The Bubble Mindset© – or how to be clear and assertive without being aggressive

Several of the questions I have had have been on the subject of how to be more assertive with your horses, without the horses taking it personally or getting upset with you – and without you feeling like a “meanie” or bad horse owner for getting firmer.

There are many times when our unconfidence is because we don’t feel safe around our horses – they might push into our space, or cut across us instead of moving around us – or not move out of our way when we are walking somewhere – and each time this happens, we feel less confident and less in control.  Or should that be the other way round? We feel less in control and therefore less confident….

We are told we need to be firmer with our horses, keep them out of our space, insist they back up, make them move out of our way when we walk across the field – but very few people tell us HOW to do this.

Well that’s not exactly true – some instructors have some very good advice – but for some of us, it doesn’t quite work.  How many of us have been told to “be big” “lift your energy” “mean it!” “be assertive” – along with advice to use ropes, sticks and body language to “claim our space”?

And how many of us, when we have done that have:

–          Felt as if we are “bullying” our horse? Or

–          Had our horse react negatively to our efforts – almost as if they are taking offence at our new behaviour?

I was lucky enough to work with quite a few people who are very good at having horses respect their space without any hint of bullying, and with the horses seeming relaxed and happy to yield their space, move away, back up or any request – watching them, both horses and humans seemed polite and respectful and accepting.

Interestingly, as I worked with more and more horses myself, I found the same dynamic emerging.

So with my background in NLP it seemed only logical for me to try to “model” what was happening – after all, if I could work out exactly what these people were doing, vs what others did – then perhaps I could also learn how to teach this and make a difference to lots of horses and humans.

I was expecting something complicated, possibly metaphysical.  And I do love complex, intertwining theories and concepts. However, I love things that can be easily, practically applied by anyone even more – so that is what I looked for, and yes – that is what I found.

It’s what I call the Bubble Mindset©.  I jokingly put a copyright symbol on it  because I am sure I could market this and make millions from it – or I could just share it here……

The easiest way to explain it is with an example.

A friend of mine, Tina felt she was often getting into arguments with her horse, Bella: when she asked her to move back, or away – or just wanted to move her out of her way when walking across the arena of field – her horse was either not moving (so Tina would just walk slap bang into her!)  or moving with ears pinned back and really crabby attitude, obviously not happy at how she was being asked to move.

However, when I went in the arena and walked across it, Bella simply and neatly stepped out of my way – doing just enough to be out of my way but with no ears back, no face pulling and looking perfectly content to make this move.

When Tina was asking, Tina was focused on “making Bella move”: in the back up, she was thinking “get back, Bella!”; when she walked towards her, she was thinking “you have to move!”—in other words, she was asking Bella to move….

When I was asking, I was thinking very differently.

First, I pictured a bubble around me about 3 feet away from my body – and I felt my energy filling that bubble – so that bubble was my “personal space”– then I simply asked Bella to stay out of my bubble.

So on the back up, I imagined and felt the bubble around me – then simply moved the bubble forwards away from me, and asked Bella to move her feet out of my bubble.

Bella politely moved her feet out of my bubble by backing up. No ears back or face pulling

Why was this?  Well the best I can come up with is that instead of this being personal, and an argument between Bella and I over who could make whose feet move first….ie a classic dominance discussion.

However if you actually watch horses in the field, they very rarely have this kind of direct discussion.  In a larger herd, you will see a horse walking around, and automatically, naturally, walking closer to some horses and further from others – and in fact varying that distance depending on time of day and other factors.

It seems to me that horses naturally have an awareness of another horse’s personal space – and respect it.

So it makes sense they can do this for humans too.

The key is that when I am saying “stay out of my bubble” I am not attacking the horse, or making it personal – I am simply saying – here comes my bubble, and that is the edge of it – and my bubble is not a horse space.

Another benefit of the bubble mindset (oops forgot the ©)  is that it has a release built into it:  often when we “make” our horse’s go back, we have no clear image of when we want them to stop – and that lack of clarity can confuse a horse who then doesn’t know whether we want one step, or two – or six. Lack of clarity can lead to a confused horse, an unconfident horse – or just a pain grumpy horse – imagine how you would feel if a teacher kept asking you the same sum and it had a different answer each time!

