One of the most common physical contacts among humans is the handshake. I think all of us have experienced handshakes that we did not enjoy at all. Crushing handshakes that make your fingers go numb. Handshakes that lasted too long leaving an awkward feeling. Limp finger handshakes that make you feel like you're fumbling a dead fish. Overly enthusiastic handshakes that threaten to dislocate your shoulder. None of these are pleasant, rewarding greetings and if you know someone who repeatedly greets you in one of these ways you will probably start making excuses to not shake their hand. "Oh sorry my hands are full." " I have a cold. I don't want to give you my germs, let's just wave at each other today."
If a poor handshake can make such a difference in how we feel about other people just imagine how much of an impact the way we touch horses has on the way they feel about us. Physical contact is a highly personal thing to horses, they usually only allow their closest herdmates to have friendly contact with them. When we are touching a horse we are treading on sacred ground. Granting permission to be touched is a supreme act of trust for a mustang to extend to a person.
Just as a handshake can be unpleasant in a variety of ways, a horse can find a human touch intolerable in more ways than one. We can be too firm, too fast, too soft, too often, etc. How a horse likes to be rubbed is individual to each horse. Taking the time to learn where a horse likes being rubbed, stroked, and scratched is one of the best ways to build a trusting relationship, and will help prevent your horse from trying to make excuses not to let you touch them.
You will notice I have not used the word patted. Horses do not care for being being patted, they prefer rubbing or stroking so much more. Patting dulls their sensitivity to rhythmic pressure. Many times I have seen that the more pleased a person is with their horse the harder they pat it until it looks like they are trying to slap a fly straight through the other side of the horse's neck. In their enthusiasm to reward the horse they don't notice that the pat has turned into a physical assault and appears more like they are hitting their horse rather than giving an affectionate pat. In my opinion patting is a bad habit to get into, so just quit it already people!
In contrast, how do you know if a horse is welcoming contact? The best way to explain is by showing some examples.
The horse at the right is returning the favour by nuzzling the person massaging him. Be cautious if your horse wants to rub on you in return, they do not know their own strength and sometimes can nip hard enough to bruise a puny human. Remember, it is the dominant horse who determines the intensity of the mutual groom. Set clear boundaries of how much return rubbing you will allow, but never, never, never punish a horse for wanting to return affection in this way! That would be insulting to the horse, like slapping someone's hand away when they are offering to shake with you. Not a good way to build a relationship! If the horse begins getting too vigorous in its return rubbing just quit massaging the horse(before teeth get involved) and direct the horse's nose away with a gentle push. They will get the point and learn to restrain themselves in their display of affection.
How we touch a horse is ever so meaningful to them. They can read our emotional state and intentions through physical contact, but even with the best of intentions we can sometimes be irksome to a horse by not being sensitive to the way they like to be touched. Especially when trying to establish a trusting relationship with a horse from the wild we need to touch them in a manner they enjoy so they can learn to find our company comfortable and peasant.