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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

Let Your Horse Teach You How to Scratch Them

The picture above links to a video my lovely Andalusian mare, Viveza!. (If you've met her, you'll understand why her name always has an exclamation mark on the end.) As you can see, Viveza's! favourite past-time with people is teaching them exactly how and where to scratch her. She will engage this way with anyone who visits and has successfully taught countless people how to scratch a horse. If you stand in the right spot while scratching Viveza!, she will mutually groom you where your withers would be if you were a horse. If your scratching services are needed elsewhere, she will still kindly provide feedback, by grooming whatever object is close at hand. Yesterday it was the blue barrel that held my phone. If you have access to your horse during this global Covid-19 crisis, spend some time carefully learning how and where they personally like to be scratched. Many horses like a much, much firmer scratch than people think is appropriate (like Viveza! here). If my fingertips are burning, I'm breathing hard, and I feel like I'm getting a workout when I scratch her, I'm usually on the right track.

Getting Started

When we wish to touch any animal, it is critical that we first get consent. If an animal moves part or all of their body away when we approach, they are sending a message: they don't want to interact with us or be touched. Don't take this personally. Simply take it as communication about how they feel at that moment, and think about how you might change how they feel about interacting with people. When it comes to interactions with people, horses, in particular, are often ignored when it comes to giving touch or handling consent. This likely results, in part, from our long-standing history of denying the existence of emotions in animals, while using horses as objects to further our goals. If our horses aren't comfortable with being approached or touched, this is where we need to start. We can change how a horse feels about interactions with people using techniques that help the horse feel safe and give them control over their experience. One such technique involves using small tidbits of tasty food, given when the horse progressively performs a 'step in the right direction' towards the desired end goal. These tidbits can be deposited in a bowl in the horse's pen if proximity to the horse is not yet possible. Another technique involves carefully observing the horse while slowly approaching them; the moment the horse's body language indicates that they feel the slightest bit unsure about our approach we simply stop, wait for their body language to change back to a more relaxed posture, and in that exact moment we retreat further away from the horse. When using this second technique, we can begin to use food once the horse allows us close enough to do so. Used with skill, both techniques are low-stress and effective. (If you are unsure how to use these techniques, I am available for remote consults.) We should avoid techniques that instead rely on providing undesirable consequences to change behaviour. For example, pressuring a horse (waving arms or a training stick/whip) when they try to move away from us, and stopping the pressure when they show signs of no longer trying to move away. Techniques like this are popular, and they appear to work: used skillfully, the person can generally approach and touch the horse. However, even when used skillfully, this approach can cause horses to feel greater levels of fear, anxiety, or stress than the two techniques previously described. Once a horse is comfortable with us approaching them, begin by scratching them only for a few seconds and see how they respond. Look for positive signs that indicate how the horse feels about what is happening: extending the head and neck, pursing or wiggling the upper lip, taking small steps a little more forward or back so that you can hit just the right spot. Initially, some horses can be quite reserved about showing their pleasure at being touched, so be sure to look for tiny versions of the above examples. If your horse fails to show even tiny versions, change your approach: try a different location, use a different type of touch, change the pressure you are using, and so on.

If you follow your horse's feedback you may soon be rewarded by very clear indicators that what you are doing is on the right track. Taking this approach is a great way to develop the bond between you and your horse, while also honing your skills in reading horse behaviour. PS - If you don't smile at Viveza's! lips at the 1:25 mark, we can no longer be friends.



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