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Head rubbing as a sign of dominance?

From: Katrina

Dear Jessica,

Horsesense has been so useful to a beginning horse handler and rider like me, so thank you for a reliable, clear and non-patronising source of information.

Now to my question. I know that on Rec.eq, Sheila Green was part of a long discussion about horses rubbing their heads on humans. She sees it as a dominance thing and says you should discourage it.

The school horse I ride regularly was very badly handled before he came to the school (you can see lots of old whip scars on his body), and as a consequence, although he's a lovely responsive horse to ride, he is very nervous of people (and other horses). If approach him, or just put your hand out to him he will put his ears back and go to nip you. I always feed him treats when I go for lessons, so he is pleased to see me and whickers, and if he goes to nip me a firm NO! sorts him out and he looks sorry. He's never bitten me, so I think he's mostly just bluff.

Lately when we are waiting to enter the arena, or when we have finished a class he will rub his head on me, and I've been pleased that Bubbles (horrible name!) is seeking some human contact. But is this something I should let him do? My instructor doesn't worry about it, but I'd be interested in your opinion, pending the day when I might be a horse owner myself :-).

Katrina


Hi Katrina! The answer to your question is NO, you do NOT want to encourage this behaviour, and in fact you should eliminate it, but in a nice way.

You are right to want Bubbles (yes, it is a horrible name) to trust you and be relaxed around you. He has obviously has hard times with previous riders and owners, and it's good that he feels confident with you. The rubbing shows that he feels confident, and that he has accepted you as a friend and herd member, and may be trying to initiate a mutual grooming session. So for those reasons, for this horse, the IDEA is not a bad thing. BUT please read on, because the idea is less important than the practice, and it's a good idea to discourage the practice, in this horse or any horse.

NO, you ought not to allow rubbing, because rubbing against you is an unwanted invasion of your personal space, and for horses, the right to invade another horse's personal space means that the invading horse is ranked higher in the herd than the horse whose space is being invaded.

Let me repeat that, because it's a very important concept.Personal space is a key concept in herd dynamics -- the dominant individual can enter, or threaten to enter, the personal space of the others. Don't do things that will eventually convince your horse that HE is the dominant one in this "herd". He'll be happier and more secure if you make it clear that he isn't to rub against you -- if YOU initiate a scratching session, that's another matter! You have entered into HIS space to do something that he likes, and when you stop, that's that.

Rubbing may begin with a horse that is trying to relieve an itch -- but if you don't stop the practice, light rubbing can become hard rubbing, and hard rubbing can become pushing and shoving. If you don't say "Stop that, I'm the dominant one here!" what began with an itch can indeed quickly become an expression of dominance.

A horse testing to find out who is dominant is NOT an aggressive animal, it's a normal horse exhibiting normal horse behaviour. Horses don't mind being number two or number ten in the herd -- or number one. Knowing where they are ranked makes them feel secure. What they DO mind is not knowing where they stand in the rankings! That means that there is no real security, and they have to keep testing and checking to see where they rank at that moment, on that day.

There are practical considerations as well -- a horse that rubs hard can knock you off your feet -- like dog that charges you and slams into your knees. It doesn't matter if the rub means pure affection; you can still have a fall or get pushed into a gate or wall or another horse. Horses have no way of knowing that it's okay to rub against your shoulder or back if you are dressed in scruffy stable clothing, but not if you are wearing show clothes. They have no way of knowing that it's okay to rub against SOME handler or riders but not against others (small ones, scared ones, clean ones). You have to be consistent with horses, because they can't have two sets of manners -- one for the barn, and one set of "party manners" for shows and such. They simply don't know WHEN something "doesn't count."

Teach this horse -- any horse -- to wait for YOU to move into HIS space to pet him. In the long run, you'll be doing him a big favour by keeping him out of trouble with other people -- some people are frightened if a horse leans into them or rubs against them, and hit out -- others feel that as a matter of principle, they must slap or punch a horse that leans or rubs against them. You aren't the only person who will ever handle a particular horse -- by teaching him that this behaviour is NOT acceptable, you'll save him from a lot of angry reactions, including smacks and slaps that he won't understand.

You have done good things with this horse. You've gained his confidence, he feels safe with you, and that's good. Let him feel safe and secure because he trusts you -- and also because YOU are in charge. Since you can stop him with a spoken "NO", just do that when he begins to rub against you -- then when he stands quietly, YOU can reach over and give him a scratch or a cuddle, and step back when you have finished. You won't frighten him or upset him, you'll just be making him feel more secure because the rules are clear.

Jessica

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