by Laura Crum
I have an acquaintance (a friend of a friend) who bought a reliable older gelding. She paid a fair price for him. She’s owned him a year and he is sound and reliable, just as she’d been told. She’s gone on many pleasant trail rides with no problems. But she’s not happy with her horse. She says she’s thinking of selling him.
Why? Well, she says the horse doesn’t like her and that they haven’t formed a “bond.” (Let us understand right now that this is a young woman who has only owned one previous horse—and that one for only a year when she was a teenager.) I asked why she felt this horse didn’t like her, and she said that the horse didn’t want her to pet him. The horse didn’t seem to enjoy grooming. The horse only engaged with her when she fed him. Otherwise he gave clear indications that he didn’t want her to fuss with him.
I asked if he pinned his ears or mock nipped at her—and she said no, nothing like that. He was well-behaved both under saddle and on the leadrope. He just didn’t show any interest in being affectionate with her.
I have to admit I stared at this gal in mild consternation. THIS was a problem?
Uhmm, I told her—you are basically describing my son’s horse, Henry. He behaves exactly like this. And I think Henry is a wonderful horse. We all love him to bits. He’s cheerful, reliable, and honest as the day is long. It makes me smile just to see his bright-eyed face nickering at me at feeding time.
But no, Henry does not like to be petted. Not by any of us, or anybody else that I have ever seen. He clearly does not enjoy being groomed. He obviously wishes that people would not fuss with him. He doesn’t pin his ears or act disagreeable. But he ignores all “fussing” with a disgruntled expression on his face, and moves away from it if he can. He tolerates being saddled and ridden with good grace, but the only thing he shows true enthusiasm for is food. Whether treats, or meals, or being turned out to graze—Henry LOVES to eat.
My son has noticed that Henry doesn’t care for affection. My boy’s previous pony, Toby, did like being petted and enjoyed hanging out with people. Henry could give a damn about hanging out with people. He just wants people to feed him. But both my kid and I have come to understand and be amused by Henry. And to love him for what he does so well.
As my son says, “I like hanging out with Gunner and Plumber (who both like attention and petting) but Henry is my good riding horse.”
The thing is, I’ve been in the horse biz a LONG time and I’ve known many good horses very like Henry. My beloved Flanigan was this way. Yes, it’s gratifying to the ego to own a horse that wants to cuddle with you, but I had a hard time not saying to this gal, “Get your ego out of the way and recognize what a good horse you’ve got. Not all horses like to be petted and fussed with. Your horse is sound and reliably does the job that you bought him to do. Can’t you love him for that? Must he also want to cuddle with you?”
So I thought about this for a while and decided to put it out there to the rest of you. Is a horse who doesn’t care for petting and fussing a deal breaker for you if he is a good horse otherwise? Trust me, there are many horses that honestly don’t like this sort of attention and you won’t train them to like it, though you may train them to tolerate it. But being “tolerated” is not what people like the gal who talked to me are looking for. They want the horse to “like” them. They want the horse to cuddle with them to show them that he likes them. I don’t think I can explain to her in a way she would understand that her horse may very well like her. He just doesn’t show it the way she wants him to. Sort of like a man who brings you tea in the morning and makes you a cocktail in the evening and cooks dinner—but never whispers sweet nothings in your ear or buys you flowery cards. It’s just a different way of showing affection, but none the less sincere.
How do I know that Henry likes us? Well, when we came to see the old guy after colic surgery, he was in a stall and looked a bit shaky, but bright eyed. He saw us walk into the barn and went immediately to the door of his stall and nickered at us, just as he does every morning at feeding time. He stuck his head in the halter when I opened the stall door. He still didn’t want to be petted—but he wanted to go with us wherever we were going. We were his family and he knew it. He stepped out eagerly beside my son, a little wobbly, but game to stay with his boy. That’s good enough for me.
So what did I actually tell this gal? I just said that lots of horses don’t care for being petted and fussed with and that I personally wouldn’t be at all bothered by this, if the horse was a good horse otherwise. She looked singularly unimpressed. I don’t doubt that she is going to sell her gelding and buy something that she thinks she can “bond” with. And I am sorry, but I have a niggling, not-very-nice impulse to wish that she will end up with a horse that just LOVES to be petted—but routinely dumps her and is resistant when she rides it. Because yes, indeed, they do come this way, too. And I’ve known quite a few of them. Loved to be petted, very affectionate on the ground, completely adversarial under saddle and willing to be violent.
