Last week I spent time with two mustangs that are not yet comfortable being handled or haltered. I’m fascinated by the puzzle of how you entice a wild horse to want to be in your presence, and then to actually enjoy being touched. If you think about it, how alien must it be to allow an entirely different species to touch you from head to toe? I can almost feel in my own body as I remember standing with these horses, the buzz of electric energy that repels me as surely as if we were opposing sides of a magnet trying to come together.
Given my recent experiences, I understand the excitement of being allowed our first touch with these wild horses. What a sign of trust, right? It’s like the first touch becomes the Holy Grail in those early days with a newly adopted mustang. We largely get to bypass that step with domestic horses by getting our hands on newborn foals while they are still too wobbly to escape. I wonder how the horses feel about all this touching? With every fiber of their being, both of the horses I spent time with last week, let me know that they were not okay with me touching them.
I think it’s important to honor that.
We don’t need touch to communicate. Every time I interact with a horse it’s a dance. We communicate through movement, shared energy, intention. The language we discover as we dance around each other without touching is incredibly important. Horses, especially wild born horses, notice (and try to interpret and act on) every single thing we do. Our facial expression, the position of our feet, arms, hands, our body position relative to them, our gestures, posture, pace, energetic tone, and emotions. All of it carries meaning to them. Horses that have been domesticated for a while simply learn to tune most of what we do out as meaningless noise, which I honestly find quite sad.
I’m shifting my weight back in response to him looking away. He has one foot out the door. In the next instant he’s coming my way and I shift forward again to meet him. He responds to me and I to him from moment to moment.
I wrote about the little bay mare a while back. She’s come a long way since my last visit in terms of her acceptance of human presence. What I noticed though is that she was not engaged with me when I entered her pen. It took a little time to get her moving with me, something I had to do tactfully because her pen is so small. Kind of like dancing Tango on a tabletop! The movements have to be quite small and refined but we can still move together.
Sometimes it feels like we get so excited about touch that that becomes the priority. But really, if you think about it, most of what we want to do with our horses centers around moving together. We don’t need to halter first and move second. A halter is not required to guide a horse, in fact, in an ideal world, the halter and lead are only there to clarify or provide support. Hopefully our horses follow us because they want to, not because they have to.
Working in that tiny space with the bay mare was fascinating. I could get within millimeters of her side and make the smallest intention to move, wait, and she would shift her weight with me and then walk with me so very close but not touching her. All I had to do was take my time and let her think and feel through what I was asking and she was right there, fully engaged, walking with me at her side, beginning to follow my lead. We’re feeling each other out, developing a shared language.
If my shirt sleeve even barely touched her side she’d scoot away. If I reached towards her with the intention of touching her she would shrink away, but not leave. If I backed off and stopped trying to touch her she was perfectly happy to hang with me. By the end of the session she was offering to sniff me and she even let me lean in to share a breath. I don’t think that sweet moment of intimacy could have happened had I not listened and just tried touching her anyway.
The gelding I interacted with was a similar dance, but his pen was quite large so we had room to really move in relation to one another. He is so alert, notices absolutely everything. He wants to figure me out but he’s so uncomfortable about being in proximity to humans. The halter and lead were put on him when he was adopted from the BLM. We have no idea how long it’s been on him and the desire to get it off is strong. I had to let go of any agenda around that and just take time to encourage this guy that I actually hear him when he speaks.
Here’s a series of screen shots and photos from our hour together.
As you can see, in the beginning he needed a lot of space between us to feel comfortable. It didn’t take long for him to realize I was responding to him as he responded to me. Moving around him I was able to make notes about the things I did that seemed meaningful to him. I discovered movements and gestures that reliably elicited the same response from him. We ended up with the beginnings of a shared vocabulary.
When a horse feels confident that we are listening. When our communication is reliable and we are predictable it builds their confidence in us. With this guy my movement had to be absolutely precise. My priority for him was to work on shrinking his bubble so that he could be comfortable closer to me. And then when he was closer, to feel comfortable just hanging out in that proximity.
Every single thing you do means something to a horse. Wild horses make it obvious by reacting to every nuance in a big way, but our domestic horses are just as communicative if we learn to read the subtle meaning behind the twitch of an ear and the shifting of weight. We owe it to our horses to keep refining our own body language and body awareness so we can communicate clearly and effectively.
Touch that’s meaningful will come with both of these horses but only when they initiate it. Only when they give permission. When they decide they are ready to be touched they’ll be all in. No tricks, no bribes, no shutting down and tolerating us. Remember, touch amplifies everything. Touch is intimate. Trust must come before touch. And horses trust people when we listen, are predictable, and communicate clearly. We develop that language through sharing movement.