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The fundamental purpose of tactile stimulation is to help the horse understand human touch and interpret its meaning. This requires us to consider how we are touching and the intent of our touch. We want to set up, prepare and assist the horse in understanding that touch is soothing and not to be feared. This is critical as your horse will have a wide variety of experiences with touch, whether it is picking his feet up for you or the farrier, getting blood drawn or receiving a shot, having his sheath cleaned, and communicating to your horse at liberty, with halter and lead, and under saddle.
Consider how you touch. Is it hesitant, rough, like a bear hug, tickly? Consider why you are touching. Are you attempting to force your idea on the horse, are you trying to get what you want without considering the horse’s readiness, are you trying to build a rapport? Be observant as you touch. Is the eye soft, does the horse brace or move away, or is there a touch that seems particularly pleasing to the horse.
Through presenting touch to the horse and observing his reaction, you will continually gain understanding of the touch language of the horse and build the horse’s confidence that you know how to communicate consistently in that language. If we are uptight or hurried, your touch will telegraph that to the horse. He will not know that your mind is still working out that problem at home or the office. All the horse knows is that the relationship is between you and him in that moment and your touch is sending a message of tension and anxiety and he can only respond accordingly based on what you are presenting. So before you begin introducing tactile stimulation to your horse consider your own frame of mind and how you are going to present the new stimulus to your horse.
You can begin your session in a round pen or area that is large enough for your horse to leave when he feel he needs to, this is especially important with a young horse. Begin by creating an environment in which you can stand near enough to him and allow him to move off if he has to. It is his choice to leave and let him know that it is OK. Honor him by allowing him to leave when he has to. Rather than making it uncomfortable for the horse to leave, I prefer to let them go and then draw the horse back to me. To many times we make it about us and it isn’t about us. Offer the opportunity and let the horse choose to come back to you.
Once the horse is comfortable in your presence, you can begin to present the tactile stimulation. Before you begin, consider how the mom teaches her young about appropriate touch. She will nuzzle, lick, nudge her young. If the colt is brash or abrasive she may bite or kick to show her displeasure with his touch.
Whether you intend to introduce your hand, a brush or lariat consider how you are going to present this to the horse. For example, present your hand and withdraw it before the horse becomes concerned. How many seconds was it before the horse became concerned. Wait until the horse is comfortable and present it again and this time remove the stimulus while the horse is still at ease. Evaluate every moment, watch what manifests and then try again.
In addition, consider where you are touching the horse. It is best to begin at the shoulder rather than the face or the teats or other sensitive area. Once the horse is comfortable with your touching his shoulder, slowly move to another area briefly and then move back to the area of comfort. These steps are critical in building trust as the horse is vulnerable and is allowing you to have this intimacy. Consider how you touch. Touch with your fingers closed and flat.
When you proceed to introducing a lariat or brush or carrot stick, consider each of these as an extension of your hand. Remember that you are bringing something new into the relationship. Present the item to the horse in an open way so he can smell it, as you did your hand. Keep in mind that you are introducing a foreign object to the horse, something that the horse has no grasp of. As you did with introducing your hand, remove the object and offer a release. After the horse is comfortable with the object you may rub it on his shoulder. If the horse feels the need to move off, allow him to do so and watch for his eye to soften, a sigh, a lowering of the head, any sign that the horse has relaxed.