More on To Touch or Not To Touch: The Language of Horses

[I’m writing a book about my 30 year journey with my rescue horses, what they have taught me and the healing they have brought me. This is a draft of a chapter on touch and includes the post, To Touch or Not To Touch: The Language of Horses. See link below. Let me know what you think.]

Watching a horse quiver his skin in response to the light touch of a fly should bring us pause as we consider horses’ sensitivity to touch. I often wonder how it feels to them when well-intentioned humans walk up to them and give them multiple slaps on the neck or the butt in a friendly gesture. Perhaps because horses are so big, we think touch should also be big!

The particular healing work that my herd of rescued horses do with humans requires sensitivity on my part. A sensitivity that the horses themselves have taught me. As much as possible, I work cooperatively with them in order to preserve their instinctual behaviors in mirroring what they are feeling and intuiting from a client. The parameters are that they must be safe, but definitely not robots. I don’t want my horses to be so well trained and finely tuned that they have lost the cutting edge instinctual responses so valuable in offering feedback to me and to a client. Because of this, I too must be tuned in to the feedback the individual horse or horses as a herd are giving me. As their advocate and interpreter, this chapter is some of what the horses have taught me regarding touch and their sensitivities to it.

I groom my horses untethered. They can walk away if they don’t want it. When Dollar first arrived as a rescue horse, I speculated that with his background as a schooling horse, he might be weary of being groomed, then ridden, then groomed, then ridden, then gr…. Knowing that possibility, when I pulled out my grooming tools, I told him he had a choice. He could walk away if he preferred not to be brushed. He walked away. I chuckled.

As time went by over the weeks as I groomed the other horses during their quiet nap time, he decided he wanted to be brushed. He now loves it. Sometimes, but rarely now, he walks away, but when he receives it, his head goes lower toward the ground in deep relaxation than any of my other horses. My playful goal with him is to have him become so relaxed his muzzle almost touches the ground.

Recently, I came across a youtube video of a trainer working with horses, her specialty, unruly stallions in particular. She was impressive. Sometimes in one session she had them under her thumb and user friendly for the owner. The tall and lanky agility of her own body in relationship to the horse was artistically awesome to watch, like ice skaters in a gold medal performance. I was under her spell.

One of her first goals was to get the horse comfortable with her touch so that she could touch it anywhere at any time. Why not? It looked like a no brainer. She demonstrated by rubbing her hands all over the horse as he stood like a statue. She even did the forbidden, sliding her body freely under the horse to the opposite side. I bought it for myself. For awhile.

Then my own commitment to honoring the animals in my care started to seep in, and memories of specific times when touch was an issue with a horse. While I could understand the reason for having a horse comfortable with touch, I pondered how I would approach it in my particular way of working with the horses. I thought of Amoura who is very sensitive to touch having been routinely slugged in the head with her prior owner. What should be my goal, and why, and how? Then there was Kaheka who could become pushy when he didn’t have enough intimacy with me, not enough touching. My question was how should I deal with this respectfully while being diligent about the safety of the humans interacting with them but honoring the horses dignity as sentient beings,

With those thoughts and questions tucked away somewhere in my psyche, I arrived at the ranch, got my coat and boots on and headed through the gate into the corral pasture where the horses were hanging out. The first horse that approached me was Amoura, the stand-offish horse mentioned above. She usually stood away from the herd and waited until I came up to her for a hand to muzzle touch. This time she walked right up to me and then on by me very close so I could put my hands out and run them across her whole body. Wooooh. She must have been looking over my shoulder at the video and then listened to my thoughtful questions. In a lovely synchronicity, she basically was presenting her body to me to be touched without my forcing or using some technique. Behind her was Kaheka walking up to me. We interacted and I made a promise to do some bodywork after his meal. We did. He became his mild-mannered lover self again.

Both of these horses with touch issues, one preferring less, the other wanting more, presented themselves to me to be touched as I walked through the gate. Without taking them aside to do some technique, I simply honored my own intention of touching them with awareness, and they responded. I went with their cues. They had a say in whether or not they wanted to be touched, and we worked together in harmony.

I had a mare in past years who had been raised with access to her human’s home, indoors. For whatever reason she did not like touch. As an exploration in understanding more about the touching energy felt by the horses, I put one hand up to her face about 24 inches away. She turned her head slightly away from me. I held 2 hands up palms toward her. She not only turned her head, but walked away. I wondered about the energy she was feeling from my hands. Was it chaotic? Too strong? Intrusive? Obviously uncomfortable. Was it my energy or her sensitivity? Probably both.

