How to pet a horse

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I enjoy meeting people when I ride. In the Hollywood Hills I meet lots of hikers and folks out for a walk. Many are horse lovers, attracted to my mare, India. And others will come close because a horse is an unusual sight. I like to talk and get acquainted but it seems people don’t know how to approach my horse.

Most people are more knowledgeable about dogs than horses and they over generalize dog behavior to them. It is good to exercise a little caution when approaching strange dogs, strange horses, or strange people, for that matter. An old girlfriend of mine has a line she uses on men who approach her in bars. She says, “My mother told me never to talk to strange men. And YOU are a STRANGE man” (all seriousness aside). We don’t want to act strange either. Many people walk straight to a horse’s head with their arm outstretched at its face. They tell me this is the way they greet a dog for the first time. Well, there’s a big difference between a dog and a horse, as there would be between any predator and prey animal. People are predatory, by nature, and a horse senses this even if they have the kindest intentions; a horse registers this type of approach as an assault. Some horses are even sensitive to people staring at them. Again it is perceived as the fixed frontal assault of a hunter.

FINAL-5-of-42Lots of people ask me if it’s okay to pet India. I tell them they can but I’ve learned to set some boundaries. Horses at play rub each other on their withers (the high point of the shoulder where the neck meets the back). That’s a good place for people to rub on a horse as well. It’s less scary to them than sticking you hand in their face — a gesture they will withdraw from. Petting on the withers conveys to them that you are a horse too. And a polite one at that!

To continue horse-sensible behavior, stroke them gently and rhythmically. The steady repeated motion allows them to “hook on” to what you are doing, anticipate your next move, and trust you.

There’s a way you can tell if you’re doing it right. First the horse does not back away from you and second, after a moment or two, they will gently tip their nose and turn their head to you. It’s a quiet gesture on their part, a mixture of caution, respect, curiosity, and reciprocity. They’ll look at you and touch you with their nose. It’s not very demonstrative but it means a lot (if you’re a horse).

And if they really like you, they’ll bite you! It’s what they’d do to another horse. It’s a sign of acceptance — so take it as a compliment.

Dr. Ken Marlborough is also known as The Horse Professor. He has taught English and Western riding in Iowa and California since 1995. He also wrote and illustrated the book,Trail Riding. He began his career in the equine industry as a Trail Guide in 1985 and has worked in this capacity since that time. He trains horses using an approach that emphasises learning in the horse while earning their trust and respect. Ken, sometimes called “Doc” by his students, earned his Ph.D. in Education at the University of Iowa, focusing on “learning by doing.” One of the areas he researched was college internships in the equine industry. He earned an A.A.S. degree in Horse Science at Kirkwood College, specialising in colt starting, and received teaching credentials in Equine Science, Education and Psychology, while in Iowa. Ken writes as a columnist for heartofahorse.com; a charity that focuses on maintaining and stimulating the unwavering well-being of horses in America.

  • Sandra Weber

    I had a horse that I bonded with give me a little nip and I knew he was being affectionate. But horses can bite for different reasons and it can be dangerous as they have strong teeth!