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Playing by the rules

Updated: Jan 14, 2023

As I play with my cat, she fiercely expresses threats of all kinds. She turns her ears back, swishes her tail violently, arches her back and moans angrily. She aims at my approaching hand with teeth bared thrusting her head at me and waiting for the perfect opening where she can lunge, fully throwing her little body against my arm. Wrapping herself around it, she starts biting and scratching with great violence - and no damage is done.

She knows to bite gently, to keep her claws from digging in.

I never taught her this. I simply pulled back with an 'ow' when she was too rough. She knows the rules of the game. She's playing.

There is a fine line between play and the real thing. Wolves who lure dogs into the woods will do so by engaging them in play. Then play becomes lethal.

How do we know when that line is crossed?

When I let my horse run in the arena, how does she know when I mean to play and when I'm truly angry?

It's been a fine line that we've been working on for the past year. I wanted to feel she knew I was playing while keeping myself safe from rogue kicks.

First we worked on boundaries. Any kick even vaguely in my direction when lunging was met with my anger and some intense running around. She learned fast. The trick was to not stay angry. A swift response followed by going back to the status quo, every time. She figured out that I was fair. Now she will pull her kicks even when half way across the arena. She throws up her heels but never out if it's in my direction. She knows the rules of the game.

For my part, I am careful not to pressure her harshly. I hoot and holler and run whipping the ground but I run away from her to invite her to join. I pay attention to my alignment and expression to let her know I'm trying to engage her not push her.

I know she's taken up the game when she tosses her head and leaps in the air with senseless expressive moves that are not helping her get away from anything. The enormous amount of energy she puts in to race around the arena but always with an eye to me, keeping her distance, but willing to calm down and come to me when I ask.

This is play and it's the best feeling ever.

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