Every horse is unique. They have their own preferences, likes and dislikes, and they have their own ways of expressing and receiving affection. In the horse world, there are a variety of generalizations that get applied to horses, without taking into account the nuance of this individuality. One of the ones I see quite often is how horses should be shown affection or praise. The standard clap(s) on the neck, pat(s) on the forehead, or a big affectionate hug is doled out dutifully by countless equestrians as a token of love, or gratitude, or congratulations. A big fuss is made over them for completing a task, or we hold them close to us for cuddles.
Now, none of these actions are inherently wrong. Depending on the horse, these may be enjoyable for them, or at the very least, have come to represent a signal that the job is done, that the work is over. What I want to bring attention to in this article, is that we are using these actions as an expression of thankfulness, praise, affection. Essentially, love. The sole intention of these actions are to express that to the horse – it is the one area where there is no need for us to force anything.. In theory, this is the most important area to be mindful of what is enjoyable for the horse, to let them dictate what it is they like and not just assume. Because we are trying, essentially, to reward the horse with our behavior.
And yet, time and time again I see horses reacting to their humans affection with.. Bracing, annoyance, displeasure. Sometimes in micro-reactions, sometimes in clear displays of dislike. For example, it is pretty common in my experience to watch a horse, well accustomed to their humans displays, brace themselves quietly for the barrage of neck clapping after a job well done.
In terms of learning theory, the idea that we would latch on to a behavior which the horse is not the biggest fan of and display that behavior when the horse has done something right, is so backwards. Good job = mild aversive? Or even, “I love you” = mild aversive? Beyond just what that is conditioning, what does that say about us as partners? Working with a horse is a relationship, and just like in a human relationship, it is up to us to be conscious of what is meaningful to the other being in the partnership. It is even more important to be mindful with horses because they can’t speak up for themselves – except through their body language.
Body language is the key area with which we are able to discern whether how we express our love/affection/praise/etc is a positive experience, or a negative one. This can be difficult to discern in horses who have learned that their opinions are irrelevant, or who are extremely tolerant or stoic. But being aware of micro-reactions such as tightening around the lips, widening of the eyes, sharp lifting of the head (either with a quick bob, or lifting the head out of reach), snaking of the head or a movement as if they would nip (even just the beginnings of these movements, as many horses understand this behavior, if completed, is met with punishment), swishing the tail, shifting weight away, moving away, stepping backwards, or even just turning their head away, can all be indications of discomfort. These have to be taken into context of course, just because a horse does this one time doesn’t mean that you should never show affection in that way again – however, if one or a variety of these behaviors happen with relative frequency when you are trying to show affection, I would highly suggest you take that into account.
With that being said, finding a replacement behavior that can more accurately express your love to your horse can take time. I personally like to spend time with each horse on the ground, without any pressure or work to do, and just see what it is the horse enjoys. Do they seek out touch? If so, is there a place they appear to enjoy being touched more than others? Are they more distant? Some horses enjoy less hands-on affection, vocal praise, getting to lick hands or sniff their human thoroughly. Some like a light scratch, some like a heavy scratch, and some don’t like scratches at all. Sometimes the best “reward” can be just letting them be still and have their own space again for a moment. Still others are overjoyed when you allow them to get close to you and give them hugs, breaking down that personal space bubble and sharing time like that.
The more time you spend with your horse with this awareness, the more clear it will become what their preferences are. And the more clear it will become that often times circumstance and surroundings will influence them, and that it is common for their preferences to change over time. Sometimes we forget that just like how we gradually become more comfortable with our human friends and lovers, over time our relationship with our horse will grow and change as well. Being flexible and understanding of our equine partners in this one seemingly small area, can be immensely demonstrative to them that we are listening, we are appreciative, and we are willing to work with them.
I do want to mention that this process can sometimes be difficult for us as humans. We have attachments to certain behaviors and they can be hard to change, or even hard to want to change! I know for me personally, having a horse who does not like extended physical contact like hugs can bring up feelings of sadness and sometimes frustration when I just want to show my affection – physical touch is a prevalent part of how I personally like to express my love. But by being extra mindful of my own self in that situation, I found a lot of joy in taking the time to figure out what truly brought that horse a sense of appreciation and affection.
It can also be hard to break a habit. Many of us horse people have been generalizing affection for years, if not decades. Knee-jerk reactions like reaching down and clapping your horse on the neck can be extremely difficult to remember not to do, or even typically gentle displays of affection like sharing breath – which some horses find to be very intrusive. The key thing here is being mindful, of your horse and also of yourself. And remember that the horse has an incredible capacity to forgive – so its never too late to change!