Please Don’t Pet My Horse: A word about touch

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People who come to my barn are probably befuddled by my posted sign:  “Please do not feed or touch the horses.”  While many of my clients are familiar with my request that my horses not be hand fed, for reasons I will get into here, no petting to some might seem a bit harsh or confusing.  I’ll try illuminate the seemingly odd request.

Some people are extroverted.  Some are introverted.  Some people like to hug, while to others the thought of being touched by a stranger makes their skin crawl.  Anyone requiring a larger “bubble” knows the discomfort of being forcibly snuggled by a well meaning person without feel for the their body language.  People omit feels just the way horses do, which are either inviting, closed off, accepting, listening, or not.  Many people seem to talk without noticing whether the other party is engaged or listening, but a person  who is feeling and truly engaging reads the other person’s body language and engages accordingly.

When a person approaches a horse just to pet it, they often disregard the horse’s appearance, its telling signs, and its general needs.  Many times people go to right up to the horses face and crowd it, or immediately go for its lips and muzzle.  This is the equivalent of hugging a person who you’ve just met, which may not always be appropriate.  It can also encourage a horse to crowd in return or lip or nip in response (which is why I discourage hand feeding treats).

My Morgan gelding Geronimo has a tendency to be pushy and nippy.  He often approaches or follows people, crowding them a bit, and so a well meaning person may think he wants to be petted.  In a short time they’d find themselves next to a pushy monster with a bay muzzle and lips exploring their skin in a way they probably hadn’t hoped for.  Being petted in this way doesn’t make him happier or feel loved, it makes him frustrated and pushy.  He is much happier when he receives space and is asked in turn to also give space, and when I do pet him it’s in a way that provides reassurance and helps to calm him.

My fiery chestnut mare, Dee, usually prefers not to be petted.  She is not overly affectionate except in some occasions with some people.  To be respectful of her, I pet her when it’s appropriate and usually in a very slow and still way.  Sometimes for her a touch on the forehead or neck is just enough.

Every horse’s needs are so different, and each moment can require a different type of touch.  As a kid I grew up riding jumpers, and a “pet” for them when they responded correctly was a type of smack on the neck.  Sometimes people pet their horses in brisk or hurried ways.  A pet should be reassuring and peaceful for it to be beneficial, and should have meaning.

Horses rely on feel to survive, which is why I prefer people don’t pet my horses.  Each touch should mean something.  If I’m riding my horse and I notice it’s attention is off somewhere but I need it back on me for a left turn for example, I could initiate that left turn by a touch on the left side of its neck.  Over petting or rude petting dulls this essential form of communication out of the horse, making stronger aids necessary.

Most people know to ask before petting a strange dog.  I rarely pet a dog whether the owner ok’s it or not until I see from the dog’s body language he actually wants to be petted, or it’s the right thing for the situation – (i.e. it may not be appropriate to pet a dog that wants to be petted in the middle of another dog who may be jealously guarding something, etc.).  The same should go for people and horses – if it isn’t yours, ask, and even if you are given the go ahead, pay attention to the horse and pet in a way that doesn’t encourage rudeness but does encourage peace and relaxation.DSC00663

It’s not that petting is bad.  It’s not that treats are bad.  Talking isn’t bad, and affection isn’t bad.  But if our words and touch are to be meaningful, then silence and quiet have to be a factor in our conversation as well.

33 thoughts on “Please Don’t Pet My Horse: A word about touch

  1. This is a bit over the edge I feel…. I have 7 horses and i touch each one of them pretty much everyday. While I do understand the liability and safety aspects of strangers (to me and my horses) I don’t want to be a prude about allowing someone to enjoy the benefits of horse ownership and interacting with horses. If I had not been exposed to someone elses horses, I may never have known the lifelong love I have had for the horse. I think it’s ok to interact with horses to show love and affection. My horses love to be scratched and petted most days and on the days they don’t …. we leave one another alone. Some days I don’t want to pet or scratch them either! 🙂

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  2. Good article. One of my horses, Moxie, is very cuddly…a fairly rare horse who truly enjoys tactile contact without getting pushy. So one day I was in a horsemanship clinic, and first thing in the morning, we were all standing in a circle with our horses while the clinician lectured. Mox seemed to be napping, but when I walked awat to retrieve my coffee from the fence, she woke and watched me leave. I kept an eye on her (we all did) because I was curious if she would stay standing, or go hunt for food or visit the other horses. Instead, she marched right up to the clinician and so clearly presented her neck for a hug. He obliged, very nice man.

