24 October 2016

Pony Primavera, or How to Bond With Your Horse

Pony Primavera

     Well, not really. This is most definitely NOT a recipe for cooking horse!

      However, I will show you how to quickly, easily and gently form a bond with your horse that will probably last as long as each of you do.

     It requires a few things: You, your horse, a wooden pasta fork, and time.

     Other methods of ‘bonding’ to your horse involve a lot more expensive things. You need a soliid walled round pen, for instance. You need to have read a book by a man who claims that his method of bonding with a horse is based on equine behavior. His method involves a lot of bullying and intimidation on the human’s part and panic and running around on the horse’s part.  There’s not much ‘whispering’ in his methods. I would more liken it to “screaming”.

    He has gained fame by taking mustangs ‘right off the range’, apparently inspiring them to trust him immediately so that, within a few minutes, he can saddle, bridle and ride them (in the round pen).  

     Note that the mustang ‘right off the range’ has been chased for miles by a helicopter, is exhausted and thirsty, is frightened out of his mind, has lost touch with his band or family, is surrounded by eight foot high metal pipe fencing that refuses to give when he smashes into it (because he has no concept of ‘fence’),  is stampeded into a terrified crowd of equally scared and strange horses along with stallions who are furiously attacking any other male horse in proximity to his mares, and is also surrounded by humans who act like predators. 

   Allowing the traumatized horse the chance to stop and rest in a round pen with just one human is possibly the reason that Robert’s ‘methods’ work. He's said that 'release from pressure' is what makes the horse accept his unnatural actions. Let’s not repeat the rumor of drugging the horse that is, at this late date, impossible to prove. 

   It would be, let us say, informative, to see what became of the mustangs that Roberts supposedly ‘tamed’ after the cameras had stopped rolling and his Horse Whisperer circus had packed up and left town. I am betting my boots that once the supposedly ‘saddle broken’ mustang had rested, calmed down, and got something in its stomach that it reverted to being a wild animal. 

   Gretchen, one of the women in my barn, has a mustang mare. She was about three years old at the time with a filly at foot when she was removed from the range. Despite gentle handling, it took six months for Gretchen to even be able to TOUCH the mare, never mind saddle and bridle her. I believe it took two years before she could actually ride the mare. Gretchen admits that, had she known what she was getting herself into, she would never have taken on a mustang.

    In the years since Monty Roberts gained fame and fortune as a “horse whisperer”, he’s been found to be a charlatan.  
     What Roberts calls ‘joining up’ is not so much ‘joining’ as it is forcing a horse into submission. This isn’t hard to do, really. Horses are ‘pecking order’ creatures. The horse that wants to be alpha can be if he’s willing to do a bit of fighting. When he meets a horse that can intimidate him or beat him in a fight, he submits and…the fight is over. Horses feel no shame at being subordinate to another. This works in OUR favor, as when he relinquishes the leadership role to us, he doesn’t have to ‘think’ about what to do. But forcing a horse into submission is strictly that: force. Wouldn't it be better to have the horse willingly give you it's trust, its friendship?

    If you want to forge a strong, natural bond with your horse, I will teach you how. It’s cheap, easy, fulfilling, and fun.   

     My method was distilled from 16 years of professionally massaging horses. I’ve massaged many, many horses, most of them in pain of one sort or another. 

     My way of bonding with the horse is based on equine behavior. It works with all horses, no matter how trained-or un-they may be. It uses the same behavior as two horses use on each other. It is not meant to be a therapy, or a pain relief. It is meant solely to appeal to the mind and heart of the horse. Pain relief (or, in this case, itch relief), can then be considered a beneficial by product.

     Horses, when they’re relaxing with another horse, engage in “social grooming’. I’m sure you’ve seen a pair of horses, head to tail alongside each other, appearing to bite the other on the withers and neck. They aren’t biting, they’re scratching. Like anybody who loves a good back scratch, horses scratch the spots on the other horse that they know are unreachable with their own teeth. They are literally scratching the other horse’s itchy spots. 
Social Grooming. Photo by equinoxhorse.net

     Strange horses don’t groom each other. Horses on opposite ends of the social ranking ladder don’t mutually groom. A high-ranking horse will allow a low ranking horse to groom him, but he won’t groom the lower ranking one. It’s a privilege, then, to allow another horse to groom you.

