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Horsemen and petting horses on face

From: Lorraine

Dear Jessica, I pray that you will print this even though it's not exactly a question, more of a discussion of horsemanship and a sort of tribute. My grandfather died last week and I wanted to tell you how much you and HORSE-SENSE meant to him in the last year of his life. He was a lifelong dedicated horseman - a real one - and was bedridden for almost two and a half years before he died. We got him a computer when he first moved in with us (that was right after he became bedridden) and he would look up things about horses once in a while, but he didn't really get "into" the computer at all until he discovered you and HORSE-SENSE and then there was just no stopping him. He went from sad and barely talking to us, to animated and always with something to discuss. He loved you and the way you write and teach and the way you understand horses and people.

One of the last HORSE-SENSE articles he discussed with me was about patting horses on the forehead (I forget what the article subject was, but it was fairly recent). He had always taught his kids and grandkids to approach horses from the shoulder and stroke them firmly on the neck - no slapping and no tickling, just exactly what you recommend. And he always told us that people who walk up to horses and try to pat them on their foreheads are not people who understand horses at all, because if a horse is real polite or "broke to death" as the cowboys say, it will put up with that, but it won't ever enjoy it. Some of his friends - not nearly as good horsemen as he was, in my opinion - would make a point of patting a horse on the forehead to show off how well-trained their horses were because the horses would stand still and not try to get away. But it was real obvious that the horses didn't care for it.

Granddad used to say that once you got to be good friends with a horse, you could brush it on the forehead slowly with a stiff brush, always from the middle of the forehead up and outward, with the lie of the hair, and you could scratch it on the bones over the eyes, and it would enjoy that, and if it was relaxed it could enjoy a rub or a scratch on the forehead, but he didn't want to see any of us ever going "PAT PAT PAT between the horse's eyes or PAT PAT PAT on a horse's nose, because that wasn't to make the horse feel good, it was just for show. He said if you knew the horse, you wouldn't do that, because you'd know what the horse really liked, and if you didn't know the horse, it was just rude!

We watched a big "trainer" do the PAT PAT PAT thing on a television "documentary" one evening, a few years ago when Granddad was still walking and working with horses, and he just shook his head and said "You can fool a lot of people, but you can't fool a horse, that guy's a phony and I can promise you that horse isn't fooled! He doesn't care what that horse likes, that's all for the cameras!" I'm sure you know the "trainer" I mean. Well, a couple years later what did we all find out but Granddad was right and that guy WAS a total phony. Anyway I don't want to discuss that, it was just to point out that my Granddad was a very good judge of people, and he was always totally impressed with you as a horseman (or do you prefer horsewoman?). He liked the way you always put the horse first and say what you mean, but nicely so that you don't put people down. It's a real gift you have. Thank you for being the kind of person, like my Granddad, who really understands and cares for horses. A lot of people think "Pat a horse's head, brush it, scratch it, what's the difference?" but you and my Granddad and the horses know that there's a huge difference. I mostly wanted to thank you for making the last year of my Granddad's life so enjoyable and interesting. He was a great, great man and I miss him very much. We all do. I want to spend my life living up to his horsemanship standards and then teach my kids to do the same, and I hope that you and HORSE-SENSE will be there for us! God Bless You. Lorraine (my first letter to HORSE-SENSE, in memory of Granddad Charlie)

Hi Loraine! Your Granddad sounds like a wonderful guy, I wish I could have known him. You're right, a lot of people don't understand the difference between going PAT PAT PAT on a horse's forehead, which is something no horse enjoys, but that many horses will tolerate or can be trained to tolerate, and gently stroking or brushing or scratching the areas over the eyes and around the base of the ears. There's a spot over the eye - your Granddad probably knew about it - where gentle rubbing or scratching will just about put a horse to sleep.

