Horses are one of the most loving and affectionate animals around, and they often show their love for their human counterparts in various ways. I know, I know, this title is typically held by dogs, but just because you can’t have a horse sit on your lap, doesn’t mean you can experience affection with her.
As an innately social creature, your horse can form a deep emotional bond with you. Her affectionate gestures are often subtle, but once you get to know her better and recognise her gestures, you’ll realise just how much she loves you.
One of the most common ways your horse shows affection is by nuzzling you. She has a highly sensitive nose and will often use it to explore and interact with her surroundings. When your horse nuzzles you, she’s not only showing affection, but also demonstrating her trust and comfort in your presence.
Licking and chewing isn’t directly a sign of affection, but your horse will do the old lick-and-chew when she’s relaxed and content. You can encourage her to relax around you by getting her to lower her head. A stressed or anxious horse will carry their head high, increasing tension throughout the back.
Begin by having a halter and lead rope on your horse. When standing next to your horse, put pressure on the lead rope by pulling straight down. You just want to give a firm pressure on her poll and release it immediately when she lowers her head even just a fraction. Rinse and repeat.
If your horse tries to put her head all the way down for a nibble, give the lead rope a tug so she brings the head back up. You want her to relax with you, not be distracted. Keep repeating your request for her to lower her head until you start to see visible signs of relaxation; yawning, licking and chewing, ears relaxing, farting, cocking a leg etc.
If your horse finds it difficult to lower her head, you can add a hand on top of her neck to lightly squeeze at the same time as you pull down on her lead rope. This sensation will encourage her to move away from it by lowering her head. And remember, as soon as she lowers her head even a fraction, release all pressure and let her relax.
Coming over to you
If your horse approaches you without being asked, this tells you that she likes being around you.
If your horse comes to you when she sees or hears you (and not because he’s expecting to get food or a treat), it’s a form of affection. If she stops eating to come over to you, congratulations! You’re now as important to her as food (which is vital to her).
Your horse picks up on your emotions. So, if you’re always around her and engaging her when you’re stressed and in a hurry, meaning you’re more likely to get frustrated, he’ll associate you with negative emotions.
If your horse’s experience of you is that you’re calm and relaxed, he’ll associate you with feeling good, and he’ll want to be around you.
Turning ears, eyes and head towards you
A horse that respects you and sees you as the leader, will pay attention to your every move. He’ll wait to see what you’ll ask of her next.
If you notice your horse’s ears swivelling to keep track of you and your horse is turning his head to look at you, even if you aren’t giving her direct attention, he’s paying attention to you. This is a wonderful thing!
If your horse is constantly focusing on something other than you, such as other people or horses in the stable or something off in the distance, you’ll want to do some basic groundwork to get your horse to pay attention to you instead.
Following you around
Your horse is a herd animal and it’s not in her nature to go places alone, if she can help it. If you watch your horse in the paddock with other horses, you’ll notice smaller friend groups forming, ensuring no horse is ever all alone. Even as a whole herd, these little groups will follow each other around and the herd will move around the field as a unified group.
Horses are creatures of habit and routine, and will develop a strong bond with their owners, handlers or herd mates. If your horse likes to hang out with you, simply by standing near you or participating in whatever activity you’re doing, it’s another positive sign that she likes your company.
Your horse will also seek affection from you, and come to brush up against you, using you as a scratching post or requesting you engage with her. The way in which she does this is important as you should never allow her to barge into your personal space uninvited. Instead, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got a strong foundation of groundwork that has set up the behaviours and respect you want your horse to show you. When she knows to respect your space, she’ll come and ask if she can be invited closer.
If your horse follows you around, especially if that means she’s okay coming away from other horses, you’re ranked really high in your horse’s esteem! And this is a great thing, especially if you want to ride out alone without other horses.
Following your instructions
As a herd animal, your horse is used to constantly changing herd dynamics. When your horse comes to accept you as his leader, she won’t try to challenge you or prove his own dominance.
If you’ve ever watched horses in the pasture, you’ll see them sorting out the pecking order. If you don’t establish healthy boundaries with your horse, he’ll constantly want to see what you’ll let her get away with, and in what areas she can boss you around. He’ll see when he’ll get away with disobeying your cues and instructions, and might start bullying you by pushing you around and invading your personal space.
