Horse News

How do Horses Show Affection?

Original Essay by Franklin Levinson

“It’s ‘Feel Good Sunday’ and there is nothing that warms the soul more than talking about a little ‘horse huggin’.  Keep the faith, my friends.” ~ R.T.


Pele, Harley and R.T.Horses are extremely affectionate. If you get a chance to see them in the wild they are mutually grooming each other, scratching each other, leaning gently into each other, sharing breath with each other (a very intimate activity done by putting their noses together and sharing the air). These are all manifestations of affection. Mares and their foals are always nuzzling each other and the babies are always rubbing up against their moms. Sometimes they hang their heads over each other’s necks and gently hug with their necks. When a horse gently brings his head even slightly in your direction, it is affection and acknowledgement (unless you are holding a treat in your hand or pocket, then it is probably about the treat). The low, soft ‘nickering’ sounds they make at each other are other ways they show affection. However, love is the great carrot and the great treat. Real, unconditional love is the best form of affection and the greatest gift we can bring to our horses.

On the human end this is usually what occurs: We unconsciously reach into the animals face and want to pet and touch his muzzle (nose). If I reached into someone’s face and petted their nose, it would be rude, thoughtless and disrespectful. We do it to horses all the time. We think because he brings his head to us curiously checking us out that it’s OK to pet his nose. Or if he is sniffing us to investigate and get to know us that they are all right with us touching their faces. They do not have arms and hands and do not touch each other in this manner and, additionally, what we are doing is uninvited. We are touching their faces for us not for them. Most of the time they try to move their heads away from the oncoming hand, but to no avail. They react to the intrusion by moving their heads sideways or up and down. But we do not notice this reaction. We want to pet that soft nose and what we want takes all our attention, not the horse’s reaction to what we are doing. This is unfair and disrespectful to the horse.

When we reach into a horse’s physical space, no matter what, we stop its affection coming back towards us. Horses focus on one thing at a time. They are consciously either giving or receiving input, but not both simultaneously. So if the horse is trying to show us affection (which they really want to do) and we take it as an opportunity to input (touch or pet) them, we immediately stop their attempts at being affectionate towards us. This creates lop sided relationships with humans and horses where the human is always inputting the horse with what they think is affection. The horse, meanwhile, never really gets a chance to show it’s affection to the human. Stand and receive the horse’s affection. Keep your hands and arms down. Let them nuzzle you and gently bring their heads to you. Be still and quiet with your mind and body if you want to join with them. Empathize with the feelings you get from the horse. They live empathetic lives and look for that in their companions. Certainly you can put your arms around your horse and hug him, scratch him or reassuringly stroke him. He will get that you mean to be affectionate. But wait and do it when invited by the horse’s demeanor and body language.

When a herd leader wants to allow affection from another horse, she turns sideways and seemingly ignores that horse (goes about her business of grazing). She allows the other horse to approach her and show acknowledgement and affection. It may not involve actual physical contact. But, rather feelings of acknowledgement and acceptance shared and demonstrated through body gestures, postures and mutual awareness (empathy).

I encourage humans to be more like horses and perhaps understand that less is more with horses. By that I mean we could try not to be so forward with horses. We could try to make our desires requests rather than demands. We can chose to lead like Gandhi; lovingly, firmly and quietly. We could abandon leadership like Mussolini, with his loud, controlling, fear based dictatorship. I can now understand the kind of humans who only want to be with horses. There is no self-serving ego to deal with, nor trickery or dishonesty with the horse. There is not much drama either. The horse is impeccable and that’s a fact. They are honest, no matter what. They have personalities and disorders like we do but not the ego.

When your loved ones are affectionate with you know how it feels. It’s the same with horses. Loving touches are noticeable and stand out more than casual physical acknowledgement like hand shakes and pats on the back. Tune in to how you feel when your horse is showing you attention. Receive the attention/affection and just say ?Good Boy?. There is no need for anything else. You will both understand what has occurred. You will have been mutually affectionate as giving and receiving are actually the same thing.

If you are able to establish a great amount of mutual trust with your horse, this will lead to more affection and a stronger bond. Being a great parent/leader is a wonderful way to show affection for your horse. Being the great Mom or Dad for your horse means you are there for his feelings of safety and trust first and foremost. What kinder and more wonderful way to show affection than attention to another’s sense of well being. What is more affectionate than kindness? What feels more wonderfully loving than kindness? In the face of the most fearful and potentially dangerous horse, kindness is the major component in its rehabilitation (just as with an abused human). Giving your best is affection also. When your horse gives you his all and the best he’s got that is his affection coming straight to you.

