How Do Horses Show Affection to Humans?

Sometimes it’s easy to know what an animal is thinking. After all, a dog wags its tail when it’s happy, and a cat hisses and spits when it’s angry. However, knowing what a horse is thinking isn’t always so easy, so you might be wondering how to tell if a horse likes you.

Horses show affection to humans through several physical displays, including approaching a person, leaning on them, nuzzling them, and sharing their space with them. One needs to pay careful attention to a horse’s behavior to notice the signs and respond to them appropriately.

Horses are amazing creatures with highly developed emotional and communicative abilities. As such, it’s important to know what to look for to tell if a horse likes you and what you can do to cultivate those affections.

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Understanding Horse Behavior

Whether you’re a horse person or not, there are certain behaviors that a horse will exhibit that will let you know how they feel about you. Horses are incredibly social and affectionate animals, not just with their own kind but with humans too.

According to Professors Gill, Meadows, and Neel from the Animal Science Department at the University of Tennessee, horses were most likely the 4th or 5th animals to be domesticated, after dogs, sheep, and goats (source).

The archaeological record shows that horses and humans have been together for a very long time, so it’s no surprise that we’ve developed a special relationship with these animals.

Still, human and horse accidents do occur, so it’s crucial to know how to read a horse’s body language for you and the horse to develop a good relationship based on mutual respect and understanding.

The Signs of Affection

There are some general signs to look out for when a horse is trying to show you affection. Their displays of affection are primarily physical, although they may give some audible signals. Such communication through sounds is more common between horses than towards humans.

It’s essential to practice observing horses so that you become familiar with how they physically communicate with humans. How horses show affection to other horses often translates into how they show humans affection. Here are some of the ways horses show affection to their loved ones (source).

The Horse Walks Up To You

If a horse approaches you, it’s a positive sign that they want to show you affection, and you should allow them to express this first.

According to the internationally renowned horseman Frank Levinson, horses are incapable of giving and receiving affection simultaneously, which means that when a horse approaches you, you should allow it to display affection before returning it (source).

Levinson warns that reciprocating affection in terms of touching the horse’s nose or face creates an unbalanced relationship because the horse immediately stops offering affection.

Instead, if a horse approaches you and gently puts its head or nose toward you, you should stand still and quietly allow the horse to show you affection by nuzzling or resting on you.

The Horse Leans on You

Another way in which horses show affection to humans is through the act of physically leaning on them. You can witness horses practicing this with one another in the paddock or the wild, where they will often gently lean on one another.

This physical display of affection is comparable to a human hug or hand-holding. The horse may rest their whole body on you or just their head on your shoulder (source).

Image by woodsilver via Pixabay

The Horse Nuzzles You

Nuzzling is another means of affection and is a relatively self-explanatory one. When horses bring their faces or noses close to you, they are illustrating their vulnerability as the face is a particularly sensitive spot.

So if a horse tries to nuzzle you, then you know that they are making a very bold statement of affection.

The Horse Listens to You

Showing signs of obedience is another way horses display affection and, perhaps, a less physical sign. Compliance in animals shows a cognitive understanding of trust and respect. It also shows that the horse wants to please you by following your instructions.

When horses listen to you, they are showing you that they respect your authority. Within a herd, horses have a set social structure, which translates into the relationship between horses and humans. If a horse listens to you, then they accept your leadership (source).

The Horse Shares Their Space (and Air) with You

Levinson refers to a phenomenon with horses in which they put their noses together and essentially “share air.” This is a sign of affection between horses, but they may also practice it with humans.

So if a horse brings their face towards you and tries to share your air, don’t be alarmed, it’s just another way that they are trying to say, “Hey, I like you.”

You will often notice with horses in a herd that they are usually standing together or following one another around. This is standard practice and another way in which they exhibit affection.

If you find a horse is following you around or that wants to stand next to you, you should take it as a display of affection because the animal considers you as a friend or part of the herd.

The Horse Talks to You

Horses display a vast range of emotions through vocal communication. When horses neigh, whinny, or nicker, they are attempting to communicate (source).

With humans, however, the displays of affection exhibited by a horse are most likely to be physical; however, there are some instances where they may show affection through vocal communication.

Nickering is one of those instances. It refers to a soft sound a horse makes with its mouth closed, and this is usually considered a friendly, warm “greeting” (source).

How to Cultivate A Horse’s Affections

Horses and humans have been together for so long that it has led people to believe that horses can recognize facial expressions, not just of other horses, but of people too.

A study conducted by Amy Smith through the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research Group at the University of Sussex showed that horses could read the facial expressions of humans. This means that they can recognize both positive and negative emotions across the species barrier (source).

It’s essential when trying to cultivate a horse’s affections to know that they have highly attuned social cognizance, especially when it comes to humans.

Getting a horse to like and trust you requires a lot of give-and-take. As mentioned, horses need to be able to give humans affection as much as they need to receive it.

In his experience with horses, Levinson has learned a lot about empathy and how it’s essential to mirror their acts of affection but not overshadow them. He also believes that, when it comes to horses, it’s better to be subtle in your attentions rather than to overdo it.

There are a few ways in which you can show a horse affection to earn some in return. Bear in mind that to earn horses’ love and trust, you need to form a stable bond with them, which is done over time and through dedication to the animal (source).

How to Earn Their Trust and Encourage Affection From a Horse

  • Ride your horse often.
  • Don’t be scared to give your horse tasty treats like carrot sticks and apples.
  • Be sure to groom your horse yourself.
  • Put in lots of time with your horse in a relaxed environment.
  • Treat the horse with kindness and care.
  • Create good habits, and be consistent in your treatment and behavior.
  • Talk to the horse in soft, gentle tones.
  • Accept affection first and then return it.
  • Praise your horse if they do something deserving.

How to Tell if a Horse is Not Relaxed Around You

If a horse is relaxed around you, then they are much more likely to offer displays of affection. You can tell if a horse is not relaxed by looking out for a number of physical signs (source).

  • The horse’s tail is moving a lot.
  • The horse’s tail is pinned down and not moving at all.
  • The horse’s ears are pinned back towards their head or neck or flicking back and forth.
  • The horse is shaking their head.
  • The horse’s bottom lip is tense.
  • The horse’s nostrils are flared and tense.
  • The horse’s eyes are open wide and or are darting from side to side.
  • The horse’s whole body is tense.

Image by Abdullah Ghatatasheh via Pexels

Final Thoughts

When it comes to horses, humans, and displays of affection, there are clear physical signs that you can look out for which will tell you if the horse likes you or if you are not quite a friend yet.

Humans and horses have evolved to form a special kind of relationship over a very long history and so it’s important to take the time to get to know the horse to be able to read and understand the subtleties of the horse’s physical communication.