If you are reading my blog, chances are good that you LOVE all horses, and your own horse especially. But does your horse LOVE you back?
As it turns out, many animal behaviorists believe that the short answer is yes. Pets are certainly capable of loving their humans (although it’s not a given). But what does love look like in horses, who aren’t exactly pets, nor are they known for overt displays of affection and adoration?
There is no one agreed-upon definition of “love,” but a simple Google search will lead you down some interesting rabbit trails. We know how deeply bonded horses may become to another horse, but how do we know it’s love? And can a horse love a human?
LOVE Me Not
Defining love between humans is complicated enough. Defining love between two disparate species, predator and prey; when one party is meant to capitulate and is incapable of expressing their feelings with words, it is nearly impossible to define.
Humans and horses think, communicate, and behave differently. It’s hard to step outside your human mind and truly understand the horse’s point of view. Sometimes what people think is expressing love to a horse, is actually counterproductive and ends up with angst and animosity.
For instance, if you are in the habit of hand-feeding treats to your horse every time you arrive at the barn, your horse is eager to see you and greets you with that throaty whisper of a nicker that makes your heart sing. But the nicker does not mean “I love you.” It simply means “Come to me.” Or in your case, come to me and bring me the food, I know you have it!”
The horse is not beckoning you because he loves you—it’s because he thinks of you as his personal cookie jar. Unlike dogs, horses are not reliant on the herd for food. They are quite capable foragers and can eat almost any plant material. Therefore, using food as bribery—either to make the horse “love” you or to make the horse do something he doesn’t want, often leads to disdain from the horse (not disdain of the treat, but of the subservient human relinquishing it).
What is LOVE?
Many believe that love (from the human point of view) involves multiple components like attachment, caring, and intimacy. Attachment is the need for approval and physical contact, caring means that you value your partner’s needs as much as your own, and intimacy is the willingness to be physically close and share thoughts, desires and feelings.
After countless hours in the barn, unburdening my grief with my neck buried in a horse’s mane; after too many long, cold nights spent in the barn caring for a sick horse; after losing my first horse, perhaps my greatest love of all, at the tender age of 14, and thinking it was surely going to kill me; there’s no question that what I feel for my horse is love. But can a horse love me back?
I think we can all agree that horses love other horses. They are instinctively gregarious animals (always drawn to the herd) and they tend to form special bonded relationships with only one or two horses in the herd. We know them as buddies; behaviorists call them associates.
Have you ever seen two bonded horses involuntarily separated? I think they display an abundance of love. Attachment, check. Caring, check. Intimacy, the closer the better. Based on what happens when we separate those horses, I think we can all agree that horse-to-horse love exists.
From a behavioral point of view, I think the more scientific definition of love more aptly reflects the love between horse and human– a rational exchange in which the partners make deals based on their needs, and they succeed to the degree that they master the negotiation process. This may give you pause for thought, but the more you think about it the truer it gets.
Horses are masters of negotiation. Picture the unwilling horse being forced to step up into a horse trailer, only willing to go so far, before flying backwards. Or the school horse, negotiating with the newbie rider where the corners of the arena are, suggesting when to stop, or sidling up next to a cohort. Its negotiation skills are honed on scores of unwitting riders, who often had no idea they were at the negotiating table.
When Horses Love You Back
After more than a half-century of riding and training horses, I am grateful to have had some amazing relationships with a few incredible horses who I think of as having “made” me as a rider. I’m not naïve enough to think that these horses loved me like they loved their same-species soul mates, but there was definitely something there.
If love involves negotiating for each other’s needs, it begs the question, what is your horse negotiating with you for? What needs of your horse do you satisfy? Some things are obvious—food, water, protection, shelter, enrichment. With horses, it’s quite simple, when it comes to their needs and wants. What motivates horses most is the feelings of safety and comfort.
What may not be quite as obvious is what makes your horse feel safe and secure around you– so secure that it willingly leaves its bonded herdmate behind, to go anywhere you ask and do your bidding? Is it your benevolent leadership and your ability to keep your horse safe? Is it your strength and wisdom? Your reliable sense of judgment and fairness? Your kindness, acceptance and approval? These are the intangible qualities horses adore.
Horses are creatures of comfort too– seeking shade or shelter, soft places to lay down, time to rest, engagement with herd mates. They are tactile animals that touch, scratch, massage and mutually groom, so having companionship is important.
Your horse’s sense of safety and comfort and the enrichment you add to its life are the things you bring to the negotiating table. In return, your horse offers you loyalty, duty, adventure, entertainment, enrichment, and yes, even adoration if you’re lucky.
None of that comes freely or easily but once the negotiation process is mastered, the results are pure joy. Realistically, I cannot expect my horse to love me like his bonded herd-mate, but I’ll take what I can get.
Love Like No Other
When horses and riders reach the pinnacle of their connection, they can think and move as one, they know what each other is thinking, they can predict each other’s actions, and feel their reactions before it happens. They share a unique language known only to them.
When a significant relationship between horse and human exists, forged over time, there are deep bonds of mutual trust. When one party is off their game or under the weather, the other party is always aware. I don’t know of any other sport or activity where this kind of unification of mind, body, and spirit occurs between two disparate species.
All of this is made possible by some unique characteristics of horses. Their reliance on communication through body language gives us the potential for a shared language. Their prey mentality causes them to be wicked-fast learners, eagerly seeking answers to your questions.
Horses are exceptionally sensitive to touch and to mental and environmental pressures that cause them to respond to nearly invisible cues. When riding a horse that you are deeply connected to, sometimes all you have to do is think of a movement and the horse executes the maneuver.
Few things in this world are more satisfying than this kind of loving relationship with a horse. But us humans are greedy- always asking for more and constantly moving the target. It’s important to remind ourselves to give something back to horses, in return. To love my horse is to be mindful of my horse’s needs, both physical and emotional. No love exists when one party does all the taking and none of the giving.
Show Me Some Lovin’
We are experts at what we want for ourselves and what makes us feel good, but from the horse’s point of view, things may look much different. Predators and prey view the world from opposite perspectives, sometimes making it hard to empathize with the other.
It’s important to take time to bond with your horse and there are plenty of activities you can do together towards this end. Beyond just grooming your horse, there are a few relaxing, calming and bonding activities I like to encourage people to do with their horses.
- Head down cue: outfitted in rope halter and long training lead, use two fingers to put slight downward pressure on the bottom of the halter and the fiador knot. The instant the horse’s nose moves the slightest amount down, release the pressure and praise the horse by cooing and stroking. Once you’ve coaxed the horse’s head all the way to the ground, the horse will be very calm and content. Article: Your Horse’s Quiet Place
- Facial rub down: Use a soft shammy to rub and massage the horse’s face and ears, work slowly and satisfy your horse’s itchiness. This is especially important after riding or when your horse has worked up a sweat. Check out my favorite shammy here!
- Sweet spot: bonded horses mutually groom each other, scratching and massaging deeply with their teeth at the withers, neck and chest. You’ll use your fingers (otherwise hairs get stuck in your teeth) to rub and probe until you find your horse’s sweet spot. You’ll know by watching his upper lip for puckering. It’s a kind and affectionate gesture and serves as a nice “thank you,” after riding. Article: 3 Leadership Activities
- Recognize effort: How hard horses attempt to comply with your wishes is way more important than the actual response. If you learn to recognize when horses are trying hard, and then give them the release, praise, and rest they seek, they will try harder and harder to please you, knowing that they get something in return. Horses are notoriously indifferent in terms of showing outward signs of affection, but they crave recognition and acceptance. Article: Nurturing the Try in Your Horse