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Initiating a cuddle session

From: Alyssa

I love your newsletter, and I found the archives to prove you as very intelligent and a real horseperson! Best of all, you communicate so clearly and explain things thoroughly.

I have a simple question to submit. In one of your articles, you mentioned that you shouldn't let a horse approach you and hang his head on you or rub his head on you. However, you did mention that the owner could "initiate a cuddle session, which is very different." Does that mean that the horse should patiently wait and perhaps nuzzle while the owner hugs and pets the horse, or is it okay if the horse hangs his head on you shoulder/rubs his head on you during this time? To clarify, I just want to know if it's acceptable for a horse to rub it's head on you if YOU initiated it, or if this should NEVER be allowed.

-Thank you, Alyssa


Hi Alyssa! If the only time the horse rubs its head on you is when YOU have initiated the contact and invited the horse to rub its head on you, this will be understood by the horse to be a pleasant matter of mutual grooming, and it's something that you can both enjoy. But the key here is that YOU must be the one to initiate the session; YOU must be the one to say "Okay, right NOW you can rub your head on me". If the horse feels free to walk up to you and begin rubbing its head on you any old time at all, that's an entirely different situation. In the latter case, it's not about mutual grooming, it's about which one of you is dominant ("I am!" says the horse).

If you have a dog at home, you're probably already accustomed to working out similar arrangements: The dog is not allowed to jump up on people, or to jump up on the furniture uninvited, but if YOU say "Here, boy" and pat the couch cushion next to you, THEN the dog is welcome to jump up and sit or lie on the couch and be petted. Dogs are very quick to understand the difference, and most dogs, being intelligent animals, will soon learn to get on the couch with you ONLY when you invite them to do so. (They may, however, spend an inordinate amount of time standing in front of the couch staring at you pleadingly and sending you mental messages to invite them up.) Horses, like dogs, are intelligent animals, and your horse can easily learn that although you will happily rub, pat, and scratch his head, YOU must be the one to initiate the action, and YOU will enter HIS space to do these things - he isn't allowed to crowd into your space, and he isn't allowed to begin rubbing his head on YOU.

Not only is this a good practice in terms of maintaining a relationship based on respect, it's also a very good way to ensure your horse's comfort around other people. Think about what happens when permissive dog-owners allow their dogs to jump up on them and their neighbours, guests, etc. When you visit their house and the dog leaps up on you, you have only two options, and neither one is really very good. Meek guests will put up with the behaviour and resolve not to visit that person's home again. Less meek guests who have dogs of their own will probably stamp on the dog's toes or knee it in the chest or do some other bit of remedial dog-training that they shouldn't have to do, and that wouldn't have been necessary if the owner had trained the dog properly in the first place. And less meek guests who DON'T have dogs of their own will probably start yelling "Get off me!" and slapping the dog. The dog probably won't be injured, but he could be - and he will definitely be confused and possibly upset. This kind of owner permissiveness makes life hard for a dog, because it's effectively hearing one thing from its owner ("Jumping on people is a fine thing to do, feel free to do it whenever you like" and something entirely different from everyone else ("Get down! Don't jump on me! Bad dog! Go away!") which is confusing. It's also a lose-lose-lose situation for the owner. Not only is he neglecting his animal's training AND effectively teaching his dog that the dog, not the human, is the dominant member of the partnership, but by failing to do his job, the owner is also annoying his friends (and vistors, and total strangers) and putting his dog at risk for reactions and punishments that are more severe than any discipline that would have been used in training. Similarly, there are horse-owners who think that it is "cute" when their horses push into their space and rub their heads against them, or nip at their pockets for treats. By permitting these behaviours, they teach their horses that the behaviours are perfectly acceptable, and then when the horses attempt to do the same thing with other people, it gets an unpleasant surprise, because the other people become frightened, or angry, or both, and usually react by yelling at the horse and whacking it, often in the head! Again, the owner's failure to do his job properly not only frightens and annoys other people, but has bad repercussions for the animal.

If you really, truly think that it's cute and sweet for your horse to come over and rub his head on you, there IS a way for you to allow your horse to do this without alienating your friends or putting your horse at risk for punishments. Using cflicker training or any other clear system of communication, you can teach your horse a clear, unmistakable signal that has ONE specific meaning: "OKAY, RIGHT NOW YOU CAN RUB YOUR HEAD ON ME". Teach your horse that he can come to you and rub his head on you - ONLY when you've given him that specific signal. That way, your horse won't frighten or annoy or anger anyone, or get into trouble with anyone, as he will rub his head only on people who have actually asked him to do it.

Jessica

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