I have been thinking about writing this ever since I first ran into the idea that it is ALWAYS wrong to allow the horse to enter your space, an idea I found mostly in the modern aspects of Western horsemanship. This seems to be tied into the idea of teaching the horse to “respect” the human.
All through the 44 years I’ve handled horses I have reacted strongly to any horse that rudely and suddenly invades my personal space. My reactions range a sudden harsh scolding (escalating to shaking my finger at the horse’s face), a jab with my elbow, to, if necessary, an open handed slap anywhere but the horse’s head. Doing that consistently has been sufficient to teach the horses that they have to approach me POLITELY. Do the horses ever slip up? Of course they do. Then I react appropriately.
When thinking about this I realized that I make two exceptions to the “rule” that the horse is not to be the one that enters my space. When I catch a horse, when I first meet a horse, or when I meet the horse for the day, I bring my hand, palm down with fingers slightly curved downward, to an inch or two from the horse’s nose. Usually the horse gently reaches out with his nose and lightly touches my knuckles. This is the response I am looking for, the response I reward, and the reason I like this response so much is because both the horse and I are being polite to each other and we have a decent chance of proceeding in a spirit of cooperation.
My second exception is much more subtle, and the touching is always instigated from the horse. It is similar to a mare nuzzling a newborn foal. Every once in a while when I am grooming or just standing or walking by the horse, I feel this extremely light touch from the horse’s nose, if it is on my arm it barely ruffles the hairs on my skin. It can be a touch that does not move or it can be a light swipe of the horse’s nose across my skin. This particular type of touch is completely non-aggressive and non-challenging. It can mean several things, from “I am here” to “I am here for you” to “Hi! Good to have you around” to “I (the horse) need reassurance” to a non-combative “are you sure?” to a “can we move on?” These brief moments are among the highlights of handling horses for me, and the thought of punishing the horse for its boldness in giving me this gentlest touch makes my blood run cold. It would be like punishing a grandchild for every spontaneous, loving hug. To me the appropriate responses run from a gentle “Hi” to a “its good to be around you too”, to reassuring the horse, to a “yes, I am sure that I want you to do this,” to “sorry its going to be a while.” Please note that both the horse and I are non-challenging, unaggressive, and extremely polite to each other.
In my mind punishing this lightest touch can completely shut down certain paths of communication between the horse and the human, teaches the horse that absolutely NOTHING it feels is considered worthwhile, and can be/is the first step in breaking the horse’s spirit. If the horse touches us gently in a friendly manner he is telling us that we are among the creatures that the horse considers “friendly,” because I have never seen a horse use this touch on any creature it considers an enemy. If the horse is never allowed to SHOW that it considers the human a friend, then the human can rapidly descend into the “may be okay but not really a friend” category. Yes, the horse may obey you perfectly when you are upright and in control but what will the horse do with a “not really a friend” when all hell breaks loose? Will the horse even look to the “not really a friend” for reassurance? Will the horse let the “not really a friend” be the leader and follow our lead willingly?
While I totally agree with all schools of horsemanship when they say that ALL aggressive movements of a horse toward a human must be countered I do make allowances for certain conditions, if the horse is in pain and I am making it worse they may get a moderately sharp verbal reprimand (followed with a sincere apology for hurting the horse.) If the horse is trying to establish itself as the boss over me, well that horse will rapidly find out that he is wrong, the horse is NEVER the boss over me, and I usually do that just by my posture with some harsh words if necessary. If the horse moves to attack me when I am not directly hurting it, that horse is in trouble and he IMMEDIATELY finds out he is in trouble. By posture, body movements, a harsh loud voice, up to ONE finely gauged wallop or strike with a whip, I do not let up until the horse backs down. One time I even bit a horse that bit me. Then I make sure to keep my eyes peeled around that horse to nip every aggressive move in the bud (standard operating procedure around every entire colt or stallion.) Usually, after consistent handling, the horse eventually learns that life is much more pleasant if he behaves himself and refrains from rude behavior.
This gentlest touch is never an aggressive move. This gentlest touch is the horse willingly reaching out to the human. Why in the world would anybody ever want to punish this? Just to prove you are boss?
Well, if you have to prove that you are boss by punishing this gentlest touch you are going to poison your whole relationship with your horse. Can you make up for it so the horse will trust you anyway? Yes, if you are a very good horseman/woman you can, but the general run of horse owners/handlers are not that good .
Me? I treasure these gentlest touches. It tells me that in spite of my considerable handicaps and resulting general klutziness around the horse both on the ground and riding, that the horse is willing to consider me a friend, a fair boss, a person worthy of obedience, and a person that the horse does not mind hanging around. Since I am handicapped enough that I am almost totally dependent on the horse’s good will when I am handling or riding him I will take any advantage I can get. I never punish the gentlest touch, and I am rewarded for this by the horse. AND the horses still respect me.
Have a great ride!