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October 12, 2012

Dear Jitterbug: Teaching Your Human Social Graces

It's so hard to make your Human understand the importance and intracacies of equine social interactions. Photo by audreynoltepainter/iStockphoto.

I’ve recently begun accepting questions from my devoted readers. This month’s letter focuses on allowing your human to understand your need for social interaction.

Dear Jitterbug,

I am a young Arabian mare who owns a VERY deficient human. I have been reading your previous articles and understand that you may be able to help.

I do not have a lot of friends. I mean I COULD, but my human really restricts my social time. I know all of the other horses in the upper barn where I reside, but most of these horses are just boring old geldings. Now they are quite nice, but they don’t really have the ear for gossip.

I need to socialize with other mares my age. I mean, that mare in the lower barn, with the hot pink fly mask? Nuhhh uhhhh… She is NOT wearing that. That TOTALLY clashes with her (very bleached) coat. I need a group to talk to about this!

I even think MY fashion is lacking, just because all I talk to are geldings! Oh please, please help me, Jitterbug! I know you are quite successful in managing humans, and this definitely calls for your genius.

~Aria
Equine fashion advisor, stall 26


Dear Aria, 

I have a similar problem in that my Human turns me out at the opposite time from everybody else, and it’s really been cramping my social life too. Personally, I can't tell if she's doing this on purpose because she knows how awesome and popular I am, or if she's sooo oblivious to anything but her cell phone that she hasn't noticed there is no one else outside. 

There are a variety of tricks you can use to correct this problem. You might try one or two, and then begin using them in tandem, as I've found Humans are not as good at multi-tasking as they think, and they have trouble responding to more than one issue at a time. (Their first concern usually being to complain about the weather/their jobs/their boyfriends/blah/blah blah blah.)  

  • Make your opinions known. If your Human happens to be super-attentive (funny, right?) or prone to worrying about every move you make (more likely), you might try amplifying your sense of distress at being separated from the group you really belong in. Humans are trained to recognize classic symptoms of panic such as stall walking, pacing, anorexia and unexplained sweating. Learn when your Human typically arrives at the barn and begin setting the stage. Start screaming the minute she gets out of her car, and make sure you constantly face toward the lower barn where your soon-to-be-buds are. Begin pacing in a circle, dragging your toes a bit to disrupt the bedding so she'll think you've been at this all day. If you can, resist the food she gives you. You can drop the act once she’s left the barn, but remember to make it convincing while she's there.
  • Play copycat by miming everything the Gossip Group is doing when they're outside. This is particularly effective if done while the Human is trying to ride you. When they run, you run. When they wander away, you try to follow. They'll be too busy eating to notice, but your Human sure will, particularly if she's feebly asking you to jump or piaffe around the time you take off at a run to get a better look at that horrid pink fly mask. Completely ignore her commands if they're anything but: "Sure, I'll turn you out with those ladies, Aria! You work so hard, you deserve a break anyway. And a bag of cookies." You don't want to reward the wrong cues from the Human, after all.
  • Go on the run once you've set the stage by showing your Human what it is you want. I've discovered that if you lean on one of those single strand rubber stall guards at just the right spot, you can break open the clip. Play a game of tag with your Human when she comes out to catch you, and make sure she's It. Be sure to circle/slide/duck toward the Gossip Group's location as many times as possible, and see if you can strike up a conversation. If you don't have a stall guard, I've learned that Humans get very lazy when leading you in and out of stalls and pastures, so this is usually a good time to feign alarm at your surroundings and take off. You can't pull this trick too often though, in case the Human happens to own a Dreaded Chain Shank.
  • If all else fails, make them come to you. My favorite trick for socializing with the gentlemen on our farm is ensuring they want to come visit me. Fortunately for me, our arena shares a fence with the boys' field, but if you aren't in a similarly convenient situation, feel free to adapt the concept. Make sure your Human dresses you in your flashiest fly mask/saddle pad and boots (i.e., get everything else super dirty), and really strut your stuff.

It sounds like those ladies could use a fashion consultant, so make sure they know you're up for the job. When they come running to greet you/ask you what designers you're wearing, make sure your Human is close by. She should notice, from the thunder of hooves flying in your direction, exactly how much you belong with this group. This is especially effective if they come flying at you after a few rounds of CopyCat, when your defective Human assumes you all are just hacking in the field. There is no greater motivator than Fear of Falling for Humans, I have learned.

If you have a question for Jitterbug, write to her at JitterbugCOTH@gmail.com.

Jitterbug is a Michigan-bred Professional Draft Cross who skillfully avoided saddles until age 5. Since then, she has been lauded for her talent in successfully managing humans while training herself to one day achieve eventing greatness. Jitter and her human live in central Kentucky. Photo by Dark Horse Photography.
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