When I took in my second senior horse to rehab, Thunder, he did not want to be touched. He preferred to walk away rather than be groomed. If you stayed in his space he would nudge you away with his nose. He made it clear he needed space, and lots of it.
He had just retired from eight years as a therapy horse for at-risk youth doing a wonderful job taking care of and teaching the kids. The work, however, did not come without a price. He wore out, and he made it increasingly clear his last year on the job that he wanted to retire.
The first year he was in my care I rarely touched him. About nine months in, he would let me brush his legs while he took a nap in the field, but don’t touch his belly. If I tried to brush his belly he would walk off.
Today, three years later, he lets me brush all of him, and he even shows me his spots he wants scratched. It’s me who gets tired of scratching him, and I want to stop. It takes a long time before he decides he’s had enough scratching. This is a huge change from when he arrived three years ago.
What’s the secret to this change? If he walked off, I let him. I may have had an idea to brush him a particular day, but if he said no by walking off, then I respected that. Once he knew he could say no, and I would respect that no, then he started saying no less often.
Now I’m starting to see the yes when he puts his hips in my hands to scratch him. Because I have allowed him to walk off, I am thrilled when he decides to stay. That is his yes. It’s been three years in the making, and it’s a wonderful thing to have straight from the horse’s mouth.