There is a forehead acupressure point, but if that's the point of handling the horse's head, then the protocol would be light pressure and/or small circular movements, not patting. Similarly, some veterinarians' assistants are taught to perform a slow, rhythmic tapping (with the tips of the fingers - again, NOT a flat-hand percussive patting) in this area to help keep a horse distracted and standing quietly during examinations and minor procedures.

It's clear that your Granddad was a horseman. There is an enormous difference between walking up to a horse and PATTING it on the forehead, and caressing a horse on the head or elsewhere. There are several warning signals that scream "I don't know anything about horses", and walking up to an unfamiliar horse and patting it on the forehead is one of them. (Other warning signs: offering treats held tightly with the fingers, making loud noises and violent gestures, hitting the horse in the head for sniffing at a hand or arm.) The PAT PAT PAT on the forehead as a "reward" for the horse is the equivalent of the behaviour you see when an inconsiderate rider completes a round and screams "GOOD BOY!!!" whilst whacking the horse on the neck hard enough to raise dust. As your Granddad said, "It's all for the cameras" - nothing to do with the horse, all for the benefit of the people the rider imagines are watching and admiring him or her. Meanwhile, the real riders are completing their rounds and expressing their appreciation to their horses in ways that the horses understand and enjoy - praising them quietly, whilst stroking their necks or scratching their withers on the way out of the arena. Yes, horses can and do learn to tolerate silly human behaviours - some of them vastly more painful than the PAT PAT PAT, which is merely disconcerting and/or annoying - without flinching, but people like you and your Granddad, who actually care about the horses and want to handle them in a way that will feel good to the horse, will always be the humans that horses appreciate most.

I like your Granddad's use of the word "rude" - it's true. Walking straight up to a horse you don't know and patting it on the forehead is a real test of the horse's tolerance - it's much kinder and better to use the side approach and a long, slow stroke on the horse's neck instead. That's much more pleasant and natural for the horse, doesn't run the risk of frightening the horse, and is just generally an infinitely more polite way to introduce yourself to a horse. Your Grandad was right. A polite approach is always preferable even when you know a horse well (why should we save our best manners for strangers?), and it's essential when you don't know the horse or its level of tolerance for silly human behaviours. Using the side approach and a long slow stroke on the neck is the equivalent of a stranger giving you a polite handshake, whilst the sudden frontal approach and the PAT PAT PAT is the equivalent of a stranger running up to you, grabbing you, and giving you a loud kiss on the cheek.

Most of it comes down to understanding what's appropriate; some of it has to do with caring about the horse's (or human's) feelings. I'm sure you've seen similar behaviours in othe areas of life - some people are simply wiser and more observant than others. Look at the people who see a baby or small child and feel compelled to run up and pinch its cheeks while exclaiming loudly "OH YOU ARE JUST SO CUTE!". Some children will put up with this without flinching or crying or jumping back, some won't, but even for the quiet ones, it's not an enjoyable experience. (Didn't everyone have at least ONE relative who went in for cheek-pinching....?) Some people, like your Granddad, have more knowledge, more experience, and more awareness - and care more about the feelings of the children and horses. The cheek-pinchers and patters are often very good, well-meaning people, by the way - they're often genuinely fond of children and horses, they just lack a real understanding of children and horses. With the patters, you also need to keep in mind that many people "learned about horses" from watching television and Western movies - and so really can't understand why anyone would object to the things that seem so familiar and obvious to them. Patting horses on the forehead isn't nearly as bad as jerking the reins so that the horse's mouth opens wide at every stop and during every turn, and it isn't nearly as bad as leaping onto the horse's back, landing hard, and kicking it into a gallop. But those are all very familiar movie images, most people have seen them hundreds or even thousands of times, and when you've seen something so often, you accept it as "normal" or "right" when it's actually only familiar.

Your Granddad's horses probably liked him very much - as you obviously did! You were lucky to be taught by someone like that, and I'll bet that he enjoyed teaching you. He certainly must have been pleased with how well you learned.

I'm very happy to know how much he enjoyed HORSE-SENSE. Thank you for telling me. It means a lot.


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