Episode 231-Groundwork: earning the right to be in each other’s space

Today, I’m answering a question that came in about my philosophy of ‘earning the right to be in each other’s space.”
The caller explains that she understands the concept as it applies to a pushy horse having to earn the right to enter her space. She is curious about how this concept applies to timid or fearful horses.
Other concepts discussed include:
– a horse being distracted or not interested is discussed as a separate issue from earning the right to be in each other’s space.
– how curiosity impacts both the pushy and the timid horse
– the importance of training the emotional state
– fight/flight/freeze
– the problem with being sneaky
– the importance of showing up in the same energy that you would if you were riding a horse you were confident on.
– timid horses are drawn to powerful energy

Show Notes:


“What does that feel like in my body? To be on a horse that I completely trust? And can I be in my own body like that on the ground, away from the horse at 30ft away?”Podcasting from a little cabin on a hill. This is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.

Hi, I’m Stacy Westfall and I’m here to teach you how to understand, enjoy, and successfully train your own horses. Today I’m answering a question that came in about my philosophy of earning the right to be in each other’s space. Let’s listen to the question.

Hi, Stacy. My name is Amanda and I’m from Wyoming. I am on a mission to define for myself as a professional cult starter, just kind of breaking into the industry why it is I am doing what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and starting with my groundwork program. I’ve really dug into this and what I heard from you was that. Groundwork is an opportunity for us to earn the right to be in each other’s space. And I thought that was really interesting. And now I know that I understand this from the perspective of. Working with horses that are a little extra pushy. I have learned how to define my space and my boundaries in a respectful way. But I hadn’t really considered this from the horse’s perspective. And I thought. I would really love to hear you expand on what it means to earn the right to be in the horse’s space, particularly if that horse is maybe a bit fearful of the handler, fearful of their tools, or maybe just not that interested in working with us. You’ve been a huge inspiration to me my entire life. The accomplishments that you have made have encouraged me to try so many times. So I can’t believe that I’m actually leaving you a voicemail. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.

Well, Amanda, thank you for your question. And it means a lot to me that I’ve positively impacted your life. So thank you for also sharing that. I love this question, especially the way that you phrased it, because I think you kind of nailed it in that I think people often look at the horse having to earn the right to be in your space if they’re kind of a pushier horse. But the thing that you’re really on to is what does it mean to earn the right to be in our horses space? And that’s going to more naturally show up with the more shy, timid horse. But I want to plant the seed early that it also matters with that pushy horse also. So let’s begin by looking at this, just like I just phrased it with the word shy, because growing up, I was painfully shy. So if you had known me in elementary school, I was very, very shy. So as a very shy child, what you would have noticed would have been that I would have wanted to not be out in front. I would have wanted to hang back. I would have wanted to watch. And essentially, one thing that a very shy person is doing is checking their safety in any given situation. So when I think about the horses that are more timid, a lot of times I do like to think of them as being a little bit shy. So as we go through it, sometimes I do find it helpful to think about what it would be like to be in that horse’s shoes.

And oftentimes I can find places in my own life where I do feel like I’ve been in those shoes. So keep that in mind as I’m presenting these different ideas. So for sure, the idea in groundwork that I have is that it’s an opportunity for us to earn the right to be in each other’s spaces. And with the concept that you put in right at the end, I actually want to pull it to the forefront. When you have a horse that’s not interested. I want to say you can actually have not interested can be a thing that a pushy horse can have and not interested can be a thing of fearful horse has. So not interested is almost to me like a different category. And it it literally is as simple as you’re not being interesting. So if for example your you know out there working with a horse and they’re super distracted, they’re looking outside the round pen, they’re looking at what else is going on. A lot of times in that case, I’m going to get a little bit more interesting. Maybe I’ll jump up and down. Maybe I’ll make some different moves. I’ll become a little bit more interesting. Basically, here’s the shortcut to make yourself interesting. Doesn’t always mean you’re applying pressure to the horse. I think sometimes when I say make yourself interesting, people start thinking about driving the horse, say around the round pen.

