Equating horse behaviors with human feelings may skew our views of the equine world
The goal of this article is to aid the reader to understand the basics of equine emotions, how to help horses feel secure and safe by understanding their intelligence, and how theirs may differ from human perspectives on common feelings.
There have been many articles written on horse’s emotions which have included theories and scientific tests trying to validate whether or not they can feel what humans feel emotionally (i.e. anger, sadness, joy and love).
I would like to offer a different perspective from the eyes of an animal communicator and equestrian, which will open a window into exactly how horses communicate – both with each other and their human counterparts.
Learning to listen
I was 15 years old, tending to my horse and waiting to be picked up by my parents. It was a dark, rainy night when I saw a man bring in his mare into the barn and put her in a stall.
He took off her tack and left, never even brushing her, as if that was too much of a chore. She was a lovely mare, but she had a cruel owner who liked to whip her regularly for no apparent reason. This night was different though.
As my back was turned, I heard “Help me…” in a very sorrowful and sad voice.
I turned around and there was no one else there – it was just the horses and me.
I went back to brushing my horse and thought I must have imagined the voice. Then I heard it again, this time much louder like a wail, “Help me please!”
I went to her stall and saw that the mare was bleeding on all four fetlocks.
Her owner had taken her through barbed wire fencing and left her wet and bleeding in her stall, without a thought or care in the world.
I told the mare it was going to be all right and ran to the barn owner’s house. Together, we patched the horse up and brought in a vet. It wasn’t until I got home, hours later, that I realized this was the first time that an animal had spoken to my mind — and I had understood exactly what she was saying.
No two horses are the same
Each horse has its own unique voice (e.g. some speak in a high voice – others in lower tones), emotions (e.g. some are laid back – some are Type A personalities), and depth of feeling (e.g. some are very sensitive – others less so).
Yet, ALL horses have something important to say.
As equestrians and animal lovers, our job is to listen and try to understand them. Once we can do that, we’ll have a far better relationship, both in and out of the saddle.
Keep reading to learn more about horse emotions. I’ve also included personal examples that will help you better understand your horse and provide a new perspective about how these animals think and coexist with us.
Horse emotional intelligence
Recent studies have shown that horses can read both your body language, as well as your facial expressions.
- Even more interesting is that when human participants sent positive appreciation to the horse, a Heart Rate Variation began where the horse’s heart and the human’s heart synched up, with the horse leading the human to a lower heart rate, moving from nervousness to a calm state.
- Horses are master healers, as they are able to “read” our states-of-mind through our expressions, energy, and body language. They will either mirror that state or walk away until we are calm enough to get through an experience where we are afraid or nervous.
- For example, a horse wanted me to deliver an urgent message to his owner. He said “Please tell her I am old and cannot continue to jump these high jumps, as my feet hurt and I have arthritis in my back. I am physically declining and won’t be able to keep this up much longer. Can we switch to either lower jumps or ground work so that I can keep working, yet not be in so much pain?”
What emotions do horses have?
Horses feel both their own feelings and yours, too. Horses feel anger, jealousy, sadness, loss, joy, happiness, “the blues,” and are capable of developing very deep bonds with the right person.
- They can also be protective, loving and loyal – yet make no mistake about it – there are certain people they detest and want nothing to do with.
- Horses have their preferred “peeps,” as well as other equines they do or don’t like. In other words, they are choosy with their time and energy.
- For example, my horse was very aggressive around one person at the barn. He would lay his ears flat to his head and almost bare his teeth whenever she came near. She mentioned to me that she thought “your horse hates me!” and I said “Yes, he does. This is not his typical behavior. What has happened that I don’t know about?”
- She said “Nothing,” but I told her that wasn’t true. I said “There is a reason he is being aggressive towards you.” It wasn’t until later that I found out she had been harassing him by standing in front of his stall, holding the bars, and screaming at him as loud as she could on a daily basis. She was verbally assaulting him. Horses have excellent memories, second only to elephants, and every time she came near him, he remembered her behavior. He was trying to protect himself from her aggressive nature.
How do you tell a horse’s emotions?
Horses will be quick to tell you two things: How YOU are feeling and how THEY are feeling. It’s your job to understand how your horse feels and thinks so that you can form a strong bond. This process takes time.
- Horses react far quicker than humans do to noises, predators, emotions, and environments. They will widen their eyes and lift their heads up when they are moving into a fear state.
- Because they react much faster than we do, paying attention to slight body movements is your best bet to understanding what is happening and how they are reacting to their environment.
- Horses will give off many small warning signs before larger reactions appear. Many riders don’t notice the small stuff, so when a big reaction shows up, it takes them by surprise.
