What Does Having a Connection With a Horse Mean?

What does it mean to have a connection with a horse? You just know I’m going to be a loudmouth party-pooper on this topic. It’s like T-ball. The topic sits still, just begging me to wack the bejeebers out of it, because I am a killer of romance and anthropomorphism. If you are on the horse’s side, I think it’s required. 

There are words that we use without understanding because they flatter us. And since horses don’t talk, we make up the story. In the last year, it hit an all-time low with several published lists about how to tell if your horse is bonded or things to do to connect with a horse. The lists were wildly popular on Facebook but they had no research footnotes. They seem more akin to articles about how to get a boyfriend in Teen Angst magazine.

The behaviors listed are contradictory, superficial, and stupidly dangerous. Some claim you make a bond with a horse by feeding treats. It doesn’t consider metabolic disorders or gastric conditions. Some held the carrot and teased the horse until the horse’s face distorted into anxiety. Some horses become food aggressive but we smile and think it’s love and not prostitution.

One of the lists compared mutual grooming between horses to girls doing each other’s hair. Ironic when I think of the horror stories told about hair being “accidentally” ripped out, broken noses, and in the worst case, a series of plastic surgeries needed. As much as we wish it were mutual grooming, we aren’t horses. The horse becomes confused about boundaries because sometimes we noodle with them and other times, we punish them for crowding us. We want it both ways.

Then there is the pseudo-mystical exchange of breath. Who doesn’t thrill breathing in their spent air? But how do horses feel? Their muzzle is the most sensitive area on their body with millions of nerve endings. Some post photos of horses “smiling” (flehmen response) or making “funny faces” (calming signals) as if horses were emojis. Research says the visilli (whisker) sensitivity sends messages to the brain so keen that they are almost visual, which makes some sense since horses can’t see what they are eating or sensing below their muzzle. They sniff us because we’re in their blind spot, or we have contradictory smells, or food in our pockets, or because they are curious. They have their own reasons, but we should be listening to their calming signals, their emotional response to their environment, instead of humanizing horse behaviors. 

Still, we look for proof of a special bond. We try to evoke a response, even if it’s anxiety that we try to see as affection. We want them to acknowledge us, even if we have to bait them into it. We want horses to love us as much as we love them. Sorry. 

While we’re looking for validation, horses are simply horses. Forever flight animals, horses are ruled by their response to their environment. It doesn’t matter how many generations they’ve been living with humans, no matter how long you’ve owned that particular horse, they remain in fear for their survival. Horses are equally dangerous to dominating riders as they are people convinced their horses love them. Sorry again.

Why am I such a loudmouth party pooper about these silly articles? Because this kind of trivializing of horse training is insulting to horses and good horse owners, those who hold themselves to a higher standard. Whether rescue horses or well-bred competitors, we know reliable horses are trained with kind, confidence-building experiences. We understand horses cannot change their nature, but we can change ours. We can be more concerned with using our breath than feeling theirs. We remain slow and consistent, even when railbirds cluck and tsk. We inch our way toward something real. 

A bond is a promise of safety, a pact of honor, a treaty of trust. A bond has to count when it matters to the horse. Having a bond or connection with a horse means that we listen, putting his safety above our desire for selfies. A bond means that the horse isn’t perfect for the farrier but gets a little better each time. A connection shows when a horse lets us dress a wound, even when it hurts. Or trusts enough to load in a trailer when there is a fire and he’s afraid.

I’m not trying to make horse-crazy girls cry or ruin the carrot business. Of course, we all love horses, but love isn’t the goal; it’s the fuel. The important question is what does your horse need to feel safe?

I want to celebrate those who are in for the long haul because a bond can’t be bought with a carrot. I want to celebrate the horses who didn’t get a solid start but find their footing eventually with a human who leads them back to peace, earning every release the horse gives. It takes consistent, patient work over time to build a connection strong enough to support a horse. 

But if you still want evidence of your bond with your horses, I know a way.

