I have had several cats that were very good shoulder riders. To me, shoulder riding is one of those endearing cat behaviors that is unforgettable, and it makes me glad I live with cats. It’s up there with paws around the neck, the silent meow, the tilted head, the raised paw — all of it.
But was I able to train my cats to ride shoulders, or did they come to it naturally? I would say that most of my cats came to it naturally, without any training, but it depends upon the cat.
My orange medium-haired tabby Jamie was the best shoulder rider I have ever had. He lived to be 21 years, and was still riding shoulders when he was almost 20. But Jamie also had an incredible sense of balance. He was still jumping to the top of kitchen cabinets when he was 18 (unbelievable, but true).
Jamie had a thing about getting really close to our faces, and I think this had something to do with his love of shoulder riding. He adored being on the bed with us, and when on the bed, he had to be as close to our faces as possible. Jamie figured out early on that shoulder riding gave him close access to our faces. He didn’t bite or paw, he just enjoyed holding his own face close to ours.
As I said, he had incredible balance. Jamie would drape himself over my shoulders — head hanging over one of my shoulders; rear paws and tail hanging over my other shoulder. Jamie was able to lay right on the back of my neck and shoulders. I don’t know how he knew to ride shoulders so well, he just did. I could walk anywhere with him, and he had enough balance or leverage so that he didn’t slide off. He loved it. Did I ever formally train him to do this? No, he just got it. Even in the last months of his life, he loved to be carried over one shoulder, though he was rarely riding both shoulders at this point.
The tortie Jamie Bluebell is Jamie’s namesake, so naturally I got quite excited when she rode shoulders as a kitten. But she never got the hang of draping herself around my neck (with her belly on the back of my neck). Instead, she’d stand on my shoulders — front paws on one shoulder, rear paws on another. This was cute and fun, but it was hard to walk with her or she’d fall off. It never occurred to me to try and train her to lie down; I’m not sure how that would be done.
For a long time after those kitten days, Jamie Bluebell did not ride shoulders. But one day recently, when she was exceptionally happy, Jamie got up on my shoulders. I know she was feeling really happy and secure about something, because she was showing me other behaviors I hadn’t seen for a while. That was my clue that I needed to spend more time alone with Jamie Bluebell. She likes it. And maybe if I keep it up, shoulder riding will come back into the picture.
Norton is a very smart boy. The youngest of my bunch, he is skilled at opening cabinets, he knows how to use his paw in a food bowl (to pull the bowl very politely away from his household catmate Rama), and he rides shoulders very well. But it’s not something he does very often. He enjoys it, but not one of my cats has ever come close to riding shoulders the way the original Jamie did.
Target was probably one of the most trainable cats I’ve ever had. He was eager to please, and he would do anything for attention and love. But I think we were so busy having fun with him in other ways that it never occurred to us to try and teach him to ride shoulders.
Based on my really unscientific experience, what I’ve learned from my cats might be this. A good shoulder rider:
As I said, this is really informal. So I would be curious about your cats. Have you had good shoulder riders? Were you able to train them, and if so, what did you do? Or do you think it’s a random thing that some cats are much better at than others?
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About Catherine Holm: Told that she is funny but doesn’t know it, accused of being an unintentional con artist by her husband, quiet, with frequent unannounced bursts into dancing liveliness, Cat Holm loves writing about, working for, and living with cats. She is the author of The Great Purr (cat fantasy novel out June 1), the cat-themed memoir Driving with Cats: Ours for a Short Time, the creator of Ann Catanzaro cat fantasy story gift books, and the author of two short story collections. She loves to dance, be outside whenever possible, read, play with cats, make music, do and teach yoga, and write. Cat lives in the woods, which she loves as much as really dark chocolate, and gets regular inspiration shots along with her double espresso shots from the city.