People who come to my barn are probably befuddled by my posted sign: “Please do not feed or touch the horses.” While many of my clients are familiar with my request that my horses not be hand fed, for reasons I will get into here, no petting to some might seem a bit harsh or confusing. I’ll try illuminate the seemingly odd request.
Some people are extroverted. Some are introverted. Some people like to hug, while to others the thought of being touched by a stranger makes their skin crawl. Anyone requiring a larger “bubble” knows the discomfort of being forcibly snuggled by a well meaning person without feel for the their body language. People omit feels just the way horses do, which are either inviting, closed off, accepting, listening, or not. Many people seem to talk without noticing whether the other party is engaged or listening, but a person who is feeling and truly engaging reads the other person’s body language and engages accordingly.
When a person approaches a horse just to pet it, they often disregard the horse’s appearance, its telling signs, and its general needs. Many times people go to right up to the horses face and crowd it, or immediately go for its lips and muzzle. This is the equivalent of hugging a person who you’ve just met, which may not always be appropriate. It can also encourage a horse to crowd in return or lip or nip in response (which is why I discourage hand feeding treats).
My Morgan gelding Geronimo has a tendency to be pushy and nippy. He often approaches or follows people, crowding them a bit, and so a well meaning person may think he wants to be petted. In a short time they’d find themselves next to a pushy monster with a bay muzzle and lips exploring their skin in a way they probably hadn’t hoped for. Being petted in this way doesn’t make him happier or feel loved, it makes him frustrated and pushy. He is much happier when he receives space and is asked in turn to also give space, and when I do pet him it’s in a way that provides reassurance and helps to calm him.
My fiery chestnut mare, Dee, usually prefers not to be petted. She is not overly affectionate except in some occasions with some people. To be respectful of her, I pet her when it’s appropriate and usually in a very slow and still way. Sometimes for her a touch on the forehead or neck is just enough.
Every horse’s needs are so different, and each moment can require a different type of touch. As a kid I grew up riding jumpers, and a “pet” for them when they responded correctly was a type of smack on the neck. Sometimes people pet their horses in brisk or hurried ways. A pet should be reassuring and peaceful for it to be beneficial, and should have meaning.
Horses rely on feel to survive, which is why I prefer people don’t pet my horses. Each touch should mean something. If I’m riding my horse and I notice it’s attention is off somewhere but I need it back on me for a left turn for example, I could initiate that left turn by a touch on the left side of its neck. Over petting or rude petting dulls this essential form of communication out of the horse, making stronger aids necessary.
Most people know to ask before petting a strange dog. I rarely pet a dog whether the owner ok’s it or not until I see from the dog’s body language he actually wants to be petted, or it’s the right thing for the situation – (i.e. it may not be appropriate to pet a dog that wants to be petted in the middle of another dog who may be jealously guarding something, etc.). The same should go for people and horses – if it isn’t yours, ask, and even if you are given the go ahead, pay attention to the horse and pet in a way that doesn’t encourage rudeness but does encourage peace and relaxation.
It’s not that petting is bad. It’s not that treats are bad. Talking isn’t bad, and affection isn’t bad. But if our words and touch are to be meaningful, then silence and quiet have to be a factor in our conversation as well.