Relationship Fix Series
Bonding Dos and Don’ts
By Julie Goodnight with Heidi Melocco
Top trainer Julie Goodnight discusses how to show your horse affection without deteriorating your leadership in your herd of two.
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. Horses don’t think like we do—especially when it comes to how to bond and show affection. Be aware and make sure not to instill human affection behaviors on the horse—such as kissing on the lips. Instead, find out what your horse likes.
We, as humans, are so drawn to the head of the horse. The head and lips are so soft and smell so good. You may want to get your head next to his and love on him. But horses have blind spots around his head and many horses don’t like to have you so close to their heads. 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 head. Even if it’s a horse you know well, he may accidentally turn quickly and 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 more of a reason not to kiss on the lips. That’s a reason to 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. Allo grooming (also known as 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. Then I like to find the horse’s “sweet spot.” If I’m bonding with a new horse, I approach the horse 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 “sweet” spot is a great way to show your affection. How do you find this spot? Horses pucker their lips when they feel pleasure. With your fingers all pressed together, dig in with your fingertip pressure in a circular motion and rub around your horse’s withers, neck and chest. When you find a spot he likes, you may see your horse slightly move his lips or you may see your horse reach high in the air, wiggle his lips and show his teeth. Many horses like a deep pressure—if he doesn’t like that deep of a pressure, he’ll let you know by moving away.
Sometimes I give my horse a hug at the withers. On a rare occasion you’ll have a horse that wraps back and hugs you as you stand at his shoulder. That could be another affectionate behavior of the horse but it is less studied. I have had that happen just a few times in my life but it does feel like a bonded and sincere behavior. I’ve heard of a few other similar reports and would love to see research about it!
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. He may at first turn his head away from you. Then he’ll bump into you. That’s not accidental, that’s sending you a message. If your horse is oblivious to your existence, that’s not a relationship that is bonded from the horse’s perspective.
Horses want a leader and respect and want to bond with a leader. If the behavior is allowed to go on, the horse may escalate from turning away to more aggressively dragging away or turning and biting. Make sure to 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. Make sure your horse is conscientious about your space and careful not to crowd you.
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. Horses can also manipulate and “train” the people around them. They may train you to give them attention if they paw or reach for your hand with their lips. Think of a Golden Retriever that comes over to you when you sit down. He’ll bump your elbow with his nose until you start to pet him. He has trained you to pet him when he asks for it. Similarly, your horse may be training you to be subordinate by using horse language—moving you out of his space instead of understanding that he must move from your space. You may not be in danger when a dog trains you. When a horse is in charge, there are safety risks.
Your horse being the dominant in the herd of two becomes a problem when you want to ask a horse 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 from the saddle.
Pay Attention and be Affectionate
Notice when horses move into your space and make sure to move them out of your space 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 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 will know your horse and you can stretch the rules if you want to. Make sure the affection you give is appropriate for the horse and is something they will appreciate. If your horse is mindful of your presence, your affection is appropriate to how horses communicate and you don’t reward bad behavior, you’re on your way to a respectful and bonded relationship.