step towards your horse, making sure he knows he needs to listen.
The beauty of this exercise, is it not only teaches respect and manners for the horse using their language, but it can quickly point out your communication style and effectiveness. For example, if you get to ‘Command’ and still can’t get your horse to back up, he has now learned your threshold for how much he can get away with. In a sense, that horse can walk all over you...maybe how other people treat you in your daily life. I see this nearly every time I teach this to women for the first time. We are often raised not to cause a scene, not to rock the boat, and to be polite. A client will walk through this exercise, not wanting to hurt the horse’s feelings and will always apologize to me when they can’t get the horse to back up. Girl, who are you apologizing to?
In contrast, I have seen clients who have been deeply wounded in their past and have adopted this, ‘kill or be killed’ attitude in life that chases friends and close relationships away. They quickly tear through the exercise, not allowing the horse to react to ‘Ask’ or ‘Tell’ and jump to ‘Command’; looking forward to getting a reaction from the horse. And they get it; the horse will often raise it’s head in fear and back quickly away. Do you think other people in your life react to you the way your horse just did?
These realizations can hit hard; they almost always strike a nerve on how we have been hurt or walked on by others. The client will see they either need to step up their energy or bring it down a little bit. Once we fine-tune this exercise, they are so happy and proud when they can get a horse to take a step backwards by wiggling their finger (or the ‘mare stare’ if you’re me and haven’t had your coffee). It’s an easy way to demonstrate that being confrontational or enforcing boundaries doesn’t mean you have to get angry or be rude; the horse wants to show respect, you just have to be clear in asking for what you need!