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  3. Thanks for telling us. I never had the chance to grow up with horses…my parents refused to trade my older, bossy sisters for one…sounded like a good deal to me. So, I am illiterate on horse sense but willing to learn.

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  4. I love this post!!! Never would I approach a large strange dog unless it’s body language was calm and inviting but never have I thought that way about horses , I would just run up and start rubbing on them. Thank you for the info.

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  5. My boy is not affectionate and neither am I, I hate it when people on the yard come up and slap him on his neck! His body language speaks so loudly and people, after I tell them no, are rude enough to continue

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    • One of our 2 geldings is not super affectionate. He loves fussing after the ride but not so much before. However they both love their faces brushed with a very soft brush. Slapping? So many people do that thinking it’s a pat not realizing they are actually hitting. Like the person who slaps your back upon greeting you. For some it works but I would detest a stranger doing it to me, so…

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  6. I enjoyed your article.As an animal communicator there have been times that some animals (horses and other species) have explained to me that they prefer to have a relationship with a person before that person simply comes up and touch them. Strangers touching them can turn some of these animals off as they’ve explained it feels like they’re being mauled by a stranger.

    Other animals have mentioned that the type of petting (absentminded petting by a human) is not the quality of touch they seek. That they prefer a genuine stroke where the awareness and energy of the person is infused into that moment of touch.

    And then there are those animals who wish to greet almost anyone, to touch their lives and invite them in and who truly seek touch by many. They and we are all so different. 🙂

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  7. Great post. I very rarely comment on blogs, but this one touched home. Not because of the horses, but because of what you say about dogs. I don’t have my own horse, although I do ride.
    I have a dog, who is a rescue. We’ve had him since October 2015, and he’s still anxious with people he doesn’t know. I’ve got to a point, that I took a Hi-Viz jacket and styled it to fit him and wrote on it, “Give me space”…. the amount of dog walkers who do give us space is great, however, it’s people outside shops walking along who just ignore the coat. Just yesterday, as I dropped my son at school, a man walked past clicked to my boy and went to stroke him, even though I stood there, he ignored the jacket, wouldn’t mind if it was dull, it isn’t.
    A woman did ask me if she could say hello, but I politely told her that she couldn’t, just because I’m in the midst of training him to walk with a head collar on, plus I don’t want him flustered by new people. It’s not fair on him at all.
    The same woman walked up to a dog that was tied up, no owner in sight and just started stroking him. Had that dog bitten her, she’d probably be saying that it was a bad dog…. The dog was good luckily, but she could of been in a far worse situation.

    People need to think carefully with any animal.

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  8. Thank you for this article – as the stewards of a particularly “difficult” horse, it’s a great message to put out there, Many of the “schooling” horses in our barn are ok to be touched (maybe), however ours is not. He’s had a difficult past, and we’ve learned that he has been abused by owners, trainers and riding coaches. As a result, he just does not trust humans. It has taken my son a six month period to gain his trust, and they have developed an incredible bond in the three years that they’ve been together. However, people assume that the friendliness he displays towards my son will be equally shared with them. They soon learn differently as his ears will shoot back the moment they approach him for a pet. “Nova hates me!” is the complaint we hear quite often. Well, it’s not that Nova hates you, it’s that Nova hates all who belong to the race that has been responsible for causing him pain. It has taken my wife well over a year before Nova would even allow her to approach his side flank to groom him, and two years to be able to pick up his feet. We are making strides with him, and some day, he may be ok to be pet by a random stranger. But we’re just not there yet, and may not be for quite some time…

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    • I have a mareaction that was abused before I got her & sounds like she’s a lot like the horse you mentioned here. She doesn’t like people in general . She’s very trusting of me know. It took well over a yeAR for her to not see me as a threat to her. I’ve had her around 13 yeas now. She loves my husband & grandson now too. She invites them to pet her now , if it’s a stranger she doesn’t want them to touch her. She’ll throw her ears back to let people know “hey I don’t want to be petted “but many disregard it & want to pet her anyway. Then aftER they say “she’s mean , you need to train your horse” .What they don’t realize is in the beginning, she’d have mowed them down if they’d tried to even go towards her. I tell them before hand not to touch her , but they do it anyway.Folks don’t realize how dangerous it could be to just walk up &trying to touch horses,dogs ect if they aren’t invited to do so. I use very few words when training . I use my body language & read their’s as well . I enjoyed this your article very much. .