My head horse taught me to stand beside this mare near her head facing forward along side her. Periodically, she would lay her head on my shoulder, only briefly, then back to original position. The day I purchased her after caring for her for months, she knew. She laid her head on my arm for slightly longer than usual. One day she thanked me for honoring her and told me that more secrets would be shared with humans who honor the horses boundaries by not touching them when they don’t want it. It is mutual respect.

I noticed that one horse reacted when touched while eating. I then began to observe the other horses as they were eating and realized that they know better than we humans how to be in the moment even with the food they eat. They would take a bite of hay, sometimes lift their head up and squint their eyes as they zoned out into a place of pure pleasure as they chewed. I decided I did not want to interfere with that space they were in by bringing them out of it with a distraction from my touch. I still take pleasure in allowing them their time with their food.

This being said, I’m not suggesting legalistic rules with our animals, but I am suggesting awareness and discernment about how our horses feel about being touched. They will let us know intuitively or in some quirky way. We only need to be aware. Sometimes it feels okay to touch my horses while they are eating, other times I feel something almost like a mild electric shock that repels my touch, or just a thought that questions should I or not, or simply a knowing “no.”. Maybe it is my own energy that isn’t quite peaceful enough or in harmony. At that moment, the reason doesn’t matter. I pull back and enjoy their crunching sounds as they chew their hay.

Years ago, I did the opposite with a horse that did not want me to do bodywork around his head. I got a clear message that particular time to gently override the horses resistance and move on with the touch. Almost immediately he surrendered beautifully and loved it. But that too can be overdone because we humans can always find a way to reassure ourselves that it is for the good of the horse.

I want to interject here, that just because we can get a behavioral change with a horse does not mean the method honors the horse. On one end of the scale, we can force them to be touched by us, or on the other end, we can throw a horse to the ground and walk on his body or urinate on him or her and there will be a behavioral change, but at what cost? What has happened to the horse’s spirit? My horse from his experience of this in a former life became less impulsive and more self controlled, and therefore safer, but in his case, he would shut down and simply leave his body in order to be safe. That is another story where his experience of touch was a harsh violation.

In a more recent bodywork session with a different horse, a practitioner with bodyworking skills started to work on my most sensitive mare, Amoura mentioned above. She has a lameness issue. The work being done appeared so beautiful I became teary eyed as I watched. The mare seemed to be cooperating. However, after the session, she became angry with me, did not let me touch her, and started throwing her head violently for a week or longer when I came near. The head throwing is a programmed response she does unconsciously when stressed, a result of her past abuse. While I understand that negative side effects can manifest after a healing session, the message I got from this horse was not that. She had felt violated and had lost trust in me, her protector. She’d had no choice in the session and felt forced to surrender to a human she didn’t know very well and who had dominant energy with horses. In this case, my own trust in this respectable human being didn’t matter. I apologized to the mare and gave her time to warm up again. She is the one mentioned above who ultimately presented her body to me to be touched as she walked by very close.

The agile trainer mentioned above obviously has magical abilities with horses. I have no knowledge about her relationship to horses beyond what I observed in her video. Horses may be mesmerized and happy by her touch. Anything is possible. But for the majority of us, there is much we can learn about our touching relationship with others, in this case, horses.

Currently, my first response is to honor the message. If I am given discernment to override which is rare, I will override but for the most part, I do not. Bottomline, we humans could be far more tuned in to the wishes of not only our horses, but other animals, other humans, and children in particular. It is important not only to be tuned in, but also to honor their “no,” remembering that part of their resistance may be a result of our own energy of being wiry, amiss or feeling like a loose cannon to their senses as a highly sensitive being. There are times when they simply don’t want to be touched or they are stressed about something that has nothing to do with us. However, often it is about us and the motive and the energy from our touch. If it is stress related, we may be able to alleviate some of it such as providing more food, changing an uncomfortable saddle, or shifting a blanket or a halter that pulls at their mane, etc. We may need to be detectives as to what the message might be beyond just not wanting to be touched. That is the beauty of traveling together with these sentient beings in a cooperative journey with mutual respect. The rewards are transcendent with deeper connection and the pure pleasure of physical touch.

Addendum: Since my journey with the horses has embodied to a great degree, healing from from the impacts of sexual abuse, my next chapter will address being tuned in not only to the horses’ bodies and the messages regarding their boundaries, even more so it is crucial for us to be tuned in to our own bodies and our own boundaries regarding being touched by others, and how we treat the messages coming from within and from without. The statistics reveal that a large number of us have been sexually abused at some time in our lives whether we remember it or not. The effect on us is greater than we have realized and for some takes a whole life time to overcome. For me and for others, the healing has been expedited through working with horses.

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