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Ears And Personal Spaces

Posted by vwkoch, 15 May 2012 · 277 views

Horses are often fussy about their ears. I suspect it’s because they can’t see them, so when something unexpectedly touches them, they jerk away to protect them. However, it doesn’t take much training to get them used to having their ears touched, so they no longer shy away from being handled.

I read something a long time ago that stuck with me because it was so stupid. The author was writing about bridling horses, and she said something like “How would you like to have YOUR ears folded up to be stuck under a bridle?” My reaction was that I wouldn’t care in the slightest. Just to be sure, I folded my ears up and, indeed, it was no big deal. That afternoon, to be even more assured that she was being nonsensical, I folded my horse’s ears into all kinds of contortions, and he clearly didn’t care at all. In fact, it became a game with us. I would pull his ears into various positions and tell him he was a terrier or a cocker spaniel or whatever. He would just stand there and enjoy the attention.

My current mare is exactly the same. She’s not an attention hound, so we don’t play the ear-pulling game, but she certainly doesn’t mind if I bend her ears into various positions. In fact, she often folds them up herself when she’s scratching them up against me.

She was touchy about her ears when I got her, but she’s far from being touchy now. I actually call her ears her “head handles”, because I use them to position her head where I want it when I’m working with her. She likes me to scratch the inside of her ears for her, and I also wash the inside of her ears when I give her a bath (as well as washing the inside of her nostrils, as far up as I can reach). Sometimes, she accidently puts an ear into my mouth, when I’m talking to her and her head position changes. She’s clearly learned that her ears are likely to get touched when I’m around, and that it’s nothing to be concerned about --- even if I bend them.

In fact, she often returns that particular favor. From time to time, she likes to “discover” my ears, and she loves to lip them into various contorted positions. The idea that they are a manipulable body part seems to delight her.

Clearly, I am not one of those people who worry about horses invading their personal spaces. I’ve mentioned before that my horse is welcome to invade my space because she is my friend and because she will leave it if requested. I trust her completely, because she has learned to be gentle with me. In fact, my greatest worry, when she’s playing with my ear, is that she will lick me. She likes to lick, and she has a very big tongue. While I don’t mind her playing with my ear, it’s not a lot of fun to have a huge tongue slime the whole side of my head and neck.

My horse invades my space on a daily basis while I’m grooming her. (Grooming, of course, is an invasion of HER space.) In the winter, she loves to play with the zipper on my winter coat. She zips it up and down, enjoying the movement and noise, and usually ends by zipping it all the way to the top. Then, she often proceeds to “discover” my nose, my chin, or my ear.

I’ve already mentioned how she plays with my ear. She also finds my nose to be very interesting --- because it sticks out, I think. If I raise my chin to move my nose away from her, then my chin sticks out and she moves her attention to it. As with my ear, my biggest fear is that she will decide to lick me instead of just lipping me. That big tongue is even worse when it covers my whole face. To paraphrase Lucy in the Charlie Brown Christmas special, “AAUGH! I've been licked by a horse!” (My horse, incidentally, has the same reaction when a dog licks her nose.)

In fact, any part of me that sticks out, even slightly, can draw the interest of my horse. If I’m wearing a zipperless coat, she will nibble on the bottom corners. She will lip at my pockets, even if they’re empty. If there’s something in them, they’re even more interesting. It doesn’t need to be food. She will lip at the bulge my keys make even more than she does the smaller budge made by carrot pieces. Of course, if I have a whole carrot sticking out of my pocket, it’s a big attraction because she wants that carrot. She knows she is not allowed to take it without permission, though, so she nuzzles all around it in the hope I’ll let her have it.

She’ll also lip at the corner of my jeans, where they snap, and at jeans labels, especially if they’re leather (probably because leather sticks out more than fabric). Belt loops were made to be nibbled on, in her opinion. She gets to do all this lipping and nibbling because she stays very gentle. She knows, if she gets rough, her privileges will end.

Her lips are so sensitive that she can detect a loose thread in the seam of the finger of a glove. If I let her, she’ll worry at the thread until she’s undone the entire seam. She really enjoys that game, but I don’t, so when she starts using her teeth to pick at a thread, I make her stop.

She also likes to “chew” on my fingernails. She’ll run her teeth over the very ends of my fingers until they click together on my fingernails. Once she’s found the nails, she’ll keep tapping them with her teeth. I think a lot (if not all) of what she does is modified grooming activity. She has to be a lot gentler with me than she would with another horse, but she’s looking for parts of me that “need” grooming.

Anyway, as I said, I’m clearly not one of those people who worry about horses invading their personal spaces. I invade my horse’s space all the time (including bending her ears), and she invades mine, as well. When she invades my space, it’s because she wants to be affectionate, and I’m not going to respond by rejecting her. I feel sorry for the people who are so worried about maintaining a false “respect” that they rob themselves and their horses of a “close” relationship (in both senses of the word). My horse respects me, but she also loves me. She will leave my space if I ask, but I rarely ask. I love HER, too.

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