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  9. Thank you for your post. I agree people should keep their hands off other peoples’ horses without permission. I let everyone know mine are not pets. I give treats and pat or rub as a reward while I’m training and not as a bribe. If you want a pet get puppy or a hamster.

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  10. Great article. For so many people it is what THEY want with no regard to the wants or needs of the horse. And ZERO knowledge on what they are saying to us and how they are saying it. Horses do not pet each other in the face. People could watch how they show affection and replicate that for it to have meaning.

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    • Horses do pet each other on the face actually. There’s the whisker game, involving licking each others face and holding the whiskers until one jumps, very funny to watch. And rubbing thier heads on each other’s necks or hind quarters, and mutual grooming, and resting heads accross one another’s backs. Those behaviors emerge among horses that are allowed to be together for years, sadly not often the case. They have rich physical relationships whe allowed.

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  11. This ESPECIALLY applies to service animals, like guide dogs & minis. Not only for the reasons that you mentioned, but also because you can distract the animal from doing it’s job.

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    • While this is true in some aspects…..even service animals get affection when off duty from not just their owner but from many people and is often encouraged to stop the animal from getting (for lack of better expression ) herd bound or pack mentality. We encourage touch with our animals,from unfamiliar people, we have many horses, most working (race) as well as working dogs (herding) and could not imagine not allowing someone the opportunity to enjoy them.though sometimes guided we never say no.

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  12. This article is way over the edge. It’s akin to the equitation judges who will not pin a kid after petting their horse on the neck for a good round. The power of touch is healing, even to the cranky horse or pony. Granted, one should never pet or feed a horse without asking directly, beyond that…this article is quite counterintuitive. My trainer not only encourages clients to visit with her freshly born foals, but encourages us to grab a chair and sit in the stall to interact with them as they grow up. The result are lovely, socialized babies who grow into respectful horses who see humans as providers and not predators. Backing these young horses is simplicity as they accepted the bit, the lunge line, the saddle, and then a rider without fear. No need for special gimmicks, no round pens, and within weeks most are under saddle trotting and cantering off the property.

    My own horse is not affectionate, or so a passed trainer told me…wow, were they wrong…after much touching, brushing, cookies, and gentle slaps on the neck, turns out my gelding is very affectionate, just in his way. I discovered this by touching and loving him and being in his space, while letting others do the same. Instead of drawing boundaries, why not teach the unassuming human the language? Thank goodness for my pony club and 4h mentors. I’ve been groomed by 2 week old foals and yearlings as I gave them scratches. The power of touch!

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  13. My gelding was the same way. Talked to my equine science person. Told me to check for white bumps inside upper lip. He had them. Told me he had horse form of herpes. Put him on l-lysine loves to be petted now.

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  14. Good sensible post.
    Another example, Horse’ skin is 400 times more sensitive than human skin. Touch or exchange of energy is very sensitive.
    Thank you for your post.

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  15. Interesting. All of my horses like to be pet. If you want to pet a horse, come on over. If you are doing it wrong, I will tell you and you will learn and my horse will be grateful for the attention. A little too full of herself I’d say🙂

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  16. Unfortunately, many people do not know how to “read” a horse. Offering food can be a problem, since “outsiders” do not know know what potential hazards sugar & carrots may present to insulin-resistant horses or potential swallowing problems may result by offering un-sliced apples. Good idea to cooperative with the owner’s or manager’s wishes.

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  17. It is completely natural for people wanting to touch and or pet a horse. It is also natural for the horse to react in a positive or negative way to that touch. If it doesn’t like to be touched, it will let the person know that. If you don’t like people touching your horse or your horse doesn’t like to be touched, they shouldn’t be within arms reach of a person.