It happens when someone comes to visit, usually adults and kids, wanting to meet the horses. I guide them through the pens, introducing the horses while Edgar Rice Burro quietly positions himself for scratches when the truth is that he is the herd sentinel. Seeing it’s safe, the horses stop eating and come over, stand still, drop their heads. I ask visitors to not touch their noses, but it’s irresistible and they do, pushing into the horse’s space and mugging them. My horse might close his eyes, pulling inside because the visitor is too close, but no horses shove or resource guard or make faces. A visitor might kiss a horse and think it’s a big achievement. The horses and I exchange glances, they mostly tolerate the intrusion with patience, although my mare will give me the side-eye. I move the visitors along when each horse gives me the sign, so slight the visitors don’t see it. Some horses volunteer nothing at all, still works in progress. 

Of course, the visitors fall in love. I smile at all they don’t know as they tell me about a special connection they had with one of the horses. I know that horse’s history. If the visitor could get a halter on, they couldn’t lead the horse away from the herd. There is no bond with the visitor, but still, I nod.

It’s taken me this long to find the words for the scenario. There is a bond there, but horses who are okay with strangers, whether visitors or veterinarians, have learned to trust. What the visitor is experiencing is a ripple effect of the bond the horse has with his owner. Kind and polite horses are a result of an owner who works daily to build a bond deeper than her love of horses. It’s a bond that allows the horse the freedom and confidence to choose our company. 

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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Anna Blake

44 thoughts on “What Does Having a Connection With a Horse Mean?”

  1. Yep, sometimes the truth hurts feelings. And when folks insist on believing what they want to believe, they get physically hurt and the horse gets blamed.

    Reply
  2. Anna,
    Like so many of us, I have learned (and am learning) that less is more with horses — in almost all areas.
    I talk gently to my horse, as it relaxes him. Yes, he’s very social with visitors, following my lead.
    A funny brief: Two days ago, a new student arrived — five year old Vivienne. (How we long for those days
    when we, too, were fearless). While Vivienne took her lesson, I talked with her mother — a fellow Brit.
    My horse came into his stall and sought her attention, playing with his halter, on the hook. They may not
    talk, but if you are observant, you know when they ‘are’ speaking to you. I put his halter on and took him
    for a walk with Shermaine. He stayed close to me, at first, then realized that Shermaine was someone
    he seemed to like.

    My husband (a physician) says we highly underestimate pheremones, both in human-to-human relationships,
    and in human-animal relationships. His take: Shermaine and I had just met but we got along very well, and
    talked of the old country, laughing often. Jack, an intelligent and perceptive being, as all horses are, picked
    up on the camaraderie, and it calmed him.

    I don’t think this is anthropomorphism. He was not only playful and merry, he performed his exercises with good cheer
    and was happy to slobber on Shermaine when we walked back to the barn. She was honored by his attention.

    In all other respects (and I think we are all guilty of some of the vices, at times) this is an appropriate reminder
    of our own behavior. I try, daily, to leave him alone and let him choose if he wants my company in the barn.
    I will sit with a cup of coffee and he rarely leaves his (open) stall when I am relaxed in the barn. Following
    your excellent advice — I try to avoid touching his face (except for halter and bridling). One thing he does like
    is a cool (or warm) soft cloth, wiping his eyes. That relaxes him. Muzzle: leave it alone as much as possible.
    He will let me know when he wants a little contact.

    There’s another way, too. One day, Jack’s ex-owner came to visit. Horses never forget, as we know. He had not
    seen her for about 1.5 years. He acknowledged her right away, and then turned to me and stood with his head
    close to mine, in relaxed mode.

    His ex-owner said, “He’s your horse now.”

    Nuala

    Reply
  3. I’m heading over to the barn in about 15 minutes. Even though I’m going to muck stalls, this is EXACTLY what I needed to read. In fact, it’s probably better to read it now so I can ruminate on it while I work. When I get close enough to touch the horses, instead of the rake, my brain starts leaking out my ears and it’s hard to remember who they really are.
    Audrey

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  4. “Love isn’t the goal. It’s the fuel.” Wow. Another quote for the tack room! My horse doesn’t love me, but she trusts me (most of the time!), which is miles better. Thanks, Anna, you party-pooper!