So tell me…which horse would you rather have? And yes, some horses are fond of petting and good riding horses, too. My son’s Toby, my Plumber, and Wally’s Twister all fall in this category. And then there are horses like my Sunny who like to test you, and are only affectionate after you’ve won the latest round in the dominance game. In other words, you beat them up a little and they just LOVE you. Sounds really dysfunctional, I know, but that’s just the way some of them work.
And yes, I love Sunny, too. I don’t mind walloping him when he demands it, and I very much appreciate his many good points. So I guess I’m OK with different personality styles in horses. My bottom line tends to be whether they come through for me—and I’m willing to give them a lot of space to be who they are, if so.
Anybody else have a thought on this subject?
Dixie is much like your grumpy geldings. I am not a person who cries easily, but when she does do something that unequivocally indicates she actually likes me, it moves me to tears. I think because she offers her affection so rarely it makes it far, far sweeter when she does.
I remember being pretty sad, at first, that I couldn't get my new horse to "like" me. Took a couple of years to get over that. But much like you said, I came to value a standoffish but never mean horse over a playful idiot who gets mad and bucks.
I guess the only thing I'd change if I could was for her to actually enjoy being groomed. She hates being fussed over and I try to respect that... but I'd love to pretty up my princess more than I do.
I totally agree with your last paragraph; let them have their personality quirks as long as they come through for you. My mare loves the grooming and petting attention; shes mostly rock solid under saddle. I say mostly because, like your Sunny, you WILL get tested occasionally; if you pass the test, she is delighted.
On the other hand, my gelding 'tolerates' grooming, but couldn't be happier than when he sees you approach with a halter; he WANTS to be ridden - and definitely say yes to food. Do you suppose the deep love of food is indicative of certain personality types? Food for thought for me, too.
Funder--I thought of you and Dixie while I wrote the post. Never having met Dixie, I wasn't sure, but from what you've said she does remind me of my "grumpy geldings." And I, too, was moved to tears when Henry showed so much happiness at seeing us at the vet center after his surgery. I can only suppose that he thought he'd been rehomed and it was all pretty traumatic, and he was just so obviously delighted we were there for him...well, you see what I mean. But he STILL didn't want to be petted. Like you, I wish he enjoyed grooming more. It's so funny how they are. My Gunner likes attention/likes to hang out with you and have you play little games with him, but doesn't really like petting or grooming. Plumber LOVES petting and grooming and so does Twister. That's about the only generalization I can make. If they like petting they usually like grooming--and vice versa
Bionic Cowgirl--Henry and Flanigan--the two most solid and overall reliable horses I ever owned-- were/are both obsessed with food and uninterested in petting or grooming. So yes, "food" for thought for sure.
Laura - Having owned a horse like this myself, I understand both sides of the coin. Rock solid is the most desirable (and hard to find) trait in a horse, but I also understand wanting to "bond" with a horse. Because we are now a society that owns and uses horses pretty much solely for recreation and fun, treating a horse like a "pet" is, for many people, part of the enjoyment of them.
A few year ago I did a research project on why girls/women were attracted to horses, and all of my subjects talked about the importance of talking to a horse, brushing it, feeling close to it, and yes "bonding" with it. Women, especially, need that feeling, I think, more than male riders.
Maybe this woman will give her horse a little more time to bond with her. Good honest horses are hard to find, that's for sure, and worth their weight in gold, in my opinion.
I love horses and although I rode a decent amount when I was younger I have never had the right financial circumstances to have my own. Frankly I'm sure I won't be able to for a while longer - at least 'til my young kids are older and we're better off financially. When I do get one I'm going to want one that can handle my eroded riding skills and will put up with / enjoy my loving.
The bonding is pretty important to me. And as I've had to wait most of my to fulfill my dream of responsible horse ownership I'm probably going to hold out for just what I want: a fairly solid minded horse who likes to be loved on. I think in this horse market you can probably get what you want too...
I'm writing this as a 34 year old horse crazy kid who never had any interest in competing, just someone who has always had the horse bug and loves a good trail ride.
We have two like this, and both are worth their weight in gold. Cash has never been (in 18 years of owning him) an affectionate horse. He tolerates grooming politely, but he doesn't love it. He doesn't like to be pet either, but he'll come to you if he wants to be scratched (and shows you where to scratch, too) - and when he's done, he leaves. But he'd literally kill himself under saddle for you, and has never, ever done anything "bad".
