How do you show your horse affection while also maintaining respect? There’s nothing wrong with having a bond with your horse. In fact, it’s desirable. But you have to show your affection and bond with your horse in a safe way and in a way that your horse appreciates.
We humans are drawn to the head of the horse, especially that sweet, velvety-soft muzzle. It’s tempting to put your face up to your horse’s and love on him. But horses have blind spots around their head, and many don’t like to have you so close to that area. For the most part, the head is a good place to stay away from. The horse’s head is big, weighs a lot and moves quickly. I can personally vouch for several concussions and some busted teeth from having my head too close to a horse’s. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly or spook, moving with force.
Affection in Horse Terms
Kissing and hugging are human ideas of affection. Horses do “spar” (play fight) and bite at the lips, but that’s even more of a reason not to kiss them there. Keep your horse’s lips away from your lips. You don’t want him to think you’re playing and be bitten.
Horses only have one known affectionate behavior that isn’t associated with reproduction. Mutual grooming occurs when two bonded horses face each other and give one another a deep massage with their teeth. Horses mostly groom around the withers and down the neck and back. The more dominant horse in the pair will tell the other horse when to start and stop the grooming sessions, and both horses will let each other know where they like to be groomed.
When I show affection to my horse, I like to mimic this grooming behavior by approaching the horse as another horse would. If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach slowly, then put my hand out (palm down) to allow him to sniff me. That’s just polite to the horse. Next, I go to the withers and rub him to show him I’m friendly.
Scratching and rubbing on the horse’s favorite spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this “sweet” spot? Horses stretch out their neck and stick their top lip out when they feel pleasure. With your fingertips, dig in and apply pressure in a circular motion, rubbing around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips, reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if yours doesn’t, he’ll let you know by moving away.
Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. Occasionally, you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate equine behavior, but it is less studied.
Know the Consequences
What happens if you pamper and kiss on your horse without first setting boundaries? Your horse may become oblivious to your actions and disrespectful of your space. At first he may turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental; he’s sending you a message.
Horses want a leader they respect and want to bond with. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away, or turning and biting. Pay attention to your moves and think about who “owns” the space at any given moment. I can invite a horse into my space but he can never come into that space without permission. Be very aware of space when you’re around your horse.
Boundaries have to be established before you choose to be touchy-feely with your horse. If you don’t set boundaries, horses can push you around and run you over. When a horse is allowed to be in charge, there are definite safety risks.
Your horse being the dominant one in your relationship becomes a problem when you ask him to do something he doesn’t want to do. If he’s the boss from the moment you enter his stall, he’s not likely to follow your leadership as you tack up or when you get in the saddle.
Attentive & Affectionate
Notice when a horse moves into your space and make sure to move him out of it immediately. You want your horse to be careful about your space and conscientious of your moves. This doesn’t mean making your horse fearful, but rather using visual and corrective pressure to move the horse out of your space so that you maintain your safety.
Of course I’m all for affection. There’s nothing wrong with being affectionate and offering praise—when it’s deserved. Once you know the rules and establish boundaries, you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something he will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, and you communicate your affection appropriately (and you don’t reward bad behavior), you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.
JULIE GOODNIGHT shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her Monday night RFD-TV show, Horse Master (also online at tv.juliegoodnight.com), and through clinics and horse expos.
HEIDI MELOCCO is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer. www.whole-picture.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!