That’s not necessarily interesting. That’s driving the horse around the round pen. Now, it might mean that you bring up more energy in your body, but it’s actually also typically going at the horse and moving the horse. Sometimes interesting is just you flicking an elbow, sometimes interesting is just you stomping your feet three times while you’re walking. It’s these little things that you can do that make you a little bit interesting because you’re basically not being just flat boring. So that’s a little bit different to me than whether we’ve got the pushy horse or the fearful horse. Where it intersects a little bit is that when when you have a pushy horse that’s kind of pushing on you, you can easily get more big and basically almost like push back, which is again a default that people have. When I say get interesting, they kind of go at the horse. Well, the more pushy horse is going to handle that. So it’s going to look like a technique that works as getting interesting. And since they already wanted to play with you, they’re then it’s going to work with that type of a horse where if you have one that looks not interested and they’re fearful and you go at them with this kind of pushing energy, then a lot of times that’s going to be over for them.

They’re going to be like, That’s a lot. That’s now I’m overly stimulated because I was already watching everything outside the round pen and I was already worked up and now you’re coming after me. And that’s a lot. So the not interested. I just want you to think about that being a separate issue from earning the right to be in each other’s space and just separate out. When I say get interesting, does your brain automatically go towards move the horse to the left, move the horse to the right, do these different things, or does your brain more go to like, what would happen if I started dragging my left foot for the next 20ft? Your horse will look at you like you. Okay. Over there. That’s interesting. Without going after the horse. So to kind of close up this idea of being interesting. Basically, when a horse doesn’t look like they’re interested, it’s because they don’t see the conversation. They don’t see a back and forth conversation as a thing. And that doesn’t matter if they’re a pushy horse or a fearful horse. They’re basically not seeing this back and forth. So again, if you picture a wild, untouched horse that is run into a round pen for the first time, they’re looking for where everybody else went. So oftentimes they’re not looking for a conversation with a human. Now, a lot of times we have horses that have been around humans a lot. And when you have horses that have been around humans a lot, they can start to look a different ways.

They can start to look like they’re not that interested because, again, they don’t see the back and forth. They can’t see that conversation happening like they don’t see how they have a piece in the conversation. So sometimes that happens. Like with professional trainers, they’ll handle the horses and they can create horses that act a little bit like robots, like they very obedient and they follow the rules. But the horse doesn’t have that same level of engagement that you see in other horses. And then other times you’ll see horses that are around humans and they just look constantly distracted. And a lot of times, again, that’s because the horse doesn’t see the nuances of the conversation. And a lot of times when I see this, I see that the horse has been around a lot of distracted humans. So if you’re a distracted person who’s just out there thinking that they’re conditioning their horse by lunging it for 20 minutes, but you’re also scrolling through your phone while you’re doing it. Don’t be surprised if you have a horse that looks like it’s scrolling through its, you know, pasture while it’s going around the round pen, because essentially it’s also distracted. So to develop that interested horse, they need to see the back and forth, which also means you need to see the back and forth. To me, that’s how I ultimately can develop some of this real conversation with the horse feeling where it feels like it goes like a back and forth.

They’re offering me little things, which is actually a little bit different than them just being obedient. But let’s rewind this and get this back a little bit more on track with the idea of earning the right to be in each other’s spaces. Inside this conversation. Let’s use the word curiosity. So when you bring up the idea that there’s a pushy horse and you’ve learned how to be in their space and how to set the rules up so that you’re safe around them, basically that pushy horse is curious and they’re engaged and they want to know what you behave like. Do you behave like the other horses they’ve met? Can they move you? One of the things they have going for them is they’re really comfortable in your space. So as you indicated, you probably have learned to set up some boundaries or some rules or some ways those horses are not allowed to approach you or are allowed to approach you. And so this more naturally confident or pushy or highly engaged horse that’s got this level of confidence is going to ask a lot of these questions that. Make you be the one who is saying, okay, it’s great that you’re really interested, but no, you can’t run me over with your shoulders. So in a way, when you say that you’re comfortable working with that horse and deciding what it looks like to have them earn the right to be in your space when you’re doing that, literally, it’s going to be the reverse of that when we go into the fearful horse.

