Saturday, March 11, 2017

11th March, 2017 Touching Words

Greeting and touching your horse

There are two real secrets to my horsemanship that I wish I could get across to every owner and handler, farrier and vet in the world. When I meet any horse – any horse – the first thing I do reach out towards their shoulder with the back of my hand.  I might do this three times with a more wary horse before touching the horse on the shoulder or the neck and moving away. Again I might do this three times or more to ask the horse to understand that I come in peace. This is my promise to the horse: I am not going to eat you and I can be trusted. I tend to find that every horse then relaxes and wants to engage with me because they know that I understand how they feel.

Castillo appreciated being asked nicely
The second secret is how I touch a horse. To me, patting is a bizarre thing to do. Why when a horse has done well would we want to slap it? I think that horses learn to associate that a pat means that they have done well but it does not reward them in itself. Horses have very sensitive skin and a gentle but firm rub or stroke is much more pleasant for them. I use a firm, flat touch, fingers together, and then often move my fingers along the lower muscle in their neck. That really helps them to relax. Yes, horses do like being scratched but it’s a very intense experience and too familiar in the first place. A nice slow rub on the shoulder or between the eyes is a great reward. In an ideal world we would spend as much time hand grooming our horses as we do brushing them and get to know what touch they like where; I call this seducing your horse.  Once a horse knows that it can trust you not to be rough or to brush it like a carpet it is much more able to relax and much less inclined to feel the need to protect itself by blocking you with its head or biting or kicking. If your horse moves around when tied up to be groomed, he’s usually trying to tell you something!

Kolinka relaxed under this deep flat touch.
I do concede that it is a good idea to de-sensitise your horse to being patted just because so many people come up and pat a horse – especially judges. Patting, like most of our horsemanship, derives from the military where men probably didn’t want to be seen stroking each other.

Lots of horses love the base of their forelock rubbed.
It should always be your decision as to when and how you touch a horse and its better not to touch a horse that demands it. This doesn’t mean that you have to stop being affectionate around your horse. I give my horses a lot of affection but not when they demand it. If we give lots of rubs and strokes when a horse walks up to us and gives us a push, then we are reinforcing that behaviour. I see a lot of owners who answer their horses with a rub or a stroke, particularly around the lower mouth or nose, whenever the horse presses them to do so. Most are not even conscious that they are doing it. We tend to think that the horse is being affectionate but it is actually the first step to the horse establishing their leadership over you and starting to feel insecure. I also see how this creates a lot of mouthy and nibbly horses.

Will you just stop fiddling with my nose!