Setting Boundaries: What Horses Can Teach Us
TRIGGER WARNING: This post discusses issues of bodily autonomy, and may be triggering for those who have experienced sexual trauma.
“I’m not comfortable with you standing so close and touching me. Please stop.”
At least three times, I had asked a drunk male acquaintance at a party I recently attended to back off. Each time I asked a bit more firmly. I repeatedly walked away from him to interact with others and escape his inappropriate advances. When he approached me again and interrupted a conversation I was having with a friend by touching my thigh, I again told him firmly to stop touching me. When it didn’t work, I raised my voice and gave him the equivalent of a horse kick. No, I didn’t literally kick him or physically assault him in any way. I do not advocate physical violence in any situation. But I did verbally stand my ground. I told him it was unacceptable no matter how drunk he was to continue harassing me or any woman after she had repeatedly asked and told him to leave her alone. And what was his reaction to my standing up for myself so strongly? He called me mean. Because in our society, when a woman demands what should be a given—bodily autonomy—she’s considered a bitch.
This is only one of many, many times a male—ranging from acquaintance to stranger—has touched my body without permission, and it could have been worse. Other women have experienced much worse. But the cause is the same—the patriarchal notion that women don’t have bodily autonomy. We treat animals in much the same way. I’ve seen countless horsemen (and women) touch, groom, saddle, and ride a horse when the horse was clearly uncomfortable. How many times have you entered a horse’s, dog’s, or other animal’s space when it was giving you signs it didn’t want you to come so close? The importance of respecting bodily autonomy for women, horses, and all animals cannot be emphasized enough.
We must build relationships with our horses and earn their trust. We must view other humans and animals as equals who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We must not enter another’s personal space without permission. How often do we objectify horses in much the same way women are objectified, determining their worth based solely on conformation/looks? How many times do we enter a horse’s or other animal’s space and begin petting them without heeding warning signs they’re giving that we’re moving too quickly? We must awaken to the fact that horses are sentient creatures. They feel fear, love, affection, grief, and joy. We must realize that all humans and animals deserve to have bodily autonomy.
Horses excel at setting boundaries. They give nonverbal warning signs when their space is invaded, pinning their ears, baring their teeth, and sometimes partially lifting a hind foot in warning. If the invading horse or predator chooses to ignore these signals, the horse will deliver a painful, sometimes fatal kick or strike. Humans can learn a lot from the way horses set boundaries: give warning signs; give the intruder the opportunity to walk away; gradually escalate the intensity of the warning; and, if necessary, deliver the kick or strike (again, not actual physical violence—rather standing up for yourself in a highly assertive manner and/or getting help, including the authorities, if necessary).
Sure, the intruder may call you names, but so be it. His or her opinion of you matters not. What matters is protecting yourself and setting boundaries you’re comfortable with. I believe we can all do better. Bodily autonomy is certainly a feminist issue, but for feminism to be successful, it must be inclusive. Women are not the only ones suffering from violations of bodily autonomy. The journey is far from over, but one step at a time, we can make this world a better, safer place for women, the LGBTQ community, people of color, young girls and boys, horses, and all other animals.