Thursday, April 28, 2011

You scratch my back.....

Ziggy and Ceasar scratching each other's backs

This is a good time of year to gain lots of brownie points with your horse. Horses are shedding their winter coats, and the combination of hotter sun and loosening hair makes for some itchy equines. There I am armed with shedding blades, brushes and nimble fingers. But the most important tool in my toolbox is time.

Scratching a horse from head to toe to relieve the seasons changes can take hours combined over days and weeks. Some may wonder if it’s worth it. Wouldn’t your time in the sunny spring be better spent riding or playing with your horse? The reality is that the hair will come off eventually by itself whether we put the effort in or not. But its really not just about the hair, or the itching.

Mutual grooming is a natural part of herd behavior to horses. Two horses will stand next to each other, nibbling on each other’s shoulder, neck, withers, back or flank. They do this mutually, and seem to know just where it is best to scratch. Horses show their appreciation and enjoyment of a good scratch by sticking out their upper lip, looking for a place to return the favor. My body, not being quite as long as a horse’s often lacks the proper location for a mutual groom. But I do my best to oblige, and often get a good shoulder scratch in return. 
Grooming can become a herd event. Ziggy and Ceasar waiting for their turn.
This behavior may seem like an automatic response to a nervous stimuli, but keep in mind that horses have big teeth, and people have thin skin, and too much instinct does not always end well.  When horses are mutually grooming each other they clearly are aware of each other’s preferences and can communicate this and work with one another. When horses and humans are mutually grooming each other, the same concept applies. Riley has a very big mouth, and a strong desire to use her teeth, being a horse with thick skin herself. However, when she goes to scratch me, and I ask her to be gentle with me, she does.

Mutual grooming is one important way that horses build bonds with one another. It strengthens their friendship and trust, and it proves to the pair that they are welcoming each other into their personal space (horses have a lot of ideas about personal space). The areas they scratch are areas that they cannot reach themselves. How good does it feel to have a good friend scratch your back, when you can’t get to it? But would you let a stranger do it, no matter how itchy you were? I recall the first time that Lucy actually was able to express her enjoyment of a scratch by me, after we had built a relationship and trust. Now she comes over and plants the part of herself that she wants scratched in front of me.

As humans, though our bodies aren’t quite as long, we do have an advantage over their equine pasture mates. Belly scratching.
Bucky enjoying a good belly scratch

In herds, horses often form pair bonds. This is two horses who become particularly attached, even though the herd may be much larger. Springtime hormones aside, it is these pairs that are typically seen grooming one another. Sometimes it is the little things in a relationship that make up the big things. Sometimes there is more value in just being there to scratch someone’s back, than in all the fancy maneuvers, cookies, presents or words you can say. Taking the time to do nothing but help your friend with an itch can mean the difference between a withholding relationship and an unselfish openness.
Pair bond Lucy and Buddy. Taken seconds before Lucy decided that I was a better scratcher than Buddy :)

Today’s a good day to go "scratch" your horse, husband, kid, friend or dog, and let them know that there is nowhere else in the world you would rather be than here with them in this moment.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Lessons Learned

A gardener was at a well drawing water for his garden. His little dog was jumping and barking on the side of the well and lost his balance and fell in. The man immediately took off his clothes and jumped in the well to rescue his dog. Just as he was bringing the slippery and struggling animal to the top, the ungrateful wretch bit his hand. “Why you little monster!” the gardener exclaimed, “If that is your idea of gratitude to a master who feeds you and treats you kindly,then pull yourself out of the well!” And with that, he dropped him back into the well. Moral of the story: Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

A milkmaid was on her way to market, carrying a pail of milk on her head. As she walked along, she began to think of what she would do with the money that she would receive for the milk. “I will buy some hens from a neighbor, and the hens will lay eggs that I will sell. With the egg money, I will buy myself a new dress. It will be a green dress, because green is best for my complexion. And in this lovely green gown, I will go to the fair. All the young men will strive to have me for a partner, and I will pretend I do not see them. And when they become too insistent I will disdainfully toss my this.” As the milkmaid spoke, she tossed her head back and down came the pail of milk, spilling all over the ground. Moral of the story: Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

As children, we are taught that lessons get learned this way. In fact, it would be nice if when life was about to teach us a lesson, that someone would simply hand us a card with a clever little morality statement that would just clear things up for us. However, my lesson this week came to me in a much different way than I expected.

First the story: I went out to play with Lucy last week on a lovely evening after work. I was annoyed at the little bit of time I had been able to spend with her lately, so I made sure I was going to enjoy myself that day. I began to do some driving from behind,much like we would do any other day. I could tell that Lucy was a bit disconnected from me, not her usual self. However, I continued with the game, and as her responses became less willing, my requests became more insistent. I did not realize what was going on until I got hit hard with a hind hoof in the gut.

Moral of the story: Well, no one handed me a card with a clever quip, so I had to work to figure out the lesson for myself. First I had to figure out what happened, then figure out what it meant. However, my brain went more quickly to creating ideas about what it meant first. How could she do this? Is our relationship in shambles? I must be an idiot.....I expected that the moral of this story would be a negative one. After all, they usually are. I expected that when I told this story to people that they would immediately criticize my horsemanship. I expected that whoever handed me the card with the morality quip would cause me to feel defeated,frustrated, foolish and powerless. But I soon realized that I held the card,and that I got to say.

As I thought about about this incident and talked to friends, I was clearly aware of the mistakes I made in the situation. I compared my horsemanship of that moment to all the rest of the moments that Lucy and I have had together. I became clearly aware that the mistake I made was simply in that moment, and did not mean anything about anything else. This recognition opened a whole new door to growth. This simple statement allowed me to take responsibility for what I did in that moment, making it much easier to resolve than if I had made it more complicated, and allowed me to continue to feel good about where Lucy and I were regardless of said incident.

I quickly knew that I also needed to let it go. Horses live in the moment, and I knew that Lucy had already given it up. I needed to allow this incident to somehow teach me a lesson, not in fear, but in power. I went back to play with Lucy, making sure that I was more respectful of her feelings, but continuing to trust her as I always had. I became more aware and more grateful of the many beautiful things in our relationship.

After the conversation this past week, with myself, with others, and with my horse,and through the emotional journey that I have taken over the past few years, the moral of this story surprised me. Instead of feeling wrong, instead of feeling broken, powerless and confused, I felt more confident, more powerful, and more in love with my horse.

Moral of the story: A lesson learned is a good thing.