         They only socially groom horses they know, trust, like, or want to mate with. The last one you needn’t worry about. Your horse will not want you as a mate, no matter how good you look.

     You are going to emulate another horse, and socially groom your horse. You are going to 'scratch' your horse.

     You may use your fingers. But a good scratching will wear your fingers and wrists out fairly rapidly. Few people have the necessary strength in their fingertips to really get into the horse. Also, your fingers tips are too blunt, too fat, to really get into an itchy spot on a horse.

     The best tool I’ve found for scratching a horse is a wooden pasta fork, used in Italian cooking (hence the title!).   Only wood has the necessary tensile strength and yet is forgiving enough to properly scratch a horse. 
Wooden pasta fork
Wooden pasta fork, side view
     Wooden utensils are getting hard to find. They’re homely and not very expensive.  Retailers want something that sells due to its appearance and that they can charge a hefty price for, not because it’s effective and yet cheap. The market is flooded with fancy silicon or metal forks or plastic junk from China. So, good luck, but do try to find wood.

      The peg ends should be round, beveled or flat, NOT sharply pointed.  It should go without saying that sharp-pointed ends will hurt the horse. When you find wooden forks, buy several. They’re relatively inexpensive, and if the stock manager sees all the wooden ones going out the door and the modern ones staying in the inventory, he may just order more.  

   The pasta fork must be the type with several pegs in the flat ‘face’ of the fork. See the picture. Do not use one with a scalloped edge around a bowl, as that style works around an itchy spot, not on it.  A long-handled one allows you to use leverage if necessary. You will find yourself grasping the head of it, which is fine. You may even want to cut off the handle, but the handle does allow you to reach under a belly. You’re going to be putting a lot of pressure on the fork, using your wrist.  I never massage a horse without using wrist supports, but you needn’t worry about that when scratching a horse.

   Now that you have all the equipment you need to bond with your horse, let’s get started. You are about to socially groom as if you were another horse.

   Take your horse into an area where you aren’t going to be interrupted by other, nosy horses. It can be anywhere. I like to scratch the horse in his stall, as then I can work on him without halters or lead ropes. But it’s okay to work on him in cross ties, or just holding him on the lead rope. I like to have a quiet area, one without a radio playing. Without the distraction of a radio I can better listen to my horse. I will ‘scratch’ Raven in the center aisle of the barn and horses on either side will be watching from their stalls. They begin to beg by making a racket to get my attention.  They will be envious, saying, Raven is enjoying something and I am not, I want it too.
   If he’s never been scratched with a pasta fork, let him smell it. He may want to taste it or bite it. Allow him to do so on the handle, not the pegged face. Tell him you’re going to scratch him. I’ve taught my horses to anticipate a treat or something nice by saying “Who wants scratches?” with the emphasis on “who”. I’ve never met a horse that didn’t pick up on the question within minutes.  

     Then, begin. Start scratching with your fingers in areas where you know he’s usually itchy. These spots are usually the withers, the shoulders, the sides of the neck, the brisket. The stars in the picture show where horses most often like to be scratched.  If you note, these are areas he cannot reach himself. It is not inclusive. Experiment, scratch him all over and see what he likes and what means nothing to him.   A good rule of thumb is to test for itchiness in areas where he cannot scratch (with his hoof) or with his teeth.

This photo of a  lovely chestnut was taken from pets4homes.co.uk. I inserted the stars showing where horses most like to be scratched.

     Once you’ve found a spot that itches and evokes a reaction from your fingers, switch to the pasta fork. Most horses won’t even notice the switch. With a horse new to scratching, take it easy. Gently scratch him with the fork until he understands what you are doing with it. Once he learns what happens when you bring the fork out (and say ‘scratch”), you won’t  have to start out with fingers.

       Experiment with how much pressure to use on the horse. You will be surprised at how much pressure a horse may want, and in what spots. Take it easy, and watch his reaction to scratching with the fork.

    His reactions will be unmistakable and immediately understood. The horse’s body language says “oooooh”.  When you find a spot that itches, he will raise his head, or twist it right or left, purse his upper lip, shut his eyes, or his lips will tremble. He may do one or all of them simultaneously. Sometimes the nostrils will pinch, not from pain, but with pleasure.  Once he learns what scratching does, he will really get into it. When I’m scratching his loins, Raven will stretch out and dip his back to allow me to really get into it. Sometimes I am afraid he’s going to collapse!