When we think of the bubble, what happens is as soon as the horse moves away from our bubble, they FEEL the release, as our bubble is no longer pushing against them – so the release is automatic and natural, as long as we are clearly holding our bubble.

I often get a couple of questions at this stage –

–          What if my horse doesn’t move?
well, in this case I still don’t focus on the horse – I just fill my bubble with more energy – with some horses I will do massive jumping jacks – and they move away, sometimes a bit startled – and as soon as they are outside my bubble, I stop – -relax – and so do they.  After all, I wasn’t going after them, I was simply doing energetic movement inside my bubble and they felt it was a smart move to step out of that bubble.

–          What if I find it hard to hold my bubble?
This is not unusual and often happens if people have weakened boundaries from other parts of their lives.  In these cases, pretending you are someone else, who finds it EASY to hold their bubble – works really well – and if you do this enough, the practice helps YOU actually become good at it – then you don’t need to pretend any more. So think of someone you know who has a good bubble mindset and you will find your horse believes in your bubble and you can hold it more easily.

I used this in the arena with Bella too.  First I took a breath and “felt “ my bubble around me – then I simply walked around the arena – and every time I came near Bella, she simply moved away from my bubble.  When I lowered my energy and let my bubble collapse, I was able to walk right up to her and stroke her – she knew the difference.

No sticks, no rope waving – -yes, a few jumping jacks – but nothing directed “at the horse” – just energy directed to my bubble edge….

What is interesting is that once you start playing with bubbles, your horse takes things less personally (after all YOU are being less personal, more polite!)  and you KNOW you are being fair and consistent – so YOU feel more confident too!

The Bubble Mindset© can be used for backing up, sideways, driving, — any game where you want your energy to move your horse.

Have a play with your bubbles – and let me know how it goes!!

Yours, in confidence



15 thoughts on “The Bubble Mindset© – or how to be clear and assertive without being aggressive

  1. I visualised what you said about the bubble and it is what happens when I get my energy up. When I relax it sort of deflates. You’ve made it very clear. Horses also respond when you move the air don’t they so that also helps.

    • well you could try — and I think it would work — the key thing is to have a plan for “what if the bubble isn’t strong enough?” — when I am asking a horse to back up my plan involves jumping jacks as I have explained, when I am rugging and worried about head movements, I tend to hold my arm in a way that if a head does swing round, it runs into my elbow, so the elbow protects my body

      However, I would suggest you take a look at the trimming post “from top five most difficult to trim to a delight to work with” as I think there may be some ideas in there that will help resolve the underlying need your horse has to swing her teeth round….


  2. great posting Cathy…bubble mindset and true Alpha phases are what the great Horsemanhip teacher Ingela Larsson Smith uses, so does Carolyn Resnick and Aimee Brimhall. Great that you’ve put it into words so well, think this will help a lot of horsey folks…I use it all the time and often check it’s working well with humans too, whilst food shopping, in crowded area’s etc. This method kept me safe in NYC when I was younger, bubbles create confidence and confidence creates non-confrontational leadership.

    • Bubbles are great, aren’t they? more and more advanced instructors I meet are using this approach now, so I think its something a lot of us come to if we are connected enough to how our horses are feeling…..


  3. I also learnt to ‘inflate and deflate’ my personal space bubble to help drive and draw and then also to take both my personal bubble and horses personal bubble and enclose them both into a ‘herd of two’ bubble. Often use colours with these bubbles too, but that’s another story ;)) lol

  4. Great blog post. I learned the beautiful magic of Bubbles from Ingela Larsson Smith. Definitely works and you can be a true lead for your horse without any aggressive dominance from you at all. My life has changed since learning about how to use your energy and bubbles!

  5. Tried my bubble today! Definitely less of a grumpy face! I have also found that if I focus more on moving each hoof she takes it a lot less personally too.

  6. Pingback: Another Confidence Cartoon by Jo Titman | Confidence Blog by Effective Horsemanship

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