To Scratch An Itch

My horses are rewarded for good behavior by my scratching their itchy spots. It is a deliberate manipulation of their second most primal need (the first is to be fed anything anytime).

They have a desperate need to have their itches scratched, even itches they had no idea existed until I found them. This is true of many animal species, including the great apes, for whom grooming and scratching each other is a communal way to keep the peace.

I suspect we all have a few “hidden” itches that we never knew existed until someone finds them. There may even be a few we ourselves wish to keep hidden.

Mutual grooming behavior in horses is one of the earliest things they learn — two horses standing side by side, chewing on each others’ withers is a common sight in a herd. We can learn by example. A young foal has an instinctive submissive gesture when confronted by an older horse: the younger horse “chews” the air, which is essentially an offer to groom the higher ranked horse. This submissive gift is a brilliant survival strategy. The baby first learns to scratch his mother with his teeth while she gently scratches him back. Once away from the protection of the mother and part of a herd hierarchy, the younger horse offering to “scratch” an older cranky horse’s itches makes for a very desirable companion who is much less likely to get hurt, and helps to settle down the irritable herd members.

Ideally, in human society we should be all figuratively scratching each other. There is very little mutual scratching going on in our day to day lives. Instead, we are often tortured by our itches that we can’t reach ourselves, and have no buddies to scratch
them for us. Sometimes we are “scratched and clawed” in a painful way by people who seem to care not at all about how they are hurting us and end up leaving scars.

Once my weanlings are separated from their mothers, their scratching and grooming partners are each other and me. I don’t care to be chewed on as I don’t have thick horse hide. So they learn that they can’t “scratch” me back, because their teeth are not allowed anywhere near my skin. So I find their itches and help them relax and enjoy being scratched without them reciprocating back. What a tough lesson! Sometimes, while being scratched they have to chew something so they chew on their own leg or chest.

There are times we simply have to accept the pleasure of the scratch, show gratitude and not attempt to give back the gift we’ve just received. It is an illustration of grace in a barnyard setting. Those loving scratches received do not need reciprocation.

So I will seek to scratch gently, perceptively, honorably, humbly when I have opportunity. There are other times when I simply must receive and be grateful, learning to keep my teeth and mouth to myself.

After all, knowing how to receive the gift is the first step to understanding what it takes to give it.