How to apply your observations
It’s the same theory as riding every stride. Watch your horse closely so you can begin to understand what’s scaring him, who he feels uncomfortable around, and what would potentially bother him.
- Pay attention to your horse’s reactions to people, the environment, your riding, and even gear that may not fit correctly.
- You will want to watch horses’ eyes – are they soft, full, and round (a sign of relaxation) or can you see the whites of their eyes (a sign of nervousness)?
- Notice body language – is the neck relaxed and their feet balanced under them? Or are they shifting their feet, getting ready to move into a position to defend themselves?
- Check out how they react to their environment – is there an area outside or inside the arena that makes them nervous? Are there other horses or trainers nearby that are moving them from a happy state to one of nervousness and fear?
What horses want us to know most
All horses have something to say. Sometimes it’s a quick comment or a kind word for me to give to their owners, yet it’s not all good news. They worry over their performance – they want to do their best for their rider because they LOVE their person and don’t want to let them down.
- They are concerned that they may be left behind or go to a bad place if their rider is unsatisfied with them, and in some cases, they give up altogether after being placed with multiple people and have never found their forever home.
- All horses want that one special person that will love them and care for them. They desire that heart-to-heart bond to support them and give them true happiness.
- Most of all, they want to feel loved, protected, and special. They want to be able to call you their own and that you will be as loyal to them as they are to you.
- The most heartbreaking comment I ever heard from a horse was “I just want a human I can trust – one that won’t trade me away – and will care for me as I care for them.”
- Please consider that your horse has many deep feelings and thoughts and they are very forgiving and understanding of our flaws. We owe it to them to treat them as the magical beings they are, for they are the ones that give us the freedom to fly.
Frequently Asked Questions
How to calm a horse?
Calming a horse takes a very patient person. You must allow the horse all the time he needs to make his own decision as to when he can appropriately calm down. Many people put a timer on when a horse should begin to come down from a state of nervousness to complacency. That is not the right way to calm a horse down.
Give him all the time he needs to assess the situation, understand what is making him upset, and then take him away from what is causing his agitation. Go back to a place where he feels comfortable and can regain balance in his mind and body.
How to make a horse want to please you?
Developing a strong bond with your horse will ensure that he or she is committed to learning new things and trying to help you accomplish your goals. A bond takes time and patience, but this is what is needed to give yourself, and your horse, room to make mistakes and grow from them.
It is not through threats, but out of respect that comes the willingness to please.
Does a horse read your feelings?
Yes! Horse’s read your energy before you even are near them. If you are nervous physically, yet you put a smile on your face and pretend all is well, your horse will know by your body language that you are not calm.
Horse’s react to your energy and states more than your feelings. They feel and reciprocate love, anger, and joy, so please take care about how you approach your horse. Try to always be in a happy loving and accepting state.
Can a horse forget its troubles?
Horses can overcome their past, even if there was trauma in it. They have amazing memories second only to elephants, so they remember pain they have endured and who gave them that pain. Yet, they are very forgiving and non-judgmental – which means they start every day with a clean slate. Yes, they can “forget” their troubles and are more than happy to move forward.
How do you know if a horse loves you?
If your horse knickers when he sees you or comes to you when you call, he cares for you. If he put his head in your hands and drops his guard – meaning he is completely relaxed when you are near – he loves you. Love is earned, not given, by horses and that is all part of the bond that is so important in a horse’s world.
The bond means everything to them and it is not taken lightly. Look for signs of patience and complete acceptance of you as signs of love from a horse.
What are some signs that a horse trusts you?
If your horse is willing to try something new with you – he trusts you. If your horse is accepting of you, even if you are stumbling or don’t know what you are doing, and he still follows you, he trusts you.
Going out on a limb and trying something new, are signs of trust.
How can you tell if a horse is happy?
You can tell if your horse is happy if he has his ears up, his eyes are round and soft, he is interested in being with you, and engages in what you are doing. A happy horse shows contentment by letting his guard down around you.
Horses are amazing creatures with deep feelings and strong memories, yet they are forgiving and start each day with a clean slate. Please understand that they are assessing you through your energy and body language at all times. If you can release any negativity before you get to the barn, it will help you connect with them in a deeper and long-lasting way.
P.S. Enjoy this article? Trot on over to:
- 32 Things you can do today to calm your riding nerves forever
- Can horses sense fear and anxiety?
- Equine Einstein: Understanding Horse Intelligence
- Scared to ride your horse? Get your mojo back
- How can I calm my nerves before horse riding?
- What are some ways to gain confidence riding horses
- What do you call a place where you ride horses?