So let’s think about it. When that pushy horse is earning the right to be in my space, they are allowed to approach but with a certain level of respect. And so for me, they’re allowed to approach, but they’re not allowed to close that last four feet unless invited. So if I go out and the horses come running up towards me, they all know that I’ve got this bubble around me that’s about 4 or 5ft and they can run up to there and then they all stop and they’re just outside the bubble. If I invite them in, then they can come right in. But they basically ask permission to come in a little bit closer. Another thing that the horses have to do to earn the right to be in my space is they need to stay focused on me. And so when they are within, like the closer they get, basically, So when they’re at ten feet, it’s getting stronger. When they’re at five feet, it’s getting stronger. So you can imagine if I’m leading one on a lead rope, it’s got to be very strong. They need to have at least half of their attention on me. What that means is I’m not trying to rob them of 100% of their focus.

I want them to be aware of their surroundings and of me. But if it has to default to one or the other, it needs to be me, not the other way around. So if I’m leading a horse and it completely checks out that it’s anywhere near me because of a horse running in a pasture, that’s a problem because I can get run over in that situation. So as exciting things happen around, I’m not saying they’re not allowed to notice it, but they need to notice it and they need to notice me and there needs to be that back and forth. And so when I think about the the pusher horse and how they might be around me, there is the way that they approach me, the boundary, that bubble that I have decided, and that the closer they get to me, the more they need to be respectful of that bubble and that they have to stay focused. So when I flip this around and I go look at the more fearful or more naturally concerned horse, those horses are interesting because the first horse, the pushy horse, if we want to go all the way down to the base, we could even say that those horses come a little bit closer to defaulting, to a little bit of that. Like if we’re going to use Fight Flight or freeze, they’re a little more confident and there’s a little bit more of a like leaning towards possibly the fight idea or that like at least strong confidence idea of it.

So when I look at the fearful horse, what I’m thinking is that they’re going to lean towards flight or freeze. And now I want to overlay that level of curiosity, that word of curiosity. So for me, what’s interesting is I want to approach them with respect for their boundaries, their comfort zone, because I’m always training and emotional state. So not only are we training like this bubble of like, you come running up and you need to stop five feet away from you without me having to do anything. That is a level of thinking where they’re respecting me. It’s an emotional state also of of saying that they understand the rules of this relationship. So when I approach the horse that is more fearful or concerned, I’m going to go in and I’m going to respect what that bubble looks like. And that might be 30ft away from the horse. That might be very often it’s 20 or 30ft away that I do a lot of the training in the beginning because I’m looking for signs from them that they are. Willing to accept and basically giving me permission to come in closer. And the number one thing I’m reading there is their tension. Now again, I’m also wanting them to stay focused on me. So I am very willing, with this more timid horse, to walk big semicircles and move back and forth so I can stay interesting.

A lot of times you can do very little things to stay interesting. I mean, these are the horses that notice when you move your right elbow, these are the horses that are are highly attuned to what’s going on. And so a lot of times it’s not hard to stay interesting. It’s actually the challenge is not to trigger the flight and listen to this, not to trigger the freeze. Because I think sometimes when people are working with the horse that wants to default to flight or freeze, when the horse stops running there, people are happy. And then you can see people get into this like. Freeze game. And what that looks like a lot of times is a rider sneaking around a horse who’s holding their breath. So the horse is kind of like frozen holding their breath and the rider handler is sneaking around because they’re thinking something along the lines of at least it’s not running anymore. So this is probably a good thing. Well, what if it’s the same thing? Like if they’re standing there holding their breath and they’re frozen? I actually think it’s the same level of problem as when they’re running around. And odds are, if they’re truly like frozen, like a little statue and you can tell they’re holding their breath, that’s the horse that’s much more likely to move off in a very violent kind of a way because they’re frozen.

And then when they move, a lot of times they’ll just jump from 0 to 50 because they were holding their breath and it wasn’t truly like a relaxation. So again, what I’m trying to trigger in this horse is curiosity. And I’m honoring their boundary of the fact that they start getting a little bit tense when I’m moving from that 30ft to that 20ft. So in in moving around, I’m not holding my breath, but I’m increasing that distance and I’m staying interesting and they’re turning their head or maybe even turning their head and neck. And it’s very common if I’m walking these semicircles around them and around pen for them to even start breaking their hind end free and be like turning and pivoting. And I’m still 20ft away. And what’s really cool about that is that a lot of times if you just do that one exercise over and over again, as they start to not freeze and hold the position, but they actually start turning their head and neck and they’re bending and then you see a hind foot step and then you turn and walk the other direction and you’re walking the semicircle. What happens is they start to move out of that mental frozen ness and they start to move their body just a little bit. And they’re getting these rewards for staying focused on you. And this is teaching them a couple things. It’s teaching them that there’s nothing wrong with you moving and you’re not holding your breath.

