Lessons from Pony ‘Hugs’

Bowthorne Matty enjoying a scratch in her favorite place

“[A] dog will do virtually anything for a hug.  A horse will do virtually nothing for a hug.”  So says Joe Camp in his book Soul of a Horse.  Generally I agree with Camp.  I have rarely had a pony do anything to attract physical displays of affection.  Bowthorne Matty is the one exception that I have experienced.

Matty will approach my husband or me, and while we are focused on greeting her with a rub on her face or a stroke on her neck or a scratch on the point of her shoulder, it will seem like she’s walking right past us.  She stops, though, just as her back reaches us.  We have learned from scratching her withers and having her move to a similar position that she really wants her back scratched.  She has repositioned our buck and rail fence numerous times by walking under the top rail to achieve the same end. 

As she has matured and filled out, Matty’s pointed positioning for physical attention has become a little more annoying.  Like a good traditional Fell Pony, her torso has broadened out so that she passes me with her shoulder but bumps me with her ribs.  This behavior brings to mind the fullness of Camp’s quote:  “[A] dog will do virtually anything for a hug.  A horse will do virtually nothing for a hug.  But he will do virtually anything for his respected leader.  And he will continually test that leader to see if he or she is still worthy of the title.” 

I consider Matty’s choice of position, including bumping me, to be a test of me as a leader.  The reality is that she isn’t asking for physical displays of affection like hugs.  Instead, she’s asking for me to do as another pony would do.  She and her daughter Willowtrail Liberty regularly scratch each other’s toplines.  By asking me to scratch her in her favorite place, Matty is offering me entry to her herd, which I appreciate, as it’s better than being excluded.  However, by letting Matty approach how she likes and invade my space by bumping me, I’ve effectively let Matty be the leader of our herd of two, failing the leadership test in Matty’s mind.  Matty is presenting me with yet another opportunity to improve my horsemanship; it’s a good thing I enjoy being a perpetual student!

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2011

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About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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