Horses have quite unique characters. Just like us, they have likes and dislikes, their routines, quirks and eccentricities.
It is part of forming a relationship with your horse that you get to know these character traits. Probably the easiest place to start is finding out what kind of treats your horse likes. As my horse, Nazir, is such a foodie, it was also where I started to get to know him better.
In summer, one of his favourite games is plucking cherries from my fingers. Sometimes he even spits out the stones (not today though). This is him eating cherries after our training session today:
He also has a thing for pears. Two old pear trees with lots of little, sweet fruits stood in the yard of his former stable. The ripe fruits fell to the ground in autumn. Nearly every day, we went together to search for fallen pears. Whenever I want to give him a special treat now I buy him a juicy pear. He eats it with his eyes closed and, who knows, maybe memories of that autumn and the pear trees come back.
Of course he also likes the usual stuff like carrots and oats. When I come around the corner with a bag of carrots, his deep ‘hohoho!’ makes me smile every time.
My friend’s horse, Weto, loves his celery. Other horses at the stable are into beet roots or bananas. I had a ‘foster horse’ once that loved really hot mint candies (fisherman’s friend extra strong).
Nazir also has a thing for routine. We have the best training results when I come at around the same hour every day (possibly not overlapping with meal times ;)). If I have to put on some salve or ointment, he likes to sniff it first. That can even take a while. If I just apply something without him checking it out first, he will most likely protest in some way, like walking away or pushing me away with his head. Sometimes he also wants to take a look at the equipment. When I let him free in the indoor arena to play a bit, he first has to check out the far corner of the arena, then the plastic basin in which the poop is collected (maybe to find out who was in here before, who knows), and then he is ready to do something together.
Naturally, it is important to know what your horse doesn’t like, too. Nazir hates to be touched on the head, for example. Our agreement is that I do only what is necessary, like cleaning real quick and mostly with my hands, cleaning eyes or nose when they are dirty, or putting salve on wounds. He lets me do it, but you should see his face. Same with the ears. It took me over one year until I could touch them. By now he knows that I have a good reason for doing stuff around his head, and he accepts it. In return, I accept that he doesn’t want to be petted on the head. I see a lot of people touch their horse on the head all the time and the horse clearly shows that he doesn’t like it. At the same time, Nazir really likes to play with his nose and lips. We could spend hours of him licking my hand and me trying to catch his tongue with my fingers. I have no idea why he likes that 🙂
On the one hand, you can use what you have found out about your horse’s preferences to reward him or simply have some fun together, create some good memories; on the other hand, you should respect your horses aversions. Forget about “But he has to do what I want” or “If I let him get away with it, he will start being totally disrespectful” (That reminds me of Mark Rashid’s great post about respect: http://consideringthehorse.wordpress.com/2014/04/29/a-matter-of-respect/). You will be surprised how much your horse will appreciate your new attitude.
What does your horse like? Where does he like to be scratched? Does he like to be brushed gently or more vigorously? Does he prefer the stale water in the big tub or the fresh water from the hose? Does he prefer apples or carrots? In observing your horse this way, you also train your eye and learn to read how he reacts to things in general. Suddenly you will see that horses communicate very clearly about their likes and dislikes to us, also concerning different bits, or other equipment, exercises, if they like their saddle, etc. I’m always amazed by how people don’t notice the reactions of their horses (until they bite or kick that is). I would even say that it is the single most important quality of a horse person, if you had to choose just one, to read the reactions of a horse. The second, for sure, is the right timing. But I guess that’s another topic 😉