I was riding my Fell Pony mare Lily yesterday when suddenly her head came up, her ears went forward, and she started weaving her head side to side and suggesting she might want to turn and run. I spoke to her reassuringly and stroked her neck while keeping her pointed forward, and eventually she calmed enough that I could dismount safely. I led her towards the object of her concern, and she quickly determined it wasn’t worth being concerned about.
This experience brought to mind a discussion I read last month about the senses of the horse. The general theme was that eyesight is their least accurate sense, and Lily’s head-weaving was an example of her trying to get a fix on what she was seeing. She wasn’t able to get satisfaction until after I dismounted and we approached slowly. Where I used to live there was a particular boulder along the road on the way to the mailbox that had two circular patterns in it. Two different ponies that I rode repeatedly past that boulder were convinced that rock was a monster. I can’t really blame them since it did seem to have eyes, but no matter how often we stopped and I kicked that boulder to indicate it wasn’t a concern, these ponies gave anxious sideways glances whenever we passed.
The discussion I read about the senses of the horse got me thinking about how we as people communicate with our equines. In particular, how do we communicate reassurance? It had never occurred to me to use their sense of touch to communicate reassurance. I regularly give affection via their sense of touch by scratching ponies in itchy places. But that wasn’t even obvious to me for a number of years. My first three ponies weren’t interested in hugs or scratches at all. Now after a dozen years I still don’t know if or where two of them like to be scratched. Lily falls in this category, too.
I learned that foals like to be scratched on their chests and shoulders and withers and rumps, but it took a veterinarian to show me about adults. I had a mare who was hospitalized, and when I visited her, the vet showed me where the mare enjoyed being scratched. It was a revelation to me; I’d had her for four years and had never figured that out.
Going beyond affection, though, I’ve been pondering recently how much it’s possible to communicate reassurance through making contact via the sense of touch. Yesterday when Lily got concerned, it was an opportunity for me to put this idea to the test. I did more today when we rode again. Parelli Natural Horsemanship includes a game called ‘Friendly’ that is about, in part, confidence-building and the sense of touch. I have always approached it from a desensitization perspective, but now I’m looking at it anew, as a tool for reassurance.
When I work in harness, I’m aware that my presence on the lines means something to my ponies. When someone else takes the lines, my ponies are not the same as they are with me. I had never thought about it as reassurance, but I suppose it is.
Like with the vet in the hospital, I feel like the discussion I read last month was a revelation: making contact is about more than affection or direction. It can also include reassurance. I appreciated the opportunity Lily gave me yesterday to explore this new-to-me idea.