Dear Jessica, first please let me thank you for this newsletter, it is my best favorite source of information about horses and riding and how to be a good person. I know you don't give advice on how to be a good person, but I can tell that you are a good person and I try to be like you.
Here is my question. My mare is five years old, I got her when she was three years old, and she is my first horse. She is a lot of fun and most of the time she does what I want her to do. I went to a clinic with a trainer last month, and he noticed that Starlite rubs her head on me. I like it because I think she is showing me her affection for me. But he said that I should never let her do this, because she is giving a sign of not respecting me, and that I should hit her when she does this and make her stop. What do you think about this? I get annoyed sometimes because she rubs very hard and just about pushes me over, and she makes me very dirty when she does this, but if it's a sign of her affection then I don't want to make her stop. Please tell me what you think and also what I should do and if the trainer was right. I want to be my mare's friend but I understand that she shouldn't be the boss of me. Sally
You're right on both points: you should be your mare's friend, and she should not be the boss of you. ;-)
I am sure that your mare likes you, and I certainly don't think that you should hit her. But there are other ways of discouraging her from rubbing - a sharp "No", a buzzer sound, pushing her head away - and I have to say that I tend to agree with the trainer's basic premise. It's generally better not to let your horse rub its head on you. The rubbing isn't really a sign of affection. If you'll watch horses that know one another well and are regularly turned out together in a "herd", you'll find that horses do rub their heads on one another; if you continue to observe them, you'll notice that it's always the superior horse that rubs its head on the subordinate horse, never the other way around. This isn't a good precedent for you to set with your horse. In that relationship, it's you who must be the dominant one - not obnoxious or nasty or bullying, but a good, trustworthy, clear leader that your horse can feel comfortable and secure following.
Letting a horse rub on you can be dangerous to you - if you're even slightly off-balance, you can get knocked over. And it can be dangerous to the horse, too. Other people are less likely to understand and accept a horse rubbing against them, and if your horse does this to someone, that someone may hit her, either out of fright or to "teach her manners". Farriers, for instance, are not generally amused by horses that rub on them. If your horse is in the habit of reaching around and rubbing her head against the nearest human, she'll get in trouble at some point when someone smacks her - and she'll be upset AND confused, because she'll have no idea why she got smacked. Avoid the whole problem by teaching her good ground manners - in the long run, you'll both be better off.
Itching can be a legitimate reason for a horse wanting to rub on something, but that something shouldn't be you. That doesn't mean that you can't help out your itchy horse, though. If you've just come in from a long, hot ride and your horse is sweaty under the bridle, rubbing is just a way to scratch her itchy head. Teach her to wait until you can rub her head with a damp towel or rub-rag to remove the sweat; if she's dry, teach her to wait for you to approach HER with a nice stiff-bristled scratchy brush. You can also nail a brush to the wall of her stall or to a strong post in her paddock or field, so that she can rub against it when she likes. She's not completely without resources herself - watch that herd of horses again, and you'll see that subordinate horses rub their itchy heads against trees, posts, or their own knees. ;-)
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