And I’ll be rolling my shoulders and I’ll especially if they start, you know, getting into the rhythm of watching me and then they start looking over a fence, I might jump once and then they’ll snap back to be like, What? What did I miss? So I’m teaching them to focus and watch me. But also I’m training an emotional state where they have this attention on me, but they’re not super tense because I didn’t just force myself in on them while they were standing there in a frozen holding their breath kind of a state. So basically I’m teaching them that I’m going to stay out there and I’m going to keep working and they’re going to keep practicing and it’s going to be work for them, too. But I’m not bringing in the level of tension that often comes in when those horses freeze and they don’t move their feet and the person goes closer and closer and closer and that horse is frozen there. And yes, they’re there. So it’s seems like it’s good. But if you look at the emotional state, again, they’re holding their breath. So my end goal here, and I think it’s really important for you to remember what your end goal is. My end goal is this mutual understanding and mutual respect. And this state of the way they are mentally is as important or more important to me than physical.

It’s actually really hard to separate them. But the separation I’m making for you right now is they could physically be frozen and standing still. But if they’re holding their breath and everything in them is stiff and tight, that’s a perfect example of physically they’re not leaving, but mentally they’re not okay. So I would rather stay further out and work back and forth and see them be mentally okay and even start to get a little bit loose physically, meaning that you can see them start to take a step with that hind end and they start to lower their head and their focus and they look away. But when they come back to you because you, you know, moved your elbow or you scuffled your feet or you did whatever, they come back and you see that when they come back, they don’t come back. Like they come back like they. Oh, okay. Yeah, that’s right. You are interesting. Even though that horse over there is moving around. And so in this way, I am earning the right to come in closer and closer. I’m not just spinning off the idea that the horse learned how to freeze and don’t panic if you’ve got a horse that you see right now as as you if you hear me talking and you’re like, Oh no, my horse does tend to freeze my horse. Like, you know, if I bring out something in a bag on an end of a stick or something, and my horse kind of freezes and its head goes up and it stands.

You can still work around that. You literally are going to do what I’m talking about right now, but you’re going to go back and forth and be interesting and you’re going to move around and you’re going to invite them into this. Like, Hey, I still expect you to stay paying attention to me and I’m not shrinking or sneaking. I’m just leaving more distance because that’s actually going to be what makes me interesting. One of the more. Common things. I see a lot of times with that fearful horse is you can get the people that get the horse frozen and a lot of times you’ll see that more with professional trainers or or somebody who’s using the techniques that they’ve seen like that in the horse kind of gets frozen and they don’t look at the emotional state. But far more often I tend to see these horses that are like sneaking around with handlers that are sneaking around with them. And basically it’s a lot of this like nobody take a deep breath because something might blow kind of a mentality. So I want you to make sure that when you’re checking in with this whole idea of earning the right to be in their space, you want to be showing up like you. And that needs to be happening at a distance where the horse is comfortable watching you.

And so when I say showing up as you, what that means to me is it’s like, how am I going to ride this horse? In the end? Do I want to be trail riding this horse and holding my breath, or do I want to be trail riding this horse and laughing and reaching down and stroking the neck? What does that feel like in my body? To be on a horse that I completely trust? And can I be in my own body like that on the ground, away from the horse at 30ft away? Now, because you mentioned that you’re training horses a lot of times. The interesting thing is that people will go into train and and it might feel a little bit more like you have an agenda to get something done with the horse. And that’s not a problem. Like, I want to get stuff done with my horse. But again, make sure that when you’re going into approach that horse, that there is that that playfulness. And what you’re going to do is if you want to create curiosity in the horse that’s more timid, you’re going to have to be more curious about the timid horse. So a lot of times, again, that naturally pushy horse also tends to come with a lot of curiosity. So they already exude it. So a lot of times to me it feels a little bit more like you can get away with like funneling that curiosity.

