If we watch horses in the wild, or just in a group turned out in a field together, how do they communicate their feelings to one another? Those who have a close relationship will nuzzle and groom each other. Some might put ears back or shove the other to move them out-of-the-way. Only if there is conflict does the ‘touch’ between two horses get hard or brutal even.
When we first start to train our horses, we give praise by either voice or a gentle pat. Even the great horse whisperer Monty Roberts says to ‘give your horse a gentle rub on the horse’s head as a reward.’ But why is it that in competition, the excitement of a great test or jumping round do we see some horses being slapped quite hard across the neck or even hit on the head?
Seeing the expression of shock on the horses face (even fear in some) makes me ask myself ‘What does that communicate to the horse?’ It must be confusing for a horse to jump to the best of its ability, and although sensing the riders pleasure with the effort, is subsequently hit around the head.
A horse can take firm pressure and quite enjoy it in the form of a massage or physiotherapy. But even when doing a massage we build up the pressure slowly, starting with long gentle strokes to relax the horse and the muscles. We don’t dive straight in with firm pressure, as this just causes tension and discomfort for the horse.
It has certainly made me look at the way I praise my horses. I do still pat them on the base of the neck or shoulder but in a gentle way, sometimes choosing just a long stroke down the neck and a friendly scratch on the withers. When I start off the young horses they are patted all over with a cupped hand (which makes noise but will only send a gentle vibration through the muscle) to help desensitise them. Firm pressure is only used to reprimand unruly behaviour and should be used sparingly but in a sympathetic manner.