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Franklin Levinson's

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Just how much of a mirror is the horse?

Hi Franklin,

First off, I'd like to say if it weren't for the 2 recent vet calls (one for a laceration of the upper lip, the other for a colic incident) totaling $400, I would have donated to your site. I've just stumbled across your website while searching online for information regarding a specific behavior my gelding is exhibiting. I got sucked into your site (wonderful reading!) and decided to pose the question to you; as you seem quite knowledgeable about equine/human behaviors.

I bought a yearling draft gelding and boy has he taught me SO many new things! He will be 4 yrs.(and at least 18 hands now) this month, and it's been wonderful learning so much about him, and about myself as well. Horses really do have the ability to find even the smallest, most well-hidden weaknesses within us humans and expose them to us, don't they?! He's taught me to listen more to him (the horse)... to find out what's really working and what isn't. If things aren't working, we abandon and set about working another angle. They definitely have a way of letting you know what DOES work in communicating with them! This behavior he has is something I've had another person notice and comment on (on top of me already chewing on it inside my head). I'm wondering if it's not something I've gone about creating, myself, actually. You see, this horse and I have a nice, tight, strong, solid bond. We have a quiet trust between us and he'd let me do Anything with him, on any part of his body without even a blink from him. I love laying hands on a horse. Do it right, and they love it when you lay your hands on them, too. Relaxing, de-stressing, quiet, almost meditative at times. Such a nice way to spend time in the barn on a quiet dreary evening. He loves his scratches and rubs and has his favorite spots, of course.

The thing is....he's starting to go all wide-eyed and worried looking and tense when any OTHER person approaches him to pet him and rub on his body. Not so much the face/neck, but if he's out of his stall and on the lead and other people go up to rub him on the shoulders and anywhere behind the shoulders...that's when things get UNrelaxed. He'll actually move INTO them rather rudely, PUSHING them AWAY from him. Is this my doing, I wonder? Am I tensing up in some way and he's picking up on that and reacting to it? I, myself, have some social anxiety issues (work in progress) and I definitely do NOT like people I don't know coming up in my "bubble" too closely or, heaven forbid, they actually TOUCH me w/out my inviting it!! Because I can look at my own weaknesses willingly, I'm now wondering if this horse of mine is reacting because of ME. Did I create this somehow? And too, if I did.... how very observant of my gelding!! Yet...sad, in a way, as I would NEVER want to be the reason for this type of behavior.

The woman who noticed this issue said that she learned something about it at classes she's taking for therapeutic riding. She mentioned learning at these classes about how horses can and do pick up on personalities of people and problems people exhibit (physical or mental/psychological) and they can and do react to specific manifestations of human behavior--even the most subtle ones. I'm wondering if this is what's happening between my horse and I. I've decided that, no matter if it was created by me or not, we are going to take steps to resolve this issue. It makes it harder when he needs vet care and farrier work, if he's acting like this. And who wants a huge draft horse that rudely shoves people AWAY with their entire body?! So, I will be having specific people come up to us while on the lead line, to touch him, rub him, groom him and even handle his feet...we will make it a goal to learn that "strangers" ARE in fact allowed to handle him and he should be a good boy for them, just like he is for me whenever I handle him. The more I think on it, I wonder if this is training for him or for me? LOL! Is this a mirroring effect, or is it more simple and just him reacting to something so subtle from me that I don't even notice it. And I wonder, too, what I've been teaching him subconsciously... (ie. new people are BAD, lets stay away from people and just be in our own world together-you and I)-- I HOPE that's not what I've been subconsciously saying to him because we are at a boarding facility with other people! But...if so, then we've both got plenty more growing and learning to do together, don't we? I just wondered if you'd ever heard of this specific type of behavior? It's so opposite of how he is with me handling him. He LOVES me handling him. We both love sharing a lengthy grooming session together. And yet he attempts to snub any one else coming near his body. How odd. I look forward to getting your thoughts on this and I thank you for your time and consideration.

Thank you, Carrie

Hi Carrie,

Well, this is one of the more interesting questions I have received in quite a while. Thank you. A great reprieve from “how do I lunge my horse”.

Indeed, all domesticated animals take on various traits of their owners or the humans who are around them the most. Just as human family members effect each others personalities, dispositions, attitudes, energetic, way of moving and more, domesticated animals are strongly influenced by their humans. So, yes I would say this horse is definitely mirroring you and strongly. Additionally, part of what you are seeing may be somewhat protective behavior by the horse towards you as well as the potential of jealousy of anyone coming close to you. So, his behavior is not odd. Actually it is quite normal and to be expected considering the bond you have developed. Good job.....

To modify this behavior is a training issue. Consequences for unwanted behavior should be provided by you. The best consequence for a horse is movement as all movement is work. Immediate small circles (only so small for this huge horse) and tight turns on the forehand are good moves to quickly (immediately) put him to should he provide any behavior you do not want. You need to practice the movement before you really need it as a consequence. Get very good at it, like breathing. Then it will be a wonderful tool in your horsy tool box. Good questions and please keep me posted.

Sincerely, Franklin

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