Holding Space

yogashadows_200Lately I’ve been noticing a spate of articles about women in men’s space. There’s been much discussion of the subway tactic of “inseaming” or “manspreading,” both deploring it and proposing strategies for countering it.

What I particularly notice is that so many of the discussions approach the issue with a subtext of weakness. Not always or necessarily fear, but there’s an ongoing undertone of “women are weak, men will push their strength sometimes to deadly lengths, women learn to shrink and shrivel and hide.”

As true as that may be, it strikes me as a daily trainer and handler of horses, who are much larger and stronger and more potentially dangerous than the common or garden variety manspreader (we won’t get into the automatic-weapons or mass-shooting debate here, so please don’t try: if you do, your comment will be replaced with greatest hits of nineteenth-century verse), that there’s a great deal to be learned from the basics of staying safe around horses.

Horse handlers learn from day one that no matter how large or how strong or how scary the horse is, the worst thing a human can do is show either fear or submission. That includes not just shrieking and running, but shrinking, yielding (though there are nuances here; see below), or letting the horse crowd the human’s personal space.

I.e., horse-spreading. Letting the horse determine who gets to be where, and in what relationship to him.

That is so not a good idea. The horse, like the manspreader, is attempting to control the human by controlling her space. If she submits, he’ll just keep pushing the boundaries. That, when it’s a half-ton animal with four sledgehammers for feet, a capacity to kick with the force of a stick of dynamite, and the ability to rip your arm off with his teeth, is in no way safe and can have fatal results.

So what can the human do? She’s tiny in comparison, and she has no strength to speak of.

What she has is her intelligence, and the fact that unless the horse (or man) is either completely feral or incurably vicious, for the most part he’s wired and/or socialized to respect boundaries if the other person defines them in a way that makes sense to him.

That means no flinching. No projection of vulnerability, no showing of fear. There may be plenty of that in the back of her mind, but the image she presents is of calm confidence. She does not allow the horse to make the rules. She quietly, firmly but not aggressively establishes the space in which she intends to move and be. The horse is not allowed to violate that space unless she gives him permission.

She has to read him clearly and understand what his body language is telling her. If he’s frightened or otherwise emotionally triggered, she knows when to give way, but also how to do it. She makes it clear she’s giving him the space he needs to cope with the situation. She doesn’t cling or grip or push, she leaves him feeling as if, if he needs it, he can get out of there–but her calm and focus will help him decide to stay with her, where he’s made to feel safe. Or, if that isn’t happening, he’ll at least not run over her or slam into her while he’s making his escape.

She understands, in short, how and when to pick her fights, but also how to maintain control and both earn and keep his respect. She controls the situation. She determines what happens in her space.

This is really important for a woman to learn, since so much of her human socialization inclines toward making her feel small, weak, and defensive.

There was a study at Yale back in the Eighties, which I followed at the time and which I took to heart even while I was learning how to conduct myself safely around horses. This researcher had been exploring the concept of manspreading, though the term was decades away from being invented. She especially took note that during concerts and movies, as well as on airplanes, men would take over the armrests as well as spread their legs into the space of the women beside them. The women, almost without exception, would draw in tight, shrink small, and yield the space.

She watched how men interacted when side by side. They didn’t yield. And that kept their seatmates from spilling into their space.

She tried something quite simple. She sat like a man. She kept her arms on the armrests and positioned her knees and ankles in such a way as to block the invasions from the side.

And, she found, it worked. For the most part the men beside her appeared oblivious to what they were doing in the first place. If she didn’t  let them take over her space, they might push a bit, but as long as she held firm without acting as if she was actually fighting with them, they gave up. They let her be.

That was a revelation for me at the time. I already knew how to keep a horse from bulldozing me, but the idea that I could do the same to a man, with pretty much the same body language and frame of mind, was like, whoa.

It really does work. As with a horse, I will gauge the mood of the animal I’m dealing with. If he seems aggressive or vicious, I may elect to get out of there just as I would with a dangerous horse. But in the vast majority of cases, it’s as simple as not letting him take over my space.

It’s all in how we approach the situation. If we’re aware of the parameters, and able to suppress fear or uncertainty, we can at the very least keep enough control to keep ourselves safe–and sitting comfortably, at concerts and on airplanes and yes, even on the subway, in the seats we’ve paid for.




Holding Space — 9 Comments

  1. Yes! You said this so well. I come at this subject from the perspective of more than half a lifetime in martial arts, and I feel the same way. I also grew up riding horses, which may have helped my attitude on this subject. I’m doing a lot of writing and thinking on this subject of late and this post gives me some added material to think about.

    • I’ve noticed the many parallels between horses and martial arts. MA teach you to carry yourself in that particular way. Very valuable for women who are taught, culturally, to make themselves small and weak.

  2. This brings to mind an experiment that a folk style belly dance teacher conducted in one of our open session classes more than a few years ago. We were practicing dancing in a group setting, and taking turns leading the dancers. He wanted to see which people could move the others around and/or take charge of the group, the center of the floor.

    It turned out despite being much more of a novice dancer, I was very good at moving people out of my way and taking the center of the troupe. Including, moving the teacher and several of the other men who were mostly a good foot taller than I am.

    Now I know why. I spent most of my childhood hanging out with and riding horses. I was a really short kid so I had to be good at convincing the horses I worked with to cooperate or I was going where they wanted.

  3. I never thought of it in those terms, but I have often wondered how I went from a very shy, shrinking violet type to the speak my mind, stand up for what’s right kind of person I am today. When I look at the evolution of my life with horses, I can just see that as I learned to have the horse respect me and my space, I unconsciously extended that presence to the rest of my life! Just another good reason to love them.

  4. It’s always struck me how very small dogs are often able to intimidate their much larger brethren. I guess it’s the same principle.

    The same one that makes me raise my elbows just that little bit more when out walking in crowds. I’ve reached that point in my life where I am just not going to surrender my space on the sidewalk for some blustering adolescent hulk befuddled by headphones.

  5. I remember reading an article regarding the taking up of space and that very study and have acted accordingly ever since. While of course the practice is very natural to me with the horses, it was not as natural in areas such as airplanes, public seating, etc… I don’t yield now (and for a long time now) unless it is to an elderly person. I am far more comfortable.