Many of the therapeutic benefits of interacting with horses take place during the process of building a relationship between human and animal. Horses act remarkably like humans, which make them a great way for individuals to learn about how their actions are perceived by others.
Just as a relationship between two humans takes a great deal of time to form, individuals cannot hope to bond with a horse in a matter of hours, or even days. Like humans, horses have emotions, and they appreciate people who show concern for their wellbeing. The horse-human bond is formed by establishing relationships that are truly reciprocal, rather than being one-sided. Below are some common strategies for building a strong bond between horses and humans.
In nature, allogrooming, the act of an animal grooming another animal, is often a sign of affection. Parent animals often groom their offspring, such as a mother cat grooming her kitten, but even non-related animals will lick and groom each other, as can commonly be seen in dogs. Even humans allogroom, such as when two young girls braid each other’s hair.
Horses often allogroom by using their mouths along the crest and back of other horses. One of the best signs that a horse has grown fond of a human is if the animal attempts to “groom” the person when in reach. To show affection toward horses, people can groom them. Horses very much appreciate being groomed, especially when people focus on areas that are impossible for them to reach themselves, such as the chest and belly.
Many horses like to be touched by humans, but it is important to gauge individual reactions, since some animals may be apprehensive at first. When animals seem uncomfortable, humans should make gentle, slow movements to show that they have respect for this reaction.
Just like other domesticated animals, horses often have places that they especially like touched, such as the ears. The tips of the ears have acupressure points that ease stress, so many horses enjoy gentle, circular motions made in that area. Horses also often enjoy when their muzzles are pet. A good technique involves cupping the hands over the muzzles and then gently circling the palms in a cradling motion. Additionally, horses have a nerve center under their eyes that can relax them when it is stimulated by two or three finger pads rubbed in a circular pattern.
In the working world, people rarely form deep bonds with their bosses, since they associate them with authority. If, however, the boss and an employee began to spend time together outside of work, it is natural for a friendship to blossom. This tendency also applies to horses. When humans only show up to work or ride, animals can have trouble forming a bond.
Because horses react this way, people should make an effort to visit horses that they ride outside of work times. Individuals only need to spend 15 minutes being with the horse in a relaxing setting to help build a bond. A bit of hand grazing with particularly lush grass or spending some time scratching the animal’s belly or neck can make the horse happy to see the person, which is often indicated by whinnying.
Feeding horses treats remains quite controversial in equine circles, but it is an undeniable way to make horses happy. However, people need to make sure that they give treats safely and strategically. When individuals rely on treats to create a bond, then the horse is really developing a relationship with the food rather than the person. When giving treats, individuals must do so in moderation and decide when and where to give the horse the food.
For example, if individuals give in whenever a horse seeks out a treat, they can create a horse that is dangerously focused on food. Horses are good at judging people and may take advantage of particularly permissive owners. Many people warn against feeding horses by hand, but it is standard practice among some owners. Just know that hand-fed horses may start to root and nip for treats, so individuals need to be especially diligent about correcting this behavior before it becomes ingrained.
Horses communicate a great deal of information to people who pay attention. Like humans, all horses express their feelings slightly differently, which can be frustrating at first. However, with a little diligence, people can learn to read an individual horse’s reaction quickly and accurately. Body language is most often expressed through the ears, tail, posture, and facial expressions.
Similarly, horses will learn to read the body language of humans if given the chance. When individuals take the time to read the messages of horses and communicate back to them, they can build trust. By stopping contact when a horse becomes uncomfortable, the horse learns that the human is not a predator, but rather someone that offers protection. Humans can also learn to “ask” a horse before touching particularly sensitive areas and give the horse the chance to say “yes” by moving closer.