I go for regular walks through the country neighborhood with my horses. A few times a year we cross paths with a young boy who lives nearby. He’s fascinated by my horse, Chaco, and wants to pet him. One particular afternoon I suggest that he approach Chaco at his shoulder, but don’t look directly in his eyes. (A straight on approach is the move a predator would make. Prey animals, like horses, feel safer with a less direct approach). Instead come up alongside him with your eyes looking past him, then see if you can pet his shoulder.
The boy reached out his hand with his eyes averted, and in his exuberance, pet Chaco with short, quick strokes. I watched Chaco’s eyes, and they were big and held open. They indicated stress to me. He was tolerating being touched.
I suggested to the boy to pet slower. Way slower. As best as a little boy can, he pet Chaco with his version of slower, which was still fairly quick, and Chaco’s eyes stayed big. I then suggested he pet Chaco even slower, as if he were a slug. Slower… Slower… Even slower… How slow can you go and still call it petting? And then Chaco’s eyes started to change. He blinked. His eyes softened. He no longer held them wide open. In relaxation, he dropped his head slightly and curled his neck around the boy, breathing on him in acknowledgment. (Horses breathe into each other nostrils as a greeting).
The boy was thrilled. Yes, he wanted to pet Chaco, but perhaps more than that, he wanted to connect with this big animal and be seen. He received more than he expected, and was soon saying goodbye to us and bounding down the road.
Petting animals is so common place as humans, but how often do we read the body language of the animal to see if how we are touching feels good to them? Watching the eyes is a great first place to start. Blinking = yes. Fixed eyes = no. (Try holding your own eyes open with no blinking for 30 seconds. It’s stressful).
Learning to read the eyes will open lines of communication between you and your animal friend. Many times, just moving considerably slower ourselves, and even consciously breathing while touching will bring about a whole new level of understanding.
What is your experience with petting your animals?