When you reach out to pet your horse, stop and think each time: is this for me or for them? Am I petting in a way that I enjoy, or the horse enjoys? How does he respond? Does he flinch, push, avoid, or does he soften, relax, and yield?
Touch is incredibly important to a sensory being like a horse, and to connect well with them, we need to always be thinking not how do I like to pet and when, but how does a horse like to be petted and when?
Here’s a scene many horse owners are familiar with: you go out into the field, a friendly member of your herd approaches you. You begin petting him. Soon his lips are on you, lipping your pockets. Maybe you have treats in your pockets, maybe you don’t. He pushes a little, you joke about how much he loves his scratches. He pushes your feet back a little, maybe turns his butt to you for a scratch. The rest of the herd approaches and soon you have a few extra horses pushing for scratches, competing for placement. Now it becomes dangerous or irritating, and you say, ok that’s enough, I’m leaving.
What might be perceived as a cute and fun social interaction is actually an educational one for the horse. Every interaction with us results in learning, whether we meant it or not. In this case, these horses learned to push – with their necks, with their shoulders. Not only is this undesirable for their general ground handling, it makes riding with softness difficult when your horse is pushing with their necks and shoulders. You may think it doesn’t make a difference under saddle, but it does. Horses that push people on the ground ride markedly heavier in the bridle and are stiffer in the shoulders. Horses that push people also push on fences￼, other horses, lead ropes, you name it.
Here’s another scenario that I see frequently also, which is a more extreme, but common example, and the progression of the first scenario. Your horse approaches, maybe gets a scratch or a treat, as is his habit. You give him what he came for, but he won’t leave. He keeps pushing, nipping at you. You push his head, he comes back. This cycle continues for some time, as he is sure this behavior produces the desired effect (it usually does, at least for a time). Maybe you move away from him, maybe you don’t, but at this point this habit is so ingrained he keeps trying. Your frustration rises, his rises. Now you’re fighting, and worse, he’s getting mixed signals – come in for a treat, push on me as long as I’m enjoying it, but then his head gets swatted, maybe even smacked. Now we have a pushy and head shy horse at the same time., One very confused and frustrated horse, who is continually invited into peoples space and then punished for it.
If you’re seeking peaceful interactions on the ground and in the saddle, consider what every touch means. Sometimes a good scratching is appropriate. Sometimes just peaceful presence is enough. Treats don’t always produce poor behavior if you’re smart about how you give them, though I choose not to interact this way with my horses. Keep in mind the cause and effect of all your daily interactions with your horse, and if it’s a peaceful relationship you seek, then make sure each interaction with them results in peace. This is what training is – repetition that creates positive behaviors. So remember that every interaction is, in fact, training, for good or for bad.