When you consider how long humans have worked with horses, it’s no wonder that so many of us form strong attachments to them. But it can be tricky to figure out if our horses love us back or if they even feel love the way that we do or that we understand cats and dogs to feel it.
It’s a difficult question to answer because animals don’t demonstrate love the same way that humans do. But there are a few ways that you can figure out if your horse likes and trusts you, which is certainly an animal’s version of love.
Here, we take a deep look at how horses feel love and how you can tell how a horse is feeling in general by their actions and body language.
Do Horses Form Attachments to Us?
Swedish researchers from Linköping University completed a study in 2020 that explored the attachment between horses and their owners by adding strangers into the mix.1
They used 26 horses and their owners and brought in strangers with whom the horses were unfamiliar. They separated the horses from both. The researchers discovered that the horses exhibited higher heart rates when separated from any human, regardless of whether it was a stranger or their owner.
The overall takeaway was that horses would seek to be near a human regardless of whether they knew them.
The researchers used a dog’s attachment to their owner as a measure, and the horses just didn’t demonstrate the same kind of attachment. For example, when a dog is separated from their owner, they become stressed. When reunited, they seek comfort and stay in close proximity to their owner.
Ultimately, dogs typically feel less stressed when reunited with their owner, while horses feel less stressed with any human. The researchers have stated that horses regard humans as “safe havens.”
What Does It Mean?
Science might have a bit of difficulty fully explaining emotions, especially one as complicated as love. There’s no doubt that many horse owners will unequivocally state that their horses have strong attachments to them. They’re probably right, but it is important to look at both sides.
Horses haven’t been domesticated for nearly as long as dogs. They were domesticated 5,500 years ago, while dogs have been with us for 15,000 years! Maybe horses need another 10,000 years to catch up to the dog’s version of domestication and attachment to humans.
Do Horses Like or Even Love Us?
To consider this question, let’s look at a few of the ways that horses show affection.
Leaning on You
One way that horses express affection is by gently leaning their bodies on you. They do this in the wild and with other domestic horses, and they will do it to their owners. This is a common way that horses express affection; you’ve likely seen horses share a “neck hug” as well.
It’s interesting to note that dogs also express their affection to humans by doing a full-body lean.
Coming to You
Just the act of coming toward you can be a sign of affection from a horse—unless you are carrying a treat. That said, they wouldn’t approach you if they didn’t really want to. If you had no interest in something, why spend time on it?
It’s said that horses focus on only one thing at a time, which includes giving and receiving affection. In other words, if a horse approaches you to show you affection, you need to let them without giving it back at that moment.
When a horse is giving affection and we immediately try stroking their nose, we’re actually not allowing the horse to show their affection. So, when a horse approaches you, be still, appreciate the moment, and then return the affection when the horse is ready.
When horses listen and are obedient, they are demonstrating that they trust and love you and that they want to please those they love.
However, a horse that is disobedient is not necessarily unloving. All horses are unique, which means some simply have minds of their own. Cat owners can certainly understand this! But obedience is a key indicator that a horse feels affection for someone.
Sharing Air With You
When a horse brings their face close to another horse’s face and just breathes, this is a sign of affection. They do this in the wild by putting their noses together and sharing air, and they are known to do this with their owners too.
This is a more obvious sign of love, as many animals will nuzzle as a way to show their love and trust. The face is one of the most vulnerable parts of the body, so bringing it close to someone else is a sign of love and trust.
Expressing Positive Body Language
When your horse sees you and lets out a loud whinny or nicker or comes trotting over to see you, that’s an obvious sign that there’s affection there.
Beyond this, they will become calm when they are around someone they trust and love. Their posture will become relaxed, and you might notice that one hind foot is crossed over the other. Their muzzle will get droopy, their head may lower, and their eyes will almost look sleepy. If your horse does this while in your presence, they are showing you a great deal of trust.
Trust Is Key
You can’t truly love anyone if you don’t trust them. Building trust with a horse means spending quality time with them, including doing groundwork exercise with them, riding them, and grooming them.
When you groom your horse, you might notice that they return the favor by doing their version of grooming on you. They may lay their head on your shoulder, nudge your back, and gently nibble your shoulders and head.
When approaching your horse, it should always be done in a calm manner. Touch their flank and speak gently to them, which will go a long way toward building trust. Avoid things like yelling, jerking the reins, or doing any other behavior that can lean toward abuse. Respect and trust are closely linked.
How Do Horses Show Other Emotions?
Horses use their voices, ears, and eyes to show how they’re feeling.
So, can horses feel love? We think so, though it’s not clear if they form strong attachments to us as horse owners.
But if you consistently do the right thing for your horse every day over a long time, you will prove yourself worthy to receive your horse’s love and respect. In the end, you will build a strong and enduring relationship.
Featured Image Credit: Lorri Lang, Pixabay