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  5. Perfectly stated as always. “Kind and polite horses are a result of an owner who works daily to build a bond deeper than her love of horses.” Thank you so much for the compliment.. I’m proud of how far my horses have come.

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  6. Hello Anna,

    What a wonderful and necessary article. While I agree 1000%, I have a problem:
    How do I wean myself off the deliciousness that is my lips on a velvety muzzle. I inhale deeply and my day is made.
    Is there a “ muzzle anonymous “ group?

    Thank you, Anna

    Joanna

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  7. “… the truth is he is the horse sentential?” (sentinel?)
    Great article. I am having the reverse trouble right now with Riley, a horse I trained for trailriding and rode like 12-15 years ago, who has joined Rocky and Jace at Open Trail Ranch. He would like a lot of contact and will go over/through me to get either horse away from me. He seems to prefer that only he can touch me. We are usually out on 30 acres with the whole herd of 30+ horses, but Riley is having a really hard time adjusting. Any hints for this sort of adjustment? I’ve just been elbowing him and pretty much “ignoring” it with my body language (he gets a cold shoulder if he’s that rude).

    Reply
    • Thanks, and damn Grammerly. Riley is insecure in his new place. Without seeing him, I can’t guess. He might even be telling you about pain. He may have gotten an ulcer in the move but if not, then isn’t that he wants contact so much as he is worried. It’s a horse version of resource guarding and it’s dangerous if the other horses develop an opinion. I would not punish him, but step away. I know it isn’t easy. You might have to have a hand on his hind for a while. Change is hard, good luck.

      Reply
    • Jess, I won’t tell you what to do with your horse. I will say that it’s now illegal to trim whiskers internationally. I talk about it a lot in my classes and have written about it frequently. I don’t touch my horse’s muzzles. I stay away from their faces in general. Thanks for asking.

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      • Jess, Anna,
        Yes, I have an OTTB and I always loved to touch his mouth area (his ex-owner told me he liked mouth massages.
        After reading Anna’s last blog, I have stopped doing this, though I have NEVER trimmed whiskers; horses need them.

        My horse tends to ‘put up with’ people touching his face (the OTTBs are accustomed to much handling) but I sensed
        ‘cooperation but dislike’ when I did this. I stopped and I try to do very little but stroke his neck, which he appears to
        prefer. If he offers a muzzle to me, that’s different. He’s usually just saying hello when I arrive.

        Less is best, that’s what I think, too.

        Nuala

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      • are grazing muzzles just increadibly cruel then? How do I work around this. I have a horse that is extremely obese and a pony with IR and they go out on pasture in the morning with grazing muzzles. Now I feel even more aweful than they already make me feel for abusing them so.

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        • Jess, had to chime in. My mare is always in a grazing muzzle when she is out on pasture. My vet insists and the results when she is not is pretty horrific. We are in VA where the grass is lush and very high in sugar content. If she did NOT have the muzzle it would be cruel. She, from what I can see, is absolutely fine with it. Puts her head down to have it put on and eats and drinks and rolls just fine with it on. I have tried several and the best one I have found (pony and vet approved!) is Green Guard grazing muzzle, gg-equine.com. This is particularly good (in my opinion) because it allows them to breath easily and there is not a tiny hole that they have to struggle with. My mare could not survive without it. Also, she is in a stall for several hours each day with no muzzle, happily munching hay so she does get a break from it. Anyway, just my 2 cents!

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        • Jess, this is a complicated question to answer without knowing about your horses, for instance, I didn’t know about grazing muzzles. First of all, horses communicate so much with their muzzles that I leave them alone because I don’t want my hand to complicate their message, if that makes sense. Now, knowing that you have IR you’re dealing with, even more so. Muzzle anxiety isn’t about “greeting”. It’s frequently pain or discomfort they are telling you about, and in your case with IR, surely it’s discomfort. If touching the muzzle alleviated the situation, they would stop doing it, so my GUESS (since I can’t see them) the touch isn’t helping. Again, muzzles are the most misunderstood calming signal horses give us. BUT Some grazing muzzles are monsters, but some are very kind. And it might be the best choice, all things considered. Please don’t feel bad for saving their lives. Horses are complicated and you are not alone with this difficult situation. Next Sunday we are having a free panel on Metabolic issues at the Barn School. You will find good horse owners with helpful suggestions and lots of support.

