According to new studies, humans and horses are deeply connected. Anyone who is attentive can perceive the subtle gestures with which horses show us affection.
Two hearts beat in time – this is literally true for lovers. When couples look into each other’s eyes for three minutes, their heartbeats match. Fascinating! Researchers from Italy discovered a similar phenomenon between riders and horses. The results of a pilot study suggest that there are also situations between humans and horses in which the heartbeat synchronizes – a sign of affection.
Researchers are gaining more and more knowledge about the mysterious emotional world of horses. Studies prove what we riders intuitively feel – that a strong bond connects man and horse: The quadrupeds remember their trainers and their voice after months without any contact. They are calmer and more relaxed around riders than when non-riders are present. And they pay a particularly high level of attention to familiar people.
What is affection?
“Whether horses feel anything like what we define as affection, however, we don’t know for sure,” says Kate Farmer (www.thinkinghorse.org). According to the psychologist and behavioral scientist, affection is a concept from the human emotional world – and not transferable one-to-one to animals.
When experts speak of affection in connection with horses, they understand it to mean the following: The animal evaluates its counterpart as positive and associates pleasant feelings with it. Bonds in horses are based primarily on trust.
Does the horse like me?
Pretty much every rider probably has the question on his mind whether his own four-legged friend actually likes him. How can you find out? “Horses show affection with subtle gestures,” says biologist and trainer Sandra Löckener (www.sandra-loeckener.de) from Munich.
The animals’ emotion can be read through their body language and behavior. Horses use the same signals to humans as to conspecifics by nature.
1-Gladly completely near
A key sign of affection is closeness. “If the horse likes to stay with the owner, joins him and follows him, this suggests a good friendship,” says Sandra Löckener. In general, being together regularly at least two to three times a week promotes a close relationship with the animal.
How comfortable horses feel in the vicinity of humans also depends on the freedom of choice. At least, that’s what the results of a study from Italy suggest. Researchers observed the behavior and measured the heart rate of a mare during contact with a test person. The mare showed signs of well-being especially when she was allowed to decide for herself whether to approach the test person or not. The free choice conveys a kind of feeling of control and thus security. For the horse as a flight animal, this is an enormous feeling of well-being.
“If horses can relax near their owner, it’s a sign of trust,” says Kate Farmer. And thus a sign of affection. When relaxing, some horses’ lower lip hangs down loosely, their eyes are half-closed, their neck lowers and their ears tilt to the side. Some horses also unload one hind leg.
When a horse is comfortable with a rider, it usually accepts the rider on both sides of its body during handling. “When stressed, a horse may try to get the rider more on his left side,” Kate Farmer knows. What’s behind it? What the left eye sees is transmitted to the right side of the brain – the horse’s emotional center. There, the brain processes exciting experiences.
The welcome greeting reveals a lot about how the horse feels about a person. Does your four-legged friend sniff the back of your hand when you hold it out to him as a greeting? Making contact with the nose is comparable to a handshake among humans. It means: I accept you.
Your horse greets you with a friendly bubble or neigh? That, too, can be a sign of affection – but not in every case. “If the owner always enters the pasture with a treat, the joy is probably more for the food,” emphasizes Sandra Löckener. If you want to test whether the horse neighs out of genuine affection or rather out of greed for food, you should not bring any snacks to greet it for a few weeks.
Some horses are extremely affectionate: they don’t let the rider out of their sight, neigh after him or stop eating immediately when the owner comes. For the rider, this is flattering.
But be careful: “Most of the time, horses are extremely affectionate because they can’t act out a social behavior with other horses,” says Sandra Löckener. Her first show jumper, for example, was like a limpet in the beginning. The horse had simply had little contact with other horses before coming to her. So excessive attachment can also be an indication that the horse is missing a buddy in the group. And for all their love, humans can never replace the horse’s conspecific.
In fact, species-appropriate husbandry actually brings horses closer to people: horses from good husbandry conditions actually approach people more friendly than animals from poor husbandry.
Horses adapt their behavior in a flash. This is an ability that is particularly pronounced in social animals. They learn quickly from others. This is great for training, but sometimes also treacherous. If the rider doesn’t notice affection signals in everyday life, the horse learns: ‘The human doesn’t understand me. “It can be that horses then no longer show certain expressions of affection,” says Sandra Löckener.
One example of this, according to the trainer, is horses that do not show relaxation gestures next to the rider. “With some riders, a dozing horse is frowned upon. They always want attention,” says Sandra Löckener. As a trainer, she is often on the road and sees people for whom the horse is more of a piece of sports equipment than a friend.
The trainer’s experience shows that such horses rarely stand next to the rider with their heads down and their eyes half-closed. The animals have learned that relaxation is not perceived as affection by humans and is undesirable. So they discard the behavior. “Such an adaptation usually happens after two to three months,” says the trainer.
6-Pushing out of love?
Some riders also think it’s cute when the horse nudges them. They misunderstandably see this as a sign of friendship and sometimes even resist, so that the horse can really let off steam. “The horse then thinks the human likes the behavior and practices it more,” explains Sandra Löckener. In that case, the behavior is rather conditioned and not an expression of friendly feelings.
As nice as it is when horses show affection – sometimes there is no other way and we have to reject the darling. “My mare often wants to tickle me back when I’m grooming her, but that would hurt quite a bit,” Sandra Löckener tells us.
The trainer then gently pushes the mare’s head away without scolding. Setting limits in a fair way does not harm the relationship. Clear rules also prevail within the herd and between the best horse friends.
Another tip: If you don’t want affection gestures to be lost on the horse, observe the animal well in everyday life. Pay specific attention to your horse’s body signals even while grooming. Lowering the head, taking a step back, looking to the side and neutral ears to the side – these are all gestures of politeness that we riders often overlook in stressful situations. Praise for this makes the horse happy – and strengthens the relationship.