   While scratching, I’m also speaking to him, saying “scraaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaatch” over and over again. String the word out in a soft, sibilant voice. I really don’t know why I do it, or if it means anything to him. That’s just me. I’m constantly talking to my horses.  

   Sometimes the horse will turn his head and touch the spot that’s itchy.  He may begin biting it himself. Allow him to finish, then go right to the same spot and begin scratching it.

   If you are applying too much pressure, he will stop reacting with a pleasure look. He may swish his tail in irritation, pin his ears, fling his head or even move away. Apologize, wait a few moments for the irritation to subside, and continue scratching with a lighter pressure. If he still objects, move on to a different spot.

     Each horse differs in his reactions in different spots. Raven, a Hanoverian, likes it lightly over his left ribcage but hard on the right. I don’t understand this other than he’s probably built up (more muscle development) on the right side.  My Arab, Jordan, wanted a hard scratch all over.  Too light a pressure is tickling him, which is annoying, and too heavy a pressure can cause irritation.

 This is why the fork needs to be wood and made with pegs. It is the perfect material for applying and distributing the precise pressure the horse wants.  

    Some horses have itchy spots you wouldn’t believe. My neighbor had a lovely grey Arabian mare named Rose who adored having her udder scratched. Most mares will not allow anyone to touch their udder, but Rose was the opposite. The moment she saw a known udder scratcher approaching her, she would whinny a welcome and straddle her hind legs in the most obscene and suggestive stance.

   If you’ve never scratched your mare’s udder, ask her politely and gently how she feels about it. You’re enough of a horseman to know when no means NO.  Pinned ears, a stamped foot, even an attempt to bite means NO. Don’t push it. Respect her decision. Scratching is meant to be a gentle, pleasant, and itch relieving experience, not an exercise in dominance.
   I shouldn’t have to say this but I shall…do NOT repeat NOT use anything but your fingers on a mare’s udder-or a male’s sheath. 

   Geldings and stallions might like to have the area just ahead of the sheath scratched,  where the navel is. (yes, horses have navels.).  Males will often drop their penis in response to a good scratching. This is why you want to be careful of where (geographically speaking) you scratch a horse. YOU know what you’re doing is perfectly fine, but if you’re doing the scratching in a paddock right by the road where non-horsemen and passers-by can see, it will appear as if you’re doing something obscene to the horse!

     Take your time. He will tell you when he’s had enough. Go over the spots you scratched earlier. If there is no reaction, he’s had enough at that spot.  Just as in humans, the itch receptors in the skin get overloaded and stop being itchy. If he’s not itchy there anymore, go on to another, or just quit for the day.

    In polite and civil equine society, social grooming is reciprocated. The horse new to your scratching him will want to ‘groom’ you in return. Do not allow it.  Their teeth hurt and can injure you. They have no idea how strong their teeth are.
   Don’t be rude in rejecting his attempt to groom you. Do not punish him for what, to him, is civility.
     Thank him for offering to reciprocate, but say “No thank you, humans don’t like it.” This is for HIM because you are his friend. This is “you and me” time, horse. When he tries to nibble in reciprocation, stop scratching, gently but firmly press his nose away from you, and continue scratching. He will catch on that he is the total recipient and that he needn’t try to reciprocate. 

      Other horses like having their docks (tail heads) scratched, bellies, especially the girth line, and under their chins.

     One spot they especially like is at the base of the mane, along the crest. This is where you must press down hard to get to the roots of the mane hairs. It’s where the pasta fork excels, because your fingers cannot exert that much pressure in such a small area. Again, judge how much pressure he wants.

       Be aware that some male horses, especially stallions, do not appreciate your scratching the roots of the mane. When stallions fight, they often grab or bite the crest. Some horses will take it as demonstration of aggression. Test your horse. If the crest gets you a “no”, respect it. 

Horses fighting, by RJ's images of nature.com. This is NOT the impression you want to make!

    You will know you are pleasing him when he looks at you with a soft, loving eye. He will heave a huge sigh of pleasure. He is bonding with you.

    It may take only once. With my Arab, it took two scratching sessions. Once I finished scratching him, he had bonded with me. He followed me without a halter, without my urging, wanting to be with me wherever I went.

   This, in my experience, is a far more natural, pleasant, happy way of bonding with a horse.
   Your horse will love it.

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