…Just Don’t Touch Me.

I lost a fabulous horse over a year ago who taught me much. One of the many, many lessons he taught me is that not all horses want to be touched. His preference was very generalized – he didn’t want to be touched by horses or humans.

It seems obvious, even silly and presumptuous of us to think that our horses want to be petted, scratched, patted or otherwise touched by us or another creature. Why would we assume that? Perhaps it’s because petting is how we show animals that we like them, we want to bond with them and we want to help them feel pleasure. So, we pet our “pets” easily, often and usually without really stopping to observe if our gestures are being well-received.

My horse Hummer (the horse that passed) helped me to understand over many years (I’m ashamed to say that it took me that long to “get the hint,”) that he really wanted to be near me, just not touched by me. Hummer was very patient with me. When I got it, I began to realize that in my daily interactions with my horses that sometimes being touched is well-received and sometimes it isn’t.

The other night, I had yet another “aha” moment with my very complex mare, Aspen. I say complex, not that she truly is, but rather that she is still a bit of a mystery to me. I haven’t figured her out, totally, nor have I perfected my approach or my ideas with her, and hence the label “complex.” (She’s taught me more about Liberty and horsemanship than probably any other horse I’ve known.) She has softened considerably in her years with me, and I credit our Liberty play with that softening – but that’s for another post.

She can be stand-offish and is sometimes a bit on guard when she’s with me, but not always. She was terribly abused and so her concern is based upon experience and memory. I have earned her trust, almost completely, almost, and she is actually a wonderful Liberty playmate. She prefers to do Liberty at a distance of no closer than 5 feet from me, and that’s fine.

Aspen does not like to be touched, generally. But she loves to be groomed with brushes. However, when she’s loose with the herd, she does not want to be groomed. The other night (back to the “aha!” moment) I was standing with the herd under the moonlight, it was a beautiful evening and I wanted to spend time with the herd, quietly, before I went home. Aspen came over to me and stood right next to me – she almost put her head in my chest, she was that close. I stood there and just breathed, and did NOT touch her. After a bit, I walked away to stand near another horse and Aspen followed me to that horse. She and the new horse stood quietly next to me for a bit. Then she followed me to another horse and then another horse. This following me everywhere is something I see in my very sociable geldings, but not as often with my more distant mare, Aspen.

It was a reminder to me that if I just listen to her preferences of not touching her, let her know by listening that I hear her and I get it, that she will connect with me readily.

In summary, there’s a lot of buzz lately about listening to your horse, and this is a good thing. However, it’s often: “Listen to your horse… AFTER you’ve done something to create a response.” What if your horse doesn’t even want to be in the conversation? Are you listening to that as well? Really listening is giving your horse a voice, BEFORE you do anything overt to illicit a response.

One more thing, it’s important that we get our horse’s permission before we do things… when and where we can. It means a lot to our horses, and it’s a good mindset to adopt.

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