Red's even more aloof - doesn't like grooming (just sort of zones out), HATES petting, but loves treats. He also hates being braided for foxhunting. And yet he's a great guy under saddle and we wouldn't trade him for the world.
Paddy, OTOH, would live in the house if we'd let him. He's so in-your-pocket. You can hug him and squeeze him and he loves being groomed and primped and posing for the camera. He's also (eventually) going to be a great saddle horse, but only for an advanced rider who will keep him from running over them, because his personality is larger than life.
Linda and Alexa--I understand your point. And yes, if having a horse that likes petting is important to you, then you should select for that trait. I guess that I've had a lot of horses, and had some that liked petting and some that didn't, and in the end that trait did not mean as much to me as whether the horse came through for me overall. I have owned (briefly) and been around quite a few horses that did love petting and weren't reliable riding horses, and I will say for sure that liking petting does not mean the horse will be reliable under saddle. But we have two here on my place right now that very much enjoy petting and grooming (Plumber and Twister) and also are good reliable riding horses. So yes, you can find them.
jenj--I knew Red was my kind of horse. And Cash really reminds me of my Gunner. I have to say I have a very soft spot for these stand-offish geldings that always do their job. They are real troopers and I am very happy to love them for their brave, reliable ways, and not worry about the petting thing. I'm kind of that way myself.
My very first horse was an old ranch horse from out west. He was never coddled or treated like a pet. He was a working animal and as such didn't want to be petted or cuddled. I understood that he liked me but more importantly that he respected me. As he grew older, he learned to tolerate my constant hanging all over him but he would have preferred that I left him to his grazing.
Each horse is individual and should be treated that way. As people, we aren't all "touchy-feely". Why should every horse be touchy-feely as well? Respect the horse for who they are, not what you want them to be. The horse doesn't judge us by what they want us to be but take us at face value.
Well, I have an older gelding that I raised from a weanling that is the "grumpy gelding" deluxe, if you groom him he will roll in something disgusting and look at you when he does it. Will always walk away if you go to catch him and never gets groomed without his nose wrinkled. BUT...he is the most honest, kind and yes affectionate horse I have ever owned. He never really runs from me but strolls and looks at me like "if you are going to make me work, you are also", will walk up to me and show me where the "tick, bug, icky thing" is on his leg or belly, and when you ride him will give you 300 % everyday. Seldom spooks (and if he does, he won't make eye contact afterward like he is ashamed) will go thru anything and do anything you ask him. Do I love him and feel a bond, Yes. I do have to admit that my husband of 38 years isn't much different than this. He is honest, kind and super supportive but romantic NO! My new 3 year old loves being groomed and is so cute and affectionate...I hope he ends up as honest and kind as my Cody boy but if not I hope I can enjoy him for who and what he is. Every horse is different and sometimes it would be boring if they were all alike, maybe the horse is trying to bond with her but she isn't seeing how he is presenting it. People think Cody is crabby but how can you not think he is cute and affectionate when he pulls your arm to share your diet coke. And licks his lips in your face because you are eating something he thinks should be shared. Maybe she should look for his cues rather than expecting him to use the ones she expects.
I have no problem with a horse that doesn't like to be fussed over, as long as they are otherwise agreeable, including while being caught. My mare I've had for about a year now HATES having her face touched. People who haven't met her before IMMEDIATELY try to pet her face and she will almost invariably jerk her head away (the only exception is children, she tolerates them). Of course then whoever was trying to pet her gets upset and thinks she must hate them. I just ask if they would want a complete stranger walking up and touching THEIR face. I am able to handle her head when I need to, and I have spent a lot of time rubbing her face just to teach her not to jerk away so hard.
On the flip side, if you want a horse to seek you out for physical attention, find out where the itchy places are! I have NEVER had a horse that did not enjoy a good scratch if you find the right spots. Even otherwise shy/scared horses will stand still for that!
I've got 1 horse that loves ANYBODY, 1 horse that likes most people and 2 that like THEIR people. I'm just glad none of them are mean.
As long as my horses let me catch them, brush them adequately and ride them, I guess they don't have to want to hang out with me all the time.
