Horses have, I think, largely given up trying to connect with humans the way they once did. Twenty-first-century humans seem to be hurry-up creatures with considerable visual and auditory blocks in place when mingling with the lower orders, or with children. Our species doesn’t adequately grasp other mammals’ private minds, largely because these ventures take a lot of time, not to mention big doses of patience. One has to be willing to study the subtle cues that aid in interpreting what’s going on in, say, an equine mind.
There is so much to know.
We do acknowledge their very considerable physical power, their beauty, and their willingness to serve our needs. But how many of us know their special pleasure spots? Or what they consider fun? Or what sounds soothe, or annoy? Or when they’re lonely? Happy? Sad? Pleased? Appreciative?
Different mammals aren’t all that different.
Take grooming, a regular happening, as an example.
I used a typical grooming brush on my own arm and leg. I ran it through my hair, too. Brushes must pass those ‘feel’ tests to join my box of grooming goodies. My hands, though, are my primary ambassadors in the Touch Department.
Blake, the big thoroughbred gelding at Sunshine Farms whom I often ride, saw me coming today and moved toward his stall’s open area to say hello. We bumped noses. I held his head and smoothed his face. (Blake doesn’t mind being face-touched- when he’s given me permission to take that liberty.)
Speaking quietly to him I shucked my gloves and offered my bare hands, palms up. He lowered his head, signaling that I could move them gently up and down the sides of his face. He issued forth a deep sigh, flapped his nose and stuck his head high and out, a signal that he’d welcome a nose scratch to the area just above his mouth. When I obliged, using my short-nailed fingers very softly, his eyes closed and those sensitive whiskers twitched... (If he’d turned his head away, even slightly, I would have backed off.)
Now I shook my head from side to side, for fun.
So, Blake snorted and shook his!
“How about this?” I queried, nodding vigorously, up and down.
Blake nodded, too, and whinnied, amused.
He cocked his head, waay over to one side.
I grinned, and copied him, singing, “I’m only a cockeyed optimist...” (This song’s from a movie- South Pacific, I think...)
Whinny-grins rippled through the stable.
Blake and I have a thing...
Today, though, I would ride Sunshine Farms’ Ditto, a smaller, sturdy, stocky horse with a stand-up bristle-brush dark mane interwoven with grey. His hair is a lovely deep brown color, decorated with generous splashes of white and grey appaloosa spots sprinkle-scattered lavishly over his hindquarters. Some of these variously sized bubble bath-looking ‘circles’ tumble down his flanks, too. The effect is delightful!
Appaloosas are gorgeous creatures.
Ditto always fidgets- I could say- ‘dances’- when cross-tied for grooming, which happens before saddling. I showed him a big brush I’d selected, and after he sniffed it carefully I began to explore ways of quieting his “must we?’ behavior.
The first rule here, to my way of thinking, is: never bang that big tool down.
I lowered it gently to his skin and began the long trip from the top of his neck to his behind and then a little way down his back leg, pressing just enough to collect shedding hair, but not hard enough to make him shift away. He shifted anyway. I’d guessed wrong.
Each horse reaches a point where stepping away from pressure happens. Ditto shifted sideways as soon as he felt the brush. I persisted, repeating the long, gentle strokes, using my left hand to inform him where each beginning place would be. About ten strokes later I’d located some pressure parameters, and so adjusted the pressure to accommodate each one.
But- when I drew it all the way down his back leg he stopped dancing around and stood still as a leaf on a dead calm afternoon. I slowly repeated the stroke, sliding down to the fetlock. Just under each one is a ‘sweet spot.’ I gently moved the brush back and forth between fetlock and hoof, about a 4-inch indentation perfectly fitted to my tool. While it moved slowly, slowly back and forth, Ditto didn’t move. He was entranced.
This is always hugely rewarding.
A while later he blew out a long snort-sigh. I stepped back to check his posture. There he stood, hung low, one hind foot cocked. All in all, a happy horse. In brushing him a little differently I’d begun to change his opinion of the procedure. I’d made the experience pleasant, and almost sensual.
“Jeez, Dee, You can apply four times as much pressure and get a ton more hair with short brisk strokes...” True.
I thanked Robin for her advice and carried on, my way. I love to learn their shapes, their most/least sensitive places, and their tolerance levels, while still keeping him tidy.
Hmmm. What would happen if I tried to brush his head? Horses are very protective of that area.
Wow! Lots of indignant, vigorous head flinging happened as he made it clear that the brush was unwelcome anywhere near his ears and eyes. NO Way.
So I began again softly, high up on his neck, very near his poll. Three minutes later he’d settled down again, so I carefully inched the brush up to the left side of his temple, employing just the top and side of its medium- soft bristles to trace around his ears and eyes, then down his face. (Near his eye, my hand formed a protective barrier he could feel.) My low, murmured crooning never stopped. He lowered his head just a bit as I brushed gently, murmuring about whatever popped into my head, making the words blurry, soft, toneless, while seamlessly shifting to other spots on his neck, perhaps just under that funny, upstanding mane, before returning to his face for a few more gentle seconds.
He stood, hung low, half-lidded.
Ditto was totally relaxed.
Never push a good thing, thought I, and quietly switched to his mid-back, leading with my hand, touching him where the brush would connect a second later. He never had to wonder where it would land, or how hard the landing would be. Every one was always soft.
Horses are as sensitive as we are. When a dot-sized spider octi-creeps over our skin, we know. Ditto for horses. Every contact, even from a mosquito’s feet, is registered.
When I first groom a horse the skin ripples; there is an immediate shift away from that tool’s pressure. Horses anticipate what’s coming, but have been gently taught early in life to submit. It's no big deal, so they do.
Every animal is different. Most horses don’t mind being groomed in the usual way. Others dislike the procedure, but accept it as an immutable part of life. The three horses I’ve groomed have very definite opinions, so I decided to experiment with the different cleaning tools on offer to achieve a clean body with no inching away, and no flinching.
I strive for head droops. Cocked hooves. Relaxed postures. Deep sighs.
When I get it right, skin rippling and shift-fidgeting stop.
Now a quiet, faintly surprised Ditto stood there, settling into enjoyment.
I love this. I just love it. It’s my blue ribbon.
I’ve been very surprised to discover that I like to groom almost as much as I like to ride. I’ve imagined myself grooming horses for 70 years, finding the rhythm of it a nice way to drift into sleep.
Oh—another thing: I had no idea horses have big cowlicks!
Is there a particular place that has ‘paralyzed’ the trio?
All had gone perfectly still when I gently brushed just below their fetlocks horizontally, back and forth, letting the bristles accommodate to that indentation. It’s as though Nature designed the four-inch wide space to exactly fit grooming brushes.
I should add that there is no rushing, here. Time slows as I explore their vast real estate, test pressure points, feel each muscle group, each tendon, employing hand and brush while humming or murmuring a sort of auditory ‘bath’ of soft sounds that seem to soothe both of us. By the way, I may have to repeat this ritual for a few days before I discern less agitation and more anticipation.
This sort of grooming takes as long as it takes.
I work, feel and listen; he feels, signals and trusts. We are ‘learning’ each other in auditory and tactile ways.
There is the horse,
There is me,
And finally, if I'm lucky, we join up.