I guess I could sum this up by merely saying; if it feels like affection and you are not holding a carrot, it probably is. Don’t try to figure the horse out too much. I think it is better to experience and empathize with how he feels. That is the real key.

26 replies »

  1. Thank You RT for the beautiful heartfelt enlightning , also geri thank You for the visual of true acceptance………………………………..

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  2. Thank you, R.T.
    This essay describes what we have witnessed with our own eyes with wild horses. They DO “hug” each other. At minute 2:00 of this video, it shows the wild Twin Peaks stallion “Magic” being hugged by his mare, “Hope”.

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    • GG, I realize this video was from 2011 – but I’m curious – was the fence at Big Springs to keep the horses out? Or was that part of their HMA?
      I have no doubts as to hugs! My horse used to bring his head around me & hug. And if he didn’t feel good, would walk right at me & put his head against my chest – just stand there & sort of rest.

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      • You will wish to read this thesis for a comprehensive answer to your question: http://csus-dspace.calstate.edu/handle/10211.9/1492

        But, … basically speaking there are some private land parcels within the HMA and most of them include not only the richest lands but many of the water resources as well. Although in mid-HMA, I believe the land where Big Springs surfaces is privately owned. I believe the fence you refer to is to keep livestock and wild horses and burros out – although I have seen cow patties within the fenced area in years past. One thing to remember is that even though Twin Peaks is a large HMA – it is fenced and crossed-fenced within its boundaries for the sake of private domestic livestock – the fences and cattle guards inside Twin Peaks are numerous and they keep the wild horses and burros from intermingling for genetic variability (see page 52 of the report).

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  3. I’m guilty of the rubbing muzzle thing. But the coolest thing happened the other day. I gave this horse a hug around the neck and she sighed! It was the sweetest sound!

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  4. I love your good Sunday article of the horse showing affection. They are so compassionate and know when you are unhappy. They are a beautiful animal that should be treated to love, security, and being taken care of in the right way, not being abused or harmed. These, I believe, are the most beautiful animal God has given us and we need to protect them and love them for what they are. I don’t think there is a more beautiful picture then to see a horse running in a pasture with his mane and tail flowing so beautifully. This is God’s gift to us and we should appreciate what he has given us.

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  5. Thank you for the informative article on horse affection. I had heard this before but only because I took some lessons, these things dont come naturally to humans but must be learned. But once learned can become second nature with approach to horses. If you are lucky enough to have a horse to be close to in your life, I would urge everyone to learn the correct approach to build trust and affection.

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  6. I had a black welch pony that was as wide as he was tall , everytime we when off in the pastures riding I would always get off of him and lay down on the ground just liking the solitude of me and my horse. he got in the habit of laying down with me and started to use me as his pillow, that was so cool. well ,one time my mom and my aunt shirley (mom’s sister) went to the store to get the groceries for the week and since I was the oldest left me in charge of all the kids ( 5 of us ) so i gave all the younger kids a rides around the yard which had a carved out bank then a small driveway to get to the lower pasture . so after that the kids went in the house to watch t.v. and me and blackie just kept riding around the house and area there. when we rode under the bank to the driveway i got off and laid down and blackie did too, can you believe Igot a spanking for falling asleep. yep, they were so scared looking down from that bank and seeing us both laying there . my dad would only let me keep my horses until summer was over. but my grandfather ( my dad’s dad) always made sure i had a horses every summer . yes , all animals feel affection and i will go to my grave defending that. happy sunday all

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  7. I have two geldings..one is very affectionate and always gives me the “butterfly nickers”..he will come up behind me when I am puttering around his paddock and gently lay his chin on my shoulder and sofly nicker in my ear…and he is a big 16 hand horse..the other one not so much…

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  8. I love this article. This is 100% accurate and I applaud you for sharing your knowledge. So often people misinterpret how to interact with horses, not intentionally, just a lack of knowledge. The relationship between human and horse is never in neutral, so to gain the knowledge that is required to properly grow that relationship into a healthy partnership is the most rewarding experience of all time. Well, that is If you’re a horse person!!!

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  9. My mustang does move his face to mine when I am sitting next to him, so close that I can kiss his muzzle. I guess he really does like me!

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  10. There truly is nothing in this world or any other that truly sets my heart and soul free as the sight of a herd of Mustangs running free in front of me ……………….

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