So when you do that, you don’t necessarily have to be as curious yourself. There may be and I am curious with my with my very pushy horses, I can maintain a level of curiosity. But what I’m saying is like sometimes those horses have so much curiosity. Even if you don’t bring curiosity to the table, they have it in spades. So you can almost like redirect it and shape it in ways and and you don’t really lose a lot of the curiosity with the more fearful horse. You’ll need to bring up a lot of curiosity. And the most fascinating thing for me in this idea is that if you bring up a lot of curiosity and you are bringing it up in you and you’re bringing it out in them, this almost always is the key to getting these horses to be confident around you because instead of you feeling bad for them and sneaking around them and trying to make sure everything is set up so that they don’t make any mistakes, you start laughing at them and you start, you know, moving around like you stomp a foot and they go and they. And they look and you laugh and you and you do things. And it’s just got this playfulness quality to it at a distance. And when you can maintain this level of curiosity where you’re not sneaking but you’re very aware of their experience, not in an apologetic kind of a way, but in kind of a way like, Oh, you silly horse, I was just wiggling my left elbow.

Look, I can roll both of my shoulders, too, and you’re doing it while you walk away from them. You’re not going after them when you can be in this state where it’s got this. Bigger energy that actually comes with playfulness that becomes very magnetic to these horses. So a lot of times these horses that almost negatively react to the fact that like people come in and go at them with an agenda, it’s like work around them because that’s how you’re going to draw that shy or fearful horse into curiosity. Like, you know, you’re doing something and they’re like, What’s going on back there? How is that? You know, you’ve you’ve seen that before when you’ve been out and you’ve been doing something and you’re not paying attention to the horses in the pasture and they’re kind of sneaking up to see what you’re doing because they’re curious. So I hope that that helps you. Amanda, kind of get a little bit more into the idea of how you would earn the right to be in a horse’s space. I mentioned at the beginning that this actually works really well with the pushy horse, too, because I don’t want to just make corrections and shut them down because again, a lot of times the same thing that is pushy is also really curious.

So if I’m redirecting them and I’m moving them around again, you can see where that playfulness, while still having the boundaries of you have to ask permission. Once you get this close, the closer you are to me, the more I expect you to be. Have your attention on me. When you start using these rules across the board and you feel like you can show up essentially in a very similar energy in both places. It’s amazing because that that powerfulness that you actually probably use naturally when you’re around that pushy horse to set up your boundary when you’re not using it to push against the horse, that same level of feeling, that same powerfulness there is actually what those fearful horses are attracted to in the herd. It’s why you’re lesser, less dominant horses are like following your very dominant pushy horses around. Now, again, small detour here if you really want to study it. Many people misinterpret the bully as being the most powerful horse in the pasture. Often the horse that’s the most powerful one. If you’ve got a big enough herd that you actually have the diversity to see the true levels that exist out there, truly powerful horses often walk out into the pasture and almost ignore everybody. They literally get turned out in a new pasture and they walk off and they don’t walk directly towards any of the horses. They walk off like they’re going to go eat grass and they literally leave this wake behind them where the other horses are like, Who is that? That’s confident enough to walk in here and just walk off and go eat grass? And so then it creates this this dynamic in the pasture.

They’re not the ones that are just going out and going after. So in the herd, when I watch the ones that just go out and go after those tend to be the bullies. So what does that make us look like when we just go after all the time? But if you look at those horses that are the less confident ones, they will be watching that horse that just got turned out that just walked away and started grazing without even so much as walking up to all the other horses. They just walked off and they just headed over there to graze. You’ll see all the heads will turn and then you’ll start to see that the shy or timid ones are watching. But as they learn that that’s not a bully, but it’s a very powerful horse with rules that actually help protect them. Then those horses, those timid horses will be very drawn to that powerful horse. That is what I have for you today. And thank you again for the question. If you guys are listening, I’m answering questions again. So feel free to go over to my website and leave your voicemail and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.


  1. Rosalía on April 25, 2023 at 8:12 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It has been very moving!

Leave a Comment

Join the newsletter

Subscribe to get the latest content and updates by email.