How Horses Show Affection
Mutual grooming is one form of affection horses enjoy
Horses are extremely affectionate. If you get a chance to see them in the wild, they are mutually grooming each other, scratching each other, leaning gently into each other, and sharing breath with each other as part of their greeting ritual (a very intimate activity done by putting their noses together and sharing the air). These are all manifestations of affection. Mares and their foals are always nuzzling each other and the babies are always rubbing up against their moms. Sometimes they hang their heads over each other's necks and gently hug with their necks. When a horse gently brings his head even slightly in your direction, it is affection and acknowledgement (unless you are holding a treat in your hand or pocket - then it is probably about the treat). The low, soft nickering' sounds they make to each other are other ways they show affection. However, love is the great carrot and the great treat. Real, unconditional love is the best form of affection and the greatest gift we can bring to our horses. Just like a child, horses are always innocent and deserve our unconditional love and support.
On the human end, this is usually what occurs: We unconsciously reach into the animal's face and want to pet and touch his muzzle (nose). If I reached into someone's face and petted their nose, it would be rude, thoughtless and disrespectful. We do it to horses all the time. We think that because he brings his head to us, curiously checking us out, it's OK to pet his nose; or if he is sniffing us to investigate and get to know us, that he is all right with us touching his face. Horses do not have arms and hands and do not touch each other in this manner and, additionally, what we are doing is uninvited. We are touching their faces for us, not for them. Most of the time they try to move their heads away from the oncoming hand - but to no avail. They react to the intrusion by moving their heads sideways or up and down. But we do not notice this reaction. We want to pet that soft nose and what we want takes all our attention, not the horse's reaction to what we are doing. This is unfair and disrespectful to the horse.
When we reach into a horse's physical space, no matter what, we stop his affection coming back towards us. Horses focus on one thing at a time. They are consciously either giving or receiving input, but not both simultaneously. So if the horse is trying to show us affection (which they really want to do) and we take it as an opportunity to input (touch or pet) them, we immediately stop their attempts at being affectionate towards us. This creates lopsided relationships with humans and horses where the human is always inputting the horse with what the human thinks is affection. The horse, meanwhile, never really gets a chance to show his affection to the human. Stand and receive the horse's affection. Keep your hands and arms down. Let them nuzzle you and gently bring their heads to you. Be still and quiet with your mind and body if you want to join with them. Empathize with the feelings you get from the horse. They live empathetic lives and look for that in their companions. Certainly you can put your arms around your horse and hug him, scratch him or reassuringly stroke him. He will get that you mean to be affectionate. But wait and do it when invited by the horse's demeanor and body language.
When a herd leader wants to allow affection from another horse, she turns sideways and seemingly ignores that horse (goes about her business of grazing). She allows the other horse to approach her and show acknowledgement and affection. It may not involve actual physical contact. Rather, feelings of acknowledgement and acceptance may be shared and demonstrated through body gestures, postures and mutual awareness (empathy).
I encourage humans to be more like horses and perhaps understand that less is more with horses. By that I mean we could try not to be so forward with horses. We could try to make our desires requests, rather than demands. We can choose to lead like Gandhi; lovingly, firmly and quietly. We could abandon leadership like Mussolini, with his loud, controlling, fear-based dictatorship. I can now understand the kind of humans who only want to be with horses. There is no self-serving ego to deal with, nor trickery or dishonesty with the horse. There is not much drama either. The horse is impeccable and that's a fact. They are honest, no matter what. They have personalities and disorders like we do, but not the ego.
When your loved ones are affectionate with you, you know how it feels. It's the same with horses. Loving touches are noticeable and stand out more than casual physical acknowledgement like hand shakes and pats on the back. Tune in to how you feel when your horse is showing you attention. Receive the attention/ affection and just say "Good Boy". There is no need for anything else. You will both understand what has occurred. You will have been mutually affectionate as giving and receiving are actually the same thing.
If you are able to establish a great amount of mutual trust with your horse, this will lead to more affection and a stronger bond. Being a great parent/ leader is a wonderful way to show affection for your horse. Being the great Mom or Dad for your horse means you are there for his feelings of safety and trust first and foremost. What kinder and more wonderful way could there be to show affection than giving attention to another's sense of well being? What is more affectionate than kindness? What feels more wonderfully loving than kindness? In the face of the most fearful and potentially dangerous horse, kindness is the major component in his rehabilitation (just as with an abused human). Giving your best is affection also. When your horse gives you his all and the best he's got, that is his affection coming straight to you.
I guess I could sum this up by merely saying: if it feels like affection and you are not holding a carrot, it probably is. Don't try to figure the horse out too much. I think it is better to experience and empathize with how he feels. That is the real key.