From the very first moment in which two horse meet there begins a conversation. The most relevant and repeated subject of that conversation is the question, 'Who is the leader?' Body language is the voice of the horse- from the subtle flick of the ear to the equine equivalent of shout- a hard hoof meeting soft flesh- they speak through action, position and posture. The better horseman is one who best understands this language and through his understanding is better able to recognize and answer the softly spoken challenge before it can escalate to a dangerous proposition. A clinician once pointed out to me that one of the first ways a horse can questions a horseman's leadership is by initiating the first contact. In other worlds, in a horse's quest for world domination, who touches who first, matters.
When you meet a new horse what do you do? Almost as if by instinct, most of us reach out a hand to offer him our scent. By instinct that horse most often reaches forward to take in our scent. But in the moment that follows something will happen that to the man may seem inconsequential but to the horse may be the first clue to the answer of that age old question (who will be boss?). The horse will either reach forward and brush the mans hand with his muzzle or the man will reach forward and brush his hand to the horses muzzle. Such a small thing, right? Such a small thing can matter if it is allowed to turn in to something infinitely bigger and potentially dangerous.
I do not allow my horse to initiate contact between us. She is not allowed to pass her muzzle over my shoulder, to walk by me close enough to brush my jacket, to move in to me when I stand beside her...she is not allowed to search my pockets or touch me in any way. I believe that casual touch is a very mild, very tentative questioning of my leadership. When I fail to correct her for making that challenge I am effectively telling her that she should ask again, only more emphatically. By that same way of thinking I believe that something as minor as a gentle nudge of the nose could lead to her pushing past me on the lead to running over me in the field; that the precursor to a bite is a nip, is a nuzzle and that the stomp of a foot could turn into the cock of the hip, can turn in to a kick that ends with a ride to the hospital.
Understanding and agreeing with a concept is easy. Putting it to work in the every day handling of a horse is a different matter. I struggle to consistently recognize and correct LP's questions and challenges, to not misinterpret those questions as an expression of affection and/or playfulness.
I want to explore that delicate balance between my horse the cute and loving pet and my horse the 1100 pound flight animal on a quest for world domination.
More on this next post.
PS- That reminds me! Remember Pinky and The Brain? Come on! It was a great cartoon! I loved how in the intro, when Pinky would ask, "So Brain what are we going to do tonight?" Brain would reply, "The same thing we do every night Pinky! Try to take over the world!" Okay, well.... it looses it's dramatic effect in type... Here, check it out!...