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  18. I do agree that everyone should be polite and careful and ask before touching someon’ horse . But if I had a strict no petting policy I would have missed one of the biggest blessings in life and denied a woman with 2 months left to live one of her last wishes . As I was riding my Arab mare through a busy gas station parking lot . I heard a woman say excuse me sir I apologize for bothering you I am so sorry . She had to repeat herself before I realized she was talking to me . As I looked at her I saw the scarf on her head and the IV port and the look of someone loosing the battle with cancer . I asked if I could help her and she kept appoigizing for bothering me and asking me to pet my horse As I assured her I was ok with it . As she reached out with trembling hands I assured her she did not have to be afraid . Seria arched her neck and reached and met the lady’s hand with her muzzle . I realized she was not afraid she was trembling with joy and excitement as she smiled and a tear rolled down her face . As she stroked seria’s face she closed her eyes and told me about her life as a young girl and about her mighty steed that she road . Seria the fiery Arabian stood like a statue as the trash truck emptied a dumpster and all the comotion was going on around . The lady bowed her head to thank god for answering her prair and Seria put her head down and met her for head to for head . The lady reached up and her and Seria ended up in a hug as she cried in her neck . She told me that my horse had given her wings and taken her back to so many good times . I noticed a couple people around us had stopped pumping gas and was watching and listening to the lady and my mare . And a few had tears in their eyes . As she kept thinking me for doing such a wonderful thing for her I realized I was the one was blessed to witness such a moment . And I have never been so proud of that mare . As I watched the lady leave she looked younger and had more energy in her stride . So every thing needs to be done in moderation or you may miss out on some of the best things in life . This mare never won any ribbons in the show ring but she brought so much joy to the people she came in contact with .

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  19. Best to ask the owner, they will let you know what is best for approaching their horse or not, even though all 4 of our horse’s our friendly we appreciate the respect.

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  20. Very good article. I totally agree. The commenters who don’t agree all use examples in which a horse is touched under controlled circumstances, e.g., his owner is there and gives permission, etc. That’s not what you’re talking about. Thanks for a well-written, insightful post!

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    • Thanks, Erica. I think I make it pretty clear in my article there is nothing inherently wrong with petting. I just don’t believe it’s appropriate at all times. I don’t let the public pet my horses for the most part, but I do allow people to pet mine under the right circumstances. Some touchier horses need help understanding that petting is a good thing in the first place, and just having random people go up to pet them could destroy so much of their confidence if not done in the right way. Also, many horses are sort of just turned into pets by affection given in a way that creates a pushy horse. I’m interested in creating a well balanced horse that enjoys being touched without being afraid or being pushy.

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  21. I get what you are saying there and I appreciate it. It’s definitely best to leave well enough alone unless you know that you have permission from an animal’s person AND that animal wants touch. I can read the body language of a dog, but I’m not so good with horses, therefore I would want to know from someone who knew the horse better before I touched them.

    I think some folks have gotten the idea that your article is anti-touch. Having read the whole thing, though, I can see that you are advocating touch in its proper place, not just whenever and however the human desires it. I also advocate respect and I appreciate your message.

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  22. I agree Kathy but I also think the lady that powers n scratched everyday has got a point to. But in your defense Kathy, just like Cooper my neighbor Donkey, he has his days mostly in winter when I haven’t been back there much he can be a bit moody and unsure. I have to give him time n let him beg for attention. And not he does.
    Some horses like dogs our children experience trauma n have a degree of PTSD and need their space respected. I believe the dog whisperer would agree you have to read a horse and use your noggin.

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  23. Thank you for the article, I feel the same way.
    I wish I could put a sign like yours in the barn where I work, but our horses are for tourist rides… Ill put it in my own barn some day :=)

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  24. Gave me some things to lick and chew on. I’ll be thinking awhile about my and my horses’ experiences, responses etc
    One thing I never can get used to is the “slapping” on the neck. AND I’ve caught myself doing this!!!! NOT THINKING. They can feel a flea or fly bite and we think because they are big they aren’t sensitive to touch. I’ve noticed over my years that it doesn’t take a lot for a horse to shutdown and become dull and desensitized
    Thank you for sharing and reminding us to think

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