          Please join us: https://relaxedandforward.mn.co/events/happy-hour-barn-school-health-series-1-metabolic-issues?instance_index=20211010T190000Z

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  8. I’m working with a 16-year old mustang mare (Snow White because she thinks all apples are poisoned) who was running wild on BLM land in Nevada until she was 13. She’s been through several gatherings and thirteen years of experience has given her plenty of opinions about people, gates, pens, and sticks (she thinks everything resembling a stick is a cattle prod). She’s been with us sixteen months now. When she came, I couldn’t get within 200 feet of her.
    Through shaping and clicker training, she now will step up, side pass, back, touch a target, and follow me at liberty. She will touch me when she wants my attention, but she won’t allow me to touch her yet. Does she love me? Absolutely not. But she’ll let me work around her with the pitchfork and wheelbarrow because she has developed some confidence that most of the time I don’t initiate contact, leaving her to start things with me. She’s a member of my herd of 12 now and I’ve noticed that she doesn’t allow any of them to touch her, either. Will I ever ride her? Doubtful. But that’s not why I have her. Over the past years I’ve specialized in starting older horses under saddle and I just wanted to see what I could do with her, with her teaching me at the same time.
    I had a young farrier out here the other day–you know the type: in his twenties with a fresh back. He took one look at her and immediately began to advise me how I should do “join up” with her in a round pen. He spoke like doing join up in a round pen was a new thing.
    I’m 59 and the only reason I called him was my back hurt or I would have trimmed my horses myself. I’ve been starting horses under saddle since 1974. I learned how to train mustangs from my father who was born in 1917. He learned from his dad who was born in 1886. That doesn’t mean I know it all, of course, but I certainly have put in plenty of hours in a round pen to the point that I pretty much don’t use them anymore.
    After he left, I was musing about what he thought he would do with Snow White. I was thinking of how he would be with a young filly in a round pen–kind of like how he might be on a date with a 14-year old girl. Sure he might be able to intimidate or impress the girl enough to get a kiss or cop a feel and think he got somewhere. But let’s see him try to date a 59-year old mother of six who’s been married three times and is armed with a double-barrel shot gun and a can of bear spray. Let’s see him cop a feel then.
    I don’t know how many years of horse ownership it takes before you get away from wanting a horse to love you. I don’t know how many MORE years it takes before you realize you get over wanting to intimidate them. After that, it probably takes even more time to learn that it’s all about the timing and quality of your communication. And then, at some point, all of that doesn’t matter. They’re just horses. You’re the human who moves in amongst them. You’re the one with the agenda. You’re the one with the goals. You’re the one with the ego. All they want is to eat, hang around, play now and then and be safe. So simple.

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    • Never a truer word, Karen! It takes time and years. Fortunately, we get there in the end, and sooner if we have the help
      of such excellence as Anna and other people who genuinely have a natural feel for horses.

      When young, I was just a rider. Horses were prepped for our arrival. I didn’t really start learning about them until age 59, when
      I returned to horses. I have two now.

      They are their own beings. The most important thing for them is SAFETY. As Anna says, (and I paraphrase), “You will never
      breed the desire for safety out of them”. (I apologize, Anna, but words to that effect).

      1. Safety.
      2. Safety.
      3. Safety.
      4. Food and Water.
      5. Shelter.
      6. Equine Company.
      7. Maybe we are No. 7 — if we are lucky….
      8. Affection — maybe…

      Nuala

      Reply
  9. Early on I found it nigh on impossible to resist my muzzle-molesting hands from groping on my horse in spite of Party Pooper Anna’s admonitions to the contrary. Surely her dictum did not apply to me. “He won’t mind. My horse just loves me!” But one day I started thinking how when I was young, I hated having my cheek pinched by my elders. Though it didn’t hurt, I didn’t like it, yet I felt constrained from protesting because it was my aunt or uncle or good friend of my mom’s doing the pinching.
    So it was then I decided to every day keep my hands in my pockets, not molesting, until soon my muscle memory adapted to being able to not molest anymore!
    Thanks, Anna, my horses needed that.

