Pat or Rub, Does it Matter?
By Betsy Kelleher
My son was visiting, and after dinner we were standing outside the restaurant, talking a few minutes before going different directions. Bob had his arm around my shoulder, now and then giving me a strong, loving pat. His wife walked up, touched his hand and said with a smile, “Don’t be hitting on your Mom; it’s better to caress than pat!”
I couldn’t help laughing. Kim didn’t realize she sounded like Pat Parelli talking about horses! Don’t pat your horse, he says, rub the neck or forehead; nuzzle like a mare.
How interesting that the same philosophy extends from the human world into the equine relationship. Or is it the other way around? Either way, the same principles apply. When watching professional events on TV -- dressage shows, stadium jumping -- did you ever notice, that in spite of all the advice these days to rub on your horse, you still see an exuberant rider finish his run and slap his horse hard and joyously on the neck?
Well, Lady taught me something this past summer. Three of us gals were riding down the road by our barn. I noticed a big tractor quietly parked in the field nearby, no one around. I couldn’t resist the opportunity. I rode Lady toward the tractor, feeling very confident of myself and hoping to work on Lady’s fear of such things. She walked right up to it, close enough to touch one huge tire. I was so proud of her; I just had to do it. I slapped her joyously on the neck, leaning forward to tell her loudly, “good girl!” Know what she did? She jumped, whirled around and headed for the barn. I had scared the daylights out of her! The other girls with me had a good laugh, and so did I. But I learned something. Even though Lady had walked up to the tractor, seemingly ok with it, her level of tension was such that my slap on her neck was like a pin prick on a balloon! You have to express your emotions in a way your partner accepts and understands, or you may get into trouble. If I had gently rubbed on her withers instead of applying that happy slap, she might have stood quietly instead of running away in panic. The rubbing is supposed to be like a mare’s gentle touch on her foal, giving comfort and security.
I think the real lesson here is to learn to be aware of your horse’s level of anxiety. If you don’t, you will suddenly find out -- after the horse explodes from built up fear!
I remember all too well the day I rode Lady down that road by our barn, her first time, and although she resisted the whole mile, she went. Until the big dumpster truck came around the corner and whizzed past us. I later realized her fast spin was an indication that the truck was just the last straw!
Here are a couple other instances to prove this point, as well. I once owned a gorgeous two-year-old Arab filly that seemed extremely easy to work with. I had her in the wash rack three or four times and she didn’t give me a lot of problem with it. Then one day, she told me she’d had enough! She refused to enter the wash area and she actually backed me up half the length of the barn. I never did get her in that wash rack again. I hadn’t realized how uncomfortable she was when first going into that wash area, and she finally had the nerve to tell me. I should have spent more time easing her into the situation, letting her accept it in her own time and providing a better comfort level.
A girl recently told me of a problem with her mare. This mare had started out being resistant, perhaps from her adjustment to a change in homes, and then things seemed to get better with more riding and some strict discipline. Then one day the mare freaked out after a bath. It wasn’t the bath that did it. It was the hunk of plastic flapping against the barn wall outside. The mare broke crossties and her halter and got loose. The level of anxiety had risen too far for her, and she couldn’t handle it!
Are you starting to get the idea? Horses, like people, can’t always voice their feelings or show their anxiety until it gets unbearable. And that may be too late. If we aren’t listening or watching closely, we’ll miss the clues. Our horses try to tell us, you know, through their body language and their responses. When Lady just stops in her tracks during a ride, I know she is trying to tell me she is uncomfortable about going forward. I usually urge her on, but I try to see exactly what it is that makes her uncomfortable. One day, it was because her feet were getting too long and her hooves kept hitting each other. We took care of that soon after the ride. Sometimes I have NO IDEA why she stops cold. Perhaps she is simply being an Alpha mare and testing my authority. And yes, I do often rub her withers during rides now, hoping to encourage her.
Sometimes in life, we encounter situations that seem to pile up and overwhelm us. I’ve had that happen this last month. It was difficult to celebrate thanksgiving after a dear friend passed away unexpectedly just before her birthday. I’ll not bother to mention all the rest that has happened, seemingly all at once. I am so thankful that God has long arms. He holds me close with a gentle but very comforting touch. Not an exuberant pat, but a gentle nuzzle to my soul and spirit. I can sense His great wisdom and I can trust that He is working all things toward a good ending (Romans 8:28).
There are times, of course, when He can be strong and emphatic, and one had better listen carefully at those times! But He knows where we are mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, and He knows just what kind of touch we need at the moment. He often sends down a colorful, exquisite autumn leaf to fall in my path as a reminder of His presence and His magnificent glory. And I am amazed at how often I have been blessed to see the pelicans as they pass through the area. I’ve always loved watching those huge birds in flight, soaring in graceful synchrony, and I always called my friend to share it with her. Little things, but sometimes very precious and heartening. And even though I dread the cold of winter, a light snowfall is inspiringly beautiful as it covers brown grass and dead, bare tree branches.
In the same way, I think, His mercy covers our human shortcomings. His glorious plan for eternal life overcomes our dread and fear of losing what we have on Earth. We trust that someday we will again see our loved ones without Earthly pain and limitations.
Scripture assures us in I Corinthians 10:13 that “…God is faithful; he will not let us be tempted beyond what we can bear…” There are times we wonder about that, don’t we? Keep in mind that we build up stamina in our horses by carefully and constantly asking a little more of them than we did before. I think that is exactly how God builds our faith in Him and our personal inner strength. Unless more is required, there is no growth. As we learn to trust Him for each situation, He helps us through it. As we take another step in faith in the direction He guides us (and later as we look back), we usually see that He has been in control all the while.
If only we could realize the truth of His Sovereign unconditional love and wise control before we lose heart. The greatest temptation, I believe, is to give up, to wallow in despair, to turn away from depending on Him for just one more step in life. Sooner or later, we WILL acknowledge the ultimate power of God. All life is in His hands. And sooner or later, we WILL learn the depth of our own need for His grace and mercy. The sooner, the better. Time is too important to waste!
Christmas is a happy time for most people, but so often we let ourselves get too busy with details, too much in debt buying gifts for everyone, and too focused on “things” to take time for the REASON for the season! If Jesus had not been born as a baby upon this Earth, if He had not lived here and died as the ultimate sacrifice for all of mankind and for each one of us individually, we might not have much to believe in when Earthy troubles and fears overcome us. Hay prices, gas prices, financial needs, personal problems, the state of our country and our whole world – the list is endless and troubling, seemingly enough to destroy our faith.
But hark, the herald angels sing! A tiny babe has been born in a lowly manger! Let us go and worship the newborn King who has come to rescue us! Jesus Christ has come to save us all and to give us hope and peace and eternal life! It is time to look up to Heaven for the God of love who reaches down to us. We must search for Him with all our hearts while there is time. Let no one miss the tremendous joy of the season and the true blessing it brings.
(Originally published in the December 2007 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)