Actually my overly friendly gelding is a PEST - if your friend wants to start an overly friendly, sweet and mellow gelding, send her my way. He'd LOVE someone who wants to spend as much time with him as he wants to spend with them!!! I'll stick with my slightly crabby, but well behaved mares TYVM!
I don't care if my horses love me. Some horses are people horses and some horses just prefer other horses (and food) and that's fine with me. My Pie is pretty aloof, although if there's something he needs from me he can be plenty attentive and interested (particularly if food is involved). Red is extremely focussed on me (without food) and very interactive and loves meeting new people. Either model is fine with me, they both ride great and we've got a good understanding. Dawn is a mare, and I think different rules apply to mares - they tend to be either aloof (because they haven't decided if you're worth bothering about), or very closely bonded - Dawn is now very closely bonded to me, having transferred her affections from my daughter.
And too bad she doesn't live closer to me - I'd buy her horse in a heartbeat.
I currently have a gelding who does not enjoy the grooming, petting, etc. And I think it took 2 years before I finally felt he liked me. I went through a period where I was going to sell him (thought that wasn't the reason, him spooking all the time on the trails was the reason). But I was surprised this last winter when he started showing little signs of LIKING me. And like Funder it makes me nearly cry when he gives me the occasional nicker. It is still pretty infrequent, but he now does tolerate me petting his head and neck when I first go to catch him when before he would turn his head away. I don't think he loves the attention, but I think he kinda likes it and does it because he knows I like it. But it is only a few pets before he makes it clear it is time for me to put his halter on. He will never be outwardly affectionate like our half-arab mare who loves attention, but as you get to know them you can see the little bits here and there. And I do know now that he even when he isn't showing affection that he does genuinely like me.
The Dragon is NOT a cuddly horse (obviously).
However, especially post-spay, she does like to be scratched all over with all the brushes. NOT GROOMING, she would insist. Scratching is not grooming. But, full body, with every brush in the box. Including the hoof pick and the mane comb. :-) And she won't roll for the rest of the day.
She doesn't like to be petted (I had to teach her to tolerate it--at first she would try to bite or kick me to make me leave)...but she does, surprisingly, like to be talked to, and she likes to look at people, especially me. She will actually leave the food to watch me work on fences. Of course, she lives alone (with goats) so she knows the food will still be there when she returns (the goats Wouldn't Dare...although of course they do dare because goats are dumb), but it still surprises me sometimes, that she wants to look at me. She does it in camp, too, so I try to position myself so she can simultaneously eat and watch me. Multitask, pony!
Like all the other posters have said, there are many types of horses from eat you for lunch to sit on your lap if they could. Different personalities fit different people but I think the longer you have horses, and the more you have, the better you are able to appreciate them each for their different qualities.
If this woman had to deal with a nasty sob under saddle she might have a whole different attitude about her steady eddie that doesn't cuddle. Like most people she will probably have to learn the hard way by throwing away a gem and ending up with a piece of crap. Most lessons with horses are learned the hard way and I'm just glad I learned most of mine decades ago, so I have had years to enjoy horses in whatever flavor they come in.
Our horses run the gamut of personalities but they all seem to regard me as their person and are interested in what I am up to. Last night I was in the golf cart taking pics of them in the pasture and I had to keep shooing them away to get some decent pics. They all wanted to stand right next to the golf cart and participate in whatever it was I was doing. After I finally got their pics I was driving back thru the pasture and all 6 of them were trotting along behind me. So yes, I think we are bonded, but do they all want to cuddle and be loved on, hell no. One of them has his ears pinned the entire time you groom and tack, but step up on him and he is rock solid. I wouldn't trade that for any amount of "affection".
I also think a year is not enough time to expect a horse to "bond" with you. I have had a lot of horses go from aloof to affectionate but it took several years.
I hope this woman smartens up but like you Laura, I expect she will end up with a much worse situation, and only appreciate this horse in hindsight.
Mocha is not a cuddler, and she's the best damn horse I've ever known. I can live without cuddles. Like you, I've seen affectionate horses on the ground that are utter disaster under saddle. Give me the good saddle horse over a cuddler who can't do a darn thing.
My first horse was a 19 year old Arabian stallion that was rescued from starvation with 3 other horses. It took at least 6 months for him to gain a decent amount of weight, and it as no wonder he was more interested in food than cuddles. He was super safe on trails, never spooked at anything, and would nicker hello because we always showed up with food.