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  10. My small animal vet has been the one to do Val’s coggins, and give him his rabies shot for about 10 years now. When I first told her about my plans to get a horse, she screwed up her face and muttered something like – prepare to spend lots of money. (which wasn’t untrue ;D) I also think she’d been injured by a horse in vet school. On the first visit I could tell by her body language that she was scared. Val was a perfect gentleman. Every year after that, she would bring new techs and vets at the practice to Val’s appointments, and I would hear her bragging on him as they walked to the barn. His being a solid citizen is worth all the muzzle mugging I’m missing out on lol.

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  11. Here you are again, party pooper !!! That’s why we love you, Anna, for keeping things real.

    I personally dont mind if a non- horse friend feels she had a special moment with one of mine and is gaga about a breath on her face. A horse breath is actually pretty darn special for us humans.

    But like you say, the many misperceptions in videos, posts, etc that minimize the horse and put the human & human projections as the main feauture annoy the heck out of me too. What can be done ? Except keep writing and speaking as you do !

    Reply
    • Hi Sarah! I have a non-horse guy and together we went looking at boarding barns these last few weeks and it’s all I could do to get him to raise his hand to a horse when they, from their stall, reached out to him (he never initiated it.) Then there is this look of awe on his face when contact is made, however subtle. The funny thing was seeing that time after time, the less he did in terms of contact, the more the horses reached out to him! It was great and very telling. Less is indeed more! I, too, think there is so much good we do when we allow our friends to interact (in a controlled way) with our horses. Spread the joy. Let others see what we see. Have a good weekend!

      Reply
  12. My newish gelding (he’s been with us for 3 years) is constantly bumping me with his nose. Its almost like the behavior you see in teenaged colts but he never nips, just bumpbumpbump, particularly if Im near his stall door. He settles while I’m grooming him and does it less in the pasture but is very much a follow you around horse. At first I assumed it was treat seeking but 3 years is a long time to keep at it. He has actually trained me to put my hand up when I walk by so he can nudge me which is not something Ive ever done with other horses. I wonder if I should stop indulging him…

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    • Almost like a high five? I’m sure Anna has a more experienced reaction but seems like hes not being “bad” – just doing something a little different. And sometimes we get “trained” rather than being the trainer – whether its horses, dogs, cats or ?? Just seems to be one of the perks of living with animals.

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      • Yes it’s oddly like a high five. I wonder if he was clicker trained at some point to touch and get a treat and he’s just not giving up on me in the hopes that I get it lol. He’s not aggressive at all and I don’t take it as ‘bad behavior’, just unusual. I definitely sense I’m the one missing a cue 🙂

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    • Without seeing your horse, I’m only guessing and can only speak in generalizations. Generally speaking, If I had a choice, I’d always touch his neck or shoulder rather than his muzzle. When you say You thought treats, well, muzzle anxiety is tied to gastric issues. Again, I can’t see him, but perhaps it’s true now or when he came, but he isn’t doing it by accident. It might be pain, when a horse isn’t being “normal”, it’s possible. If it seems a bit OCD, it could be a precursor to something else, we call it stereotyping. It’s a long time, as you say. Good luck, Shaste. Do some experimenting.

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  13. Nothing makes my eyes cross and steam come out my ears as when someone says “My horse loves me!” Or “Your horse loves you so much!”

    I don’t want Briggs to love me, I want him to trust me as I am learning to trust him. Any problems we are having are my fault and often as I ponder the situation I see what I’m doing wrong. We are a work in progress.

    Reply
  14. My 8yo Rocky Mountain gelding, Jack, seeks a muzzle rub every time I enter the barn (including outside and inside massaging). Followed by a neck massage. He was recently treated for severe ulcers and is now on maintenance. I don’t know how long he’d had ulcers (I’ve had him 5 years). From what you’re saying, this could be a residual habit?

    Reply

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