Pleasant touch triggers well-being. We all know this from our own experience. When a loved person touches us, we enjoy the feeling of security, relaxation and well-being. The feel-good hormone oxytocin is released. The situation is quite different when we meet people we dislike or who are alien to us. Automatically, we increase the individual distance, and avoid closeness or even physical contact. Especially, we avoid being touched in personal zones such as the face. This phenomenon can also be applied to horses. Horsepeople always knew it, and finally, there is scientific proof that animals have feelings, are intelligent and have fantastic social skills. In coexistence with our four-legged friend the social component is of huge importance. Sadly, communication between twolegged and fourlegged friends is not always so easy. Humans like to touch. With the help of touches, we would like to show our affection and love. Often, that is not the message recognized by the horse. Instead of enjoying, the horse pulls back, gets angry, freezes or has learned to tolerate it at best. We are rarely rewarded with a horse completely surrendering to the touch, closes its eyes, grumbles or even grooms us back.
I experience the same with our little puppy. It’s really hard to resist Nemo’s sweetness. The normal reaction of most humans is bending forward and trying to caress him. He is not appreciating it. He considers it scary and threatening if an unknown human is coming so close from above. Of course, prey animals would do the same. Seen from his perspective, his behavior is very healthy. Therefore, he hides behind my legs. I do offer him protection and do not force him to be touched by strangers. Just as I do not want to be touched by any random person I meet on the street, I also grant this right to my dog and my horses. I wish people would ask more often for the animal’s permission before touching. It would not only be polite, but reduce the risk of accidents, too.
Usually, horses are very polite. Among each other, they will maintain a large distance. How big exactly depends on the individual need for distance of the individual animal. But one thing is obvious: a polite horse will never penetrate the space of another horse (if it has the choice and is not limited by mini-paddocks or other space constraints). Only very close horse friends are invited into this personal space.
I try to teach myself good habits when dealing with animals. Before I am getting closer or even try to touch, I greet my four-legged students from a distance and invite them into my space. For myself, I developed a ritual. My first step is to not stare directly and avoid eye contact with the horse in question. As my dog does it, I never approach frontally, but usually with a semicircle at the level of neck or shoulder. With distance, I ask the horse to take the first step towards me. Should the four-legged step away instead, I mirror the movement, actively look away and repeat the invitation. So far, no horse has responded with disinterest. Next, I stretch out my hand and offer physical contact. If my counterpart is still relaxed, curious and open, I offer light touch in the neck region. If that is not the case, I just repeat my invitation until I get a commitment. The area around the neck is for a horse less “dangerous” and not as private as e.g. head or nostrils. I need the horse be open and positive towards me. Only then I have a good chance that it wants to work with me and enjoys my company and touch. By the way, I never touch my own horses either until they are initiating contact. Even after years of being together, mutual respect is just as important as on the first meeting. After all, I do not like it when my horse bumps into me or pushes me to ask for the cookies to come out.
In addition to the small, respectful courtesies, it is beneficial for any relationship to understand how the other party would like to be touched and what it perceives as pleasant. The “how” is at least as important as the “where”. How much, how little pressure? Gentle, strong, more or less pressure, faster or slower?
Every horse is individual, as is every human being. If we can read the subtle signals of well-being, we know what move is worth repeating. It is quite beneficial to the relationship to repeat things that my horse considers fantastic 😉 If we focus on reading the response, it’s amazing how quickly the perception of small signals integrates into our everyday lives and the relationship is sustainable improved.
Less is more
Practice shows that the amount of pressure used has a significant influence on the response of the horse. The lighter the touch, the better it is usually received by our four-legged friend. Within cranio-sacral therapy, the rule is to never use more than 4 grams of pressure. Otherwise, the tissue will hold against instead of softening. The lighter, the deeper we get. When fingertips touch the horse, they should not whiten. It takes a bit of patience to become so gentle with your touch.
Posterior fascia chain
It is wonderful to share other activities than just riding with your horse, especially in the upcoming bad weather season. During the last year, I often took the camera out and filmed some small feel-good techniques for you to try at home. A great technique to start with is to scrape the posterior fascia chain. This is the fasciae chain, which stretches about 2 fingers below the top line from the horse’s neck to the horse’s hind hoof. Particularly the neck, the first two cervical vertebrae, the scapula (both cranial and caudal end), the area of the lumbar spine, the hip bone, at the level of knee and hook are “hot spots” and create particularly strong reactions.
A great drawing of the fascia chains can be found online here, taken from the book by Walter & Brigitte Salomon, published by Thieme Verlag. The attentive viewer also notices in this picture that the majority of the fascial chains have a very similarity to the meridian curves known from TCM. No matter from which perspective we look at it: is it the bladder meridian (well, the bladder meridian has a few more details if we take it seriously 😊 ) that is used for diagnostics in TCM or even by many veterinarians, is it the Masterson Method, who integrates this strategy as an integral part of his bodywork, or is it a part of energetic work? It is a fantastic opportunity to get to know your own horse mindfully and to recognize and interpret small, subtle signals.
- Lowering of the head- Closed eyes / lower eyelids
- Vibration in the lower or upper lip
- Change in the breathing rhythm
- Pulsing in the tissue on which the fingers lie
- Gentle chewing
- Shaking the head
- Scratching itself, or sometimes people 😉
- shaking the whole body
- Gentle tail beating
- heavy breathing- blowing off air or even to defecate
- “Balancing”, shifting weight from one leg to the other, several times in a row
- extending the hindlimb
- bulging of the whole horse, or even stretching of the whole horse
Whatever the relaxation signal your horse gives you – breathe out and let your fingers lie on this very spot until the reaction is over.
Enjoy the Journey!