While sparring at the boxing gym yesterday, my partner said – as she came in for a left hook – “there’s no such thing as personal space in boxing”!

This got me thinking about one of the most important and foundational exercises we do in leadership training; one that horses are uniquely positioned to teach us: setting boundaries.

The story of Midnight Merlin is a brilliant illustration of boundary setting. It also highlights related leadership topics like spatial needs and mutual respect.

Midnight Merlin was [my mentor] Linda Kohanov’s horse. He was a beautiful black Arabian stallion, thoughtful and respectful. But it wasn’t always that way – you see, Merlin had been abused.

This horse couldn’t stand to be touched, you couldn’t enter his stall or put a halter on him without a serious fight! Merlin, at times, was downright violent.

When Linda took on the project of rehabilitating Merlin, she found that the so-called “enlightened” methods of treatment (massage, T-Touch, acupuncture) didn’t work on Merlin – in fact, they had the opposite effect. He became even more dangerous when she tried to get near him or touch him.

One day Linda decided to see how far away she needed to stand from Merlin in order for him to calm down. The distance was about five feet away. So she experimented with this each day, standing 5 feet away and thinking she could eventually inch her way closer, and finally touch him. But day after day if she so much as leaned in, Merlin would pin his ears and get ready to fight or flee.

One day while standing at the regular five foot distance from Merlin Linda felt a pulsing pressure against her shoulder. She reached up and pressed back against the air pressure and Merlin stepped gently to the side, the way a horse will move when pressure is applied to his actual body.

Linda began to apply some massage moves in the air, 5 feet away from Merlin and amazingly, he lowered his head and licked and chewed, which is the same relaxation response you’d expect from a horse being touched directly in that way.

It seemed – as far as Merlin was concerned – his body started 5 feet away from his hide.

Over time Linda observed this same dynamic in horses all over the country as she traveled teaching workshops. By finding a horse’s spatial body and treating that space as though it were indeed his actual physical body, she could quickly gain the animal’s trust.

As time passed, Linda and others observed that horses – all horses – have several layers of proximity response, like hot spots. And not just horses, humans have them too! And like Merlin, we all have involuntary physical responses to proximity.

By noticing these non-verbal cues, and by respecting others’ spatial needs, we can help humans and horses feel safer, more calm and relaxed. They also become more connected and responsive when their need for physical space is respected.

This is one of the most popular exercises in HorsePowered Teams leadership training, as it seems to prompt life-changing epiphanies.