When your horse looks at you as the leader, and you reinforce your dominant spot above her, he’ll easily and willingly respond to your instructions without question.
Mutual grooming and licking you
Your horse can also show affection by licking you. This behaviour is related to grooming and bonding with close companions for your horse. Licking can often also happen in conjunction with your horse trying to groom you, just like she’d try to groom one of her equine friends. Mutual grooming is a behaviour horses do where they nibble at each other’s manes and tails, and it encourages bonding.
Grooming is way your horse shows affection and attachment, both towards other horses and you. When your horse grooms you, it’s a sign of trust and affection, and it’s also a way for your horse to reciprocate the care and attention you’ve given her.
Resting with you
Resting her head on you is another sign of trust and comfort from your horse. It’s a clear indication that your horse sees you as a source of security and safety.
The first horse I was ever assigned as a groom, Higgins, loved to rest his chin on top of my head. He’d place his throat on my head and rest his weight on his jaw, pressing down on me, and demand that I scratch her. If I didn’t scratch her, he’d jostle me with his jaw, pulling me closer until I gave her scritches. And whenever I did that he’d make this long, contented grunting sound of utter pleasure.
Leaning is another thing your horse may do as a sign of affection. Since they’re little foals, horses will lean on other horses for companionship, comfort and safety. This behaviour is often seen as a way for your horse to show trust and emotional connection, and it can also be an expression of comfort and relaxation.
This is often accompanied by resting near her companions. This behaviour is often seen as a way for your horse to show her trust and comfort in other herd members. Being close to other horses is a species-specific need your horse has that has been programmed into her through millions of years of evolution.
Playing and sleeping
Playing is also something that your horse enjoys a lot. Just like dogs, your horse will come up to you and invite you to play. This, too, is another sign of affection.
Laying down and sleeping on her side in your presence is an ultimate sign of your horse’s trust in you. Horses will only lie down to sleep, the only way they can get the REM-sleep they need, when they feel safe enough to do so. While your horse is laying down, she’s incredibly vulnerable. And the fact that she lays down while trusting you to watch over the surrounding world (in case a predator appears) and alert her to any dangers is a clear sign that she sees you as part of her herd.
Horses need around 4 hours of REM-sleep per day, and they’ll typically get it in several 30-minute naps throughout the day. All horses need 30-minutes of REM-sleep at the very least in a 24-hour cycle, but half an hour alone is very little. So, if your horse lays down and falls asleep next to you, I recommend grabbing a book and sitting there, watching over your horse until she wakes up. Walking off while she’s sleeping leaves her to wake up to you, her herd, having disappeared and that’s just disrespectful.
She’s unlikely to sleep for more than half an hour, so if you can just keep busy for that little while, you’ll be providing your horse with a profound form of companionship, not to mention reciprocating her trust in you.
Whinnying and nickering
Your horse also uses a variety of sounds to communicate. Whinnying, which is a high-pitched neighing sound, is an expression of excitement, happiness, or a greeting. Your horse may also whinny when she hears the voice of a familiar human or equine companion.
Horses express a lot with body language, and one way to tell how your horse is feeling is to watch the position of her ears. When the ears are forward and relaxed, it can be a sign of happiness and interest. Ears back or to the side can indicate discomfort or displeasure.
By spending time with your horse, you’ll learn to interpret her non-verbal cues. And when you get good at interpreting what your horse is telling you, you may find that she’s expressing affection a lot more often than you thought!
Do horses get attached to their owners?
Yes, horses are known to develop attachments to the people who provide them with care, attention, and positive experiences. Horses are social animals by nature, and they can establish bonds not only with other horses but also with humans. These bonds are often built on trust, familiarity, and consistent interactions.
Horses recognise and remember individual humans, and show signs of attachment by seeking out their owner’s company, nuzzling or grooming them, and displaying signs of distress when separated from them.
Some horses are more outgoing and affectionate than others, so not all horses will form a relationship with humans. The quality of the relationship between a horse and the owner will influence the strength of the attachment, so the more quality time you spend with your horse, the better your relationship will be.
Building a positive and trusting relationship with your horse through gentle and respectful training methods, regular care, and positive interactions strengthens the bond between your horse and you.