Horses Want Our Attention!
By Betsy Kelleher
RFD-TV’s Equestrian Nation recently featured an interview with the late Tom Dorrance. A master horseman, Dorrance asked people to approach the horse in a new way, so that the horse is comfortable and happy.
I remember reading his book “True Unity” many years ago, wondering what on earth he was trying to say! His words came from a heart tuned into horses, but his talk about feel and timing seemed too abstract. Perhaps I lacked the right experience back then. In case you’re interested, his website (apparently kept running by his widow) is www.tomdorrance.com.
During the interview, Dorrance showed his age and wisdom while strolling with the interviewer or snuggled into a comfortable chair, just sharing his thoughts. One simple statement triggered a recent memory: “THE HORSE JUST WANTS YOUR ATTENTION.”
I thought of Rocky, my seven-year-old TWH/SSH gelding, and how I had felt his teeth on my sleeve just a few days earlier. Rocky has always been a sweet boy, has never kicked or bit, and I was surprised! Not wanting to encourage such action, I reacted loudly, even rushed into his stall threateningly, while he ran to the back looking for an escape! I knew he was simply asking for attention and I hope I didn’t overreact. He had been standing with his head over his stall door, and I had given him the usual one bite of carrot and I was rubbing him on his forehead. When offered a carrot, he takes it carefully and hasn’t gotten pushy, or I wouldn’t feed him that way. He had been nudging me with his nose, and I was talking to someone else. Rocky was trying to get my attention in the only way he knew. He didn’t bite, but I didn’t want him to think he could, either!
A few minutes later, he was back at the stall door, nose reaching out to me for reassurance, and I was rubbing his forehead again, telling him everything was ok. Rocky is a little boy that still has some growing up to do, but he tries hard to please. He is friendly and curious and yes, he wants attention! I also see it during riding sessions in the arena. Now and then he will reach his head around to my foot, and I rub his forehead and tell him he did good.
I thought of Lady. I had a similar experience with her a few years back. She had been nudging me with her nose while I didn’t pay much attention, and then she bit at my jacket! She got a loud scolding at the time, and hasn’t done it since. Lady is a very loving Alpha mare, and very demanding. She definitely wants attention (all the time!).
Of course I don’t want to allow biting at any time, for any reason. It is something that needs immediate correction. But I know both Lady and Rocky just wanted my attention and weren’t getting it. They were like the child that keeps tugging at your sleeve, with “Mom, Mom, Mom” until you finally get annoyed enough to demand, “What!” And you know it would be best to give immediate and kind attention rather than rewarding their persistence with the wrong kind.
My old reliable Traveller is a stoic fella, but he whinnies a greeting whenever he sees me. Ginger, my husband’s old mare, also whinnies a greeting. She loves it when he rubs her on her forehead; she just closes her eyes and relaxes. My husband has observed that the more attention horses get, the closer the bond becomes.
Like children (and spouses), if horses don’t get attention, problems can develop. They need more than a regular pat or rub on the forehead, however! When we take good care of a horse, I think he/she recognizes our feelings that go with it. A horse needs regular grooming and cleaning. Neglecting hoof care can lead to serious problems! Time spent brushing and bathing can be a bonding time. It also gives the owner the opportunity to check for sore spots and cuts, for areas that need special attention. I think most horses enjoy the companionship, as we build trust and respect and that special bond. Tom Dorrance’s words were an affirmation of something that’s been jelling in my heart for some time, though perhaps in different words.
The bond between horse and human is the best foundation for all further training. When that soft nose reaches out with a gentle nudge, when that welcoming whinny greets your arrival, when a soft muzzle rests against your face for a few seconds in that special touch of fellowship, you know your horse is talking to you. I think of the ways each of our horses shows its need for attention, and I can’t help but feel something in response. Yes, it is a form of love. I’ve begun to see each horse as an individual “person” with its own unique personality and it’s become more personal than ever. My first mare, Fanny, was aloof and ornery, but we had our special bond and she had a big heart. Lady is a lover, both sweet and demanding and she and I have a definite bond of communication!
The horse that doesn’t communicate may be the one needing attention most. That lack of communication may mean a lack of trust or a lack of loving attention from humans in the past. Why should a horse try to communicate with humans who have never taken time to learn to communicate with the horse? It’s important how we respond to their needs and feelings and how we “use” them. Horses need comfort and safety, and they want to respect and trust their owners. But they also seem to enjoy the relationship as well. Mares especially work better with approval and encouragement (just like women!), but any horse will give more willingly when their efforts are appreciated! You may need to learn how to give the right attention, how to approach the horse as Tom Dorrance suggests, but the horse’s response will be worth it! Seeing the horse as a “person” does make a difference and I’ve seen it especially with my old Traveller.
As usual, we learn from our horses about things that are applicable to other areas. Just as horses want attention, so do people! We often get too busy to notice. We may be too afraid to reach out to strangers in these dangerous times. But think of people around you, people you know, who are lonely, fearful, frustrated or in need of help. We all crave attention and love, someone to talk to, someone to be with, someone to care. There are people who have lost a loved one, people with financial needs, and people with emotional needs. All around us. A smile and a friendly greeting is a good start. Can you offer a hug? Say an encouraging word? Take time to listen? Maybe share what God has done for you. There is an email going around, complete with video, encouraging people to encourage others by saying, “you have made a difference in my life.” Those words have caused life-changing results. We need each other.
Children especially need attention. They will seek it from friends if they don’t get enough from home. Troubled teens have been helped and their lives turned around by someone who cared enough to reach out, to take the time to answer that need for love and understanding. And sometimes a relationship with a horse becomes a turning point. Lonely spouses will seek friendship, often with heartbreaking consequences. Married couples need to show each other that attention and love that is needed.
Our need for love was put there by God Himself and He had a plan to meet that need. He meant for each one of us to find true satisfaction in a genuine and intimate relationship with Himself. When asked by a Pharisee lawyer about the greatest commandments, Jesus told him to love God first and to love “your neighbor” as yourself (Matt 22:35-40). So love is the great commandment.
Think about this: when you find someone you trust who satisfies your need for attention, aren’t you more inclined to “follow” that person? When we give our horses the attention (love) they need, they are more inclined to listen to us and to work for our approval. As with a young child who looks up to you, that attitude is a precious and fragile thing to be considered and nourished.
Let’s do what we can to give proper attention (love) to our horses and to others around us. And to let God Himself meet our own need for love instead of leaning on things that could take His rightful place in our lives. When we allow Christ to live in us (check out Ephesians 3:16-19), we have found the Source of love, joy and peace, and empowerment to make a difference in the world.
(Originally published in the May 2008 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)