I was supposed to ride today. Chase had yesterday off, as I was busy with work, so I was looking forward a ride in the cool morning breeze. But it was not to be, today. Instead, I spent some time combing out his bountiful mane and pondered the many recent small signs that our relationship has truly changed.
I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather for a few days, and it caught up to me this morning. By the time I’d set up the watering out back I was wiped out. I made up my mind to just let the boys out back and skip the riding. I rounded the corner to their stalls and was greeted by Chase’s focused gaze. He still had hay to munch, so this wasn’t about food. This was his “come see me!” face. I grabbed his halter and he inserted face. So, we would do something – I just didn’t know what.
Once in the grooming area Chase began nibbling on the hay net I always have there. I spent a moment leaning against his side, my arm over his back and my cheek pressed into his barrel. Ever since I was a child this was my favorite thing – to lean against my horse listening to them rhythmically munch. I could hear Chase’s heartbeat, breathing, and stomach noises mingling into a soothing symphony. It briefly registered just how relaxed he was with me leaning on him. Past attempts had often caused shifting as he tried to figure out just what I was doing or expected.
I stepped back and pondered what I was up to, but the answer was “not much!” My eyes landed on his rather corded full mane and I decided to give it a little combing. As I began to pull the tendrils apart Chase continued his peaceful munching. I was about one third up his neck when it suddenly occurred to me that he had not once shifted or fidgeted. From the very first time I combed his mane it has been something he barely tolerated. Even with hay in front of him this activity usually resulted in him backing to the end of the rope and standing with an expression of annoyance on his face. At first I’d only been able to comb a few inches out before he would start to fidget. I’ve never been able to get past halfway before we were both just done with the process. Yet today he was relaxed. He once turned to look at me, chewing contentedly on his current mouthful, then turning his attention back to the hay.
As I continued to untangle his locks I began to ponder why this change. What was amazing about this transformation is that it has been months since I actually tried combing his mane. This was not a case of practiced conditioning. My only conclusion can be a change in our relationship – mainly increased trust. Where his past aspect had been that of skepticism, “what are these humans doing to me now?”, today it was simply accepted as “just something mom does.” This led me to thinking of other recent things that have struck me as signs of a different relationship.
- I was filling waters one evening when Chase left his hay and came over to hang his head over the wall. I reflexively put my hand up to his forehead – something that in the beginning would have caused him to leave. Instead, he lowered his head and I rubbed the base of his forelock. I thought of the first time I tried to touch his face and he pulled away. I’ve never pushed the issue, just occasionally touched his face to measure his reaction. As we stood there on this evening he would softly shift his head to a new spot for me to rub – above his eyes, base of his ears, over to the other side. This went on until I had to leave to turn the water off, He watched me walk away before returning to his hay.
- At the end of each ride, now, Chase will offer his face for me to remove the bridle. Once it is removed, he now waits for me to position my hands so he can get a good face rub. He’s gone from “Don’t touch my face!” to tolerating it, to now actually moving into my hands and rubbing his face vigorously wherever it itches. I recently read a list of five signs that your horse likes you, and being willing to rub their face on you was one of those signs.
I continued combing out his mane, now past the halfway point and he’s still relaxed. As I reach the last section, behind his ears, he quietly lifts his head from the hay net. I waited for the signs of annoyance, but they never came. He stood quietly, still relaxed, while I combed out the last several inches. I give his neck a rub and he turns to look at me. On a whim I decide to try combing his forelock – previously always a no-go. He quietly stands with his head lowered so I can easily reach. I smiled as I finished and gave his forehead a light rub. He made eye contact before going back to the hay net.
When you are developing a relationship with a horse, especially one who has a history of rough handling by humans, it pays to notice the small signs of how it is evolving. Changes in demeanor, positive and negative, are always key. Giving you permission to approach and to touch personal areas, especially the face, is always a sign of trust (the key being “permission” rather than being worn down). When you give your horse a voice you don’t always get the answers you hope for, but recognizing and cherishing those little signs makes the journey beautiful!
Be good to your horses!