I’ve been reading and thinking lately about touching. Not touching something in particular, but simply on the idea, the power and the energy behind touch as discussed by those outside the horse world. I know that touch is a hugely powerful thing when working with horses and though it is discussed often by horse people throughout the industry, to me it is generally framed as something that is done to a horse, not something that is done with a horse.
I don’t think touching is a one way transaction when there is a willingness about it. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be a physical transaction. In my reading (Warning: you are about to figure out just exactly how much of a nerd I am…) I’ve discovered that the experience of touching has much to do with the repulsion of electrons of the atoms between two objects or beings. That’s why you can sometimes experience touching something as you reach out to touch it, or experience being touched when someone or thing is reaching for you, before making any physical contact.
This makes a lot of sense to me because of what I experience with horses. The space before the touch of a horse is often as important as the touch itself. Whether this is a physical touch, or an ask at liberty, the moments of the asking are really where it all happens. There are moments where touches are very one sided and you feel that the horse is not engaged. Sometimes, this looks like a horse literally dissociating from the touch, whether this touch was supposed to be praise or not, by looking away or moving, and sometimes this just looks like a horse not feeling of me enough to match my offer. For instance, if I am thinking canter and my energy begins cantering, but I feel a heaviness from the horse. This touch is happening with no physical contact, but there is certainly a mismatch of energies bumping into each other. When I ready myself to make a change, surely these whacky electrons I’ve learned about are shifting and repelling in all sorts of new ways, and if the horse doesn't get ready with me, the feeling is going to be like that of (physically) running into a wall.
Yet, what I hear about touch in most horsemanship contexts is just the opposite of engaging with the space before the touch, and only shifting this electron/energy around. What I hear are physical changes full of pressure and contact, where the actual, physical touch is the moment of communication. To me, this makes me feel like the touch is being done to something, not with! I can’t help but think of the moment before a genuine hug, when both parties know they will hug but no one has spoken it or begun to touch yet. This is a togetherness that does not have to be quantified by the physical act, but by the moments leading up to it. But, if this moment didn’t exist, that hug would be entirely different. Hugging each other is so different than being hugged when you aren’t hugging back, even if both are done with good and kind intentions!
One of these moments leaves space for the other being in the situation. To hug each other means both people are accounted for, both have an understanding, a value and a stake in the moment. If you are simply being hugged, and are not actively a part of it, you may or may not want to be there. It may end up being for your own good and you will ultimately soften to the moment, but you may also leave resentful. There is quite the gamble in this latter scenario.
For me, horsemanship is all about leaving space for the horse. So to do that, I have to consider my moments of touching, even nonphysical touching, where my presence is touching the horse whether physically or not simply by me taking up space in the pen, or my intention existing in the world. Is the horse touching me back, or is the horse leaving or only tolerating? There is certainly time to touch a horse, physically or nonphysically, when it does not want to touch me back. These are moments where proving that touching will not end poorly, and to prove this it just has to happen. This is productive and sometimes the kindest way to just get the ill feeling about the situation over and done with. However, it is certainly me deciding that the horse doesn’t need to feel like that anymore, which is different than the horse engaging with me to solve a problem. But, there are so many more moments where if we shifted our mindset from us touching the horse to let’s do this together, that our initial touch would have so much more value. When I begin to reach and touch a horse, with my hand, my energy, my leg, my seat, whatever it may be, I truly hope that the reach can be meaningful and offer the horse a sense of understanding that they should reach back because we are about to do something together.