Last month I talked about being friends first with your horse and how ‘peer attachment’ is an important concept and part of the Friendship Training Program.
“Mutual grooming is one of the most important acts for cementing the relationship between two horses …. It is an indicator of the strongest bond within an equine family – friendship.” Quoted from Trust Instead of Dominance by Marlitt Wendt.
By not riding and developing that pair bond with my horses, I have discovered how much more pleased to see me the horses are. Even when I walk out with a halter, horses who once had that ‘oh no here we go again’ look on their face, or worse still – walked away, are now coming to me with ears up and sidling over for a good old scratching session.
Not only that, my horses are able to tell me exactly where they are itchy on that particular day. Armero comes up and nudges me politely to ask for an itch then lines up her body alongside the place to scratch. Her daugher Amy has learned to do this too by watching and copies the nudge evey now and then, or rests her head on my shoulder.
Jack sidles over, stretching out and lifts his hind leg to indicate he wants his sheath area cleaned and Glory presents her tummy to me for a good rub underneath, or bites the spot she’s itchy to show me where to start. Fantasy positions her backside towards me because her itchy spot is around the tail.
I love the look of pure enjoyment and bliss when I give them their daily ‘grooming’ and have been able to teach them various little things like backing up from behind and coming sideways to me by using the itch as a reward.
I see this as the perfect place to start the relationship – you are offering the horse something they want and in return, they look forward to your company and give you a little of what you would like as an understanding develops.
This video shows how Glory asks for her itch and how Fantasy takes her first steps in learning to back up to me – a very useful tool for backing out of tight spaces or the horse trailer.
One small issue is that of reciprocal grooming – a natural thing for the horse to want to do but their teeth and enthusiasm is often too much for us sensitive skinned humans!
So, I find the best way is to decrease the intensity of your itching, and put your hand out under their mouth if they start to use their teeth. That way you can cup and move your hand to cope with a totally natural reciprocal action. If we pushed them away from this, it could be seen as a real rebuff.
So the challenge is to see how much of a response you can get from your horse to an itchy spot. At the beginning, some horses may be reluctant to reveal any emjoyment, which may indicate they are a little afraid of you. But if you persist and try different places and types of itching (hard with your fingers, a curry comb, more of a massage etc.) eventually your horse will show some small sign that it’s enjoying what you’re doing. It may only be a slight extension of the neck, a twitch of the lips or turning their head towards you – keep an eye on them for any little sign including one that says ‘don’t go there’! Some horses will be quite defensive of their sensitive spots until you prove you can be trusted.
When you know where a horse’s itchy spots are (there will be many and they can vary from day to day) then you can use them as a reward for anything you are doing together. Finding that friendship spot allows you to take a break from always asking from your horse and giving to them instead. Try it – it feels really good and can often look very funny.