My 2nd horse was a beautiful dark bay Arabian mare who loved attention and grooming from anyone. She was fine in the indoor, but was a spooking dingbat in the outdoor ring and on trails. I would take my reserved guy over her any day!
If she wants a cuddling equine, a donkey is the answer: )
I've got this lack of cuddling problem with my cats. I've only had 2 cats in my adult life, and neither has been a lap cat. I feel like there's something wrong with me.
I was going to say what funder said - any little sign of affection is all the more appreciated from a naturally standoffish animal.
I was thinking what Kate said, I'd buy him in a heartbeat.
I'm not sure what "love" is to a horse. I know mine is attached to his herd mates. I pretty sure he doesn't hate me, he always comes running to me when I call, and I never have to go out in the pasture to catch him. He is a little grumpy when I'm grooming or tacking him up, and I never try to hang on him or cuddle him. I like a horse that knows his job and does it with no fuss, so I guess I'm trying to teach my horse to be more like this girl's horse.
I think Jan said it very well...those of us who have been around many horses understand that to have a reliable, solid horse is a (dare I say) rare thing. If you are lucky to find one that shows affection than WONDERFUL luck! I have had both, the stand offish gelding and the hang on your shoulder gelding. My heart horse was the stand offish gelding...when I first got Nonnie he was extremely head shy and at 17.2 hands it took some real work to get him to trust me that I was going to be careful of his ears and face. But I knew he trusted me on the day he finally lowered his head and allowed me to bridle him without flinging that big head skyward...and that was THE BEST feeling. I had that horse 12 years and I can honestly say I know he loved me and we had bonded...in the many small gestures he made and what he allowed me to do. Nope, he never did get to where he enjoyed being fussed with but he was such a great horse that he was worth it. My little Appy LOVED people...if you were in range he was hanging on you, could never get enough attention. Loved him too. It was about loving them each for their individual personality. Personally, I love friendly horses, but Nonnie taught me how rewarding it was to be loved by a stand offish horse. The first time he actually nickered to me, well...my heart was lost.
My horse was a very cuddly, petting type horse. She isn't anymore. And I absolutely don't miss it.
You see, my horse was the latest in a long line of "alpha mares" in the broodmare pasture. The ranch was ambivalent about starting her, selling her or just keeping her as a broodmare. So she spent three years being a horse with minimal people contact when I decided that I wanted her.
When she started to understand that people were not predators or objects, she began to treat us a little like that "special" foal that seems to pop up in every foal crop. She loved it when people loved on her, and would also love on the people all the time, BUT she would not hesitate in the slightest to "correct" us when she felt that our behavior was inappropriate. She did not respect our space; she expected us very much to respect hers.
It took a long time for her to come to respect me and become the reliable well trained horse that she is. She likes to spend time with me, but no longer seeks my attention. She puts up with grooming, for however long I want to do it, but she doesn't love it the way she did when it was totally on her terms. I think that in her mind, she's got her toadies in her pasture to bully when she wants a good scratch, that's what they are there for.
I look at her behavior, and I compare it how she was with her herd sire (he was gelded but didn't know it, he couldn't understand why he lost most of his mares for about a month each spring). They were never far apart, but they weren't overly friendly/cuddly either. He is the reason she still calls whenever she sees a palomino.
I think that this is maybe a problem that has to do with anthropomorphism on our parts, how we fail to properly understand a horses affection.
I think that lady is crazy!!! All of the commenters have already said pretty much what I would say, the only thing I would add is that it takes time - not so much for the horse to turn into a cuddle-bug, but for the owner to learn to recognise the signs of affection. I had owned Flurry for a year and a half before I realised how attached to me he was. He's not a cuddly horse, he's a food-hog and he's always looking for something to eat. No, for me it was a shock (and an emotional moment) to realise that when someone else rode him, he never took his eyes off me and tried to follow wherever I walked.
Some great comments here--thank you all. I read every comment, but have just got home from riding and don't have time to respond to each one. I think most people seem to agree that those stand-offish horses can be pretty special. Flanigan-- who was perhaps the best horse I ever owned--was very stand-offish and walked away when you went to catch him, and often pinned his ears and made grouchy faces. I would sometimes "force" him to let me stroke his face (by hanging onto the halter) and after awhile he would get a dreamy look in his eyes. But every time he colicked (and he was prone to colic)) he would put his head under my arm. The message was plain. He trusted me to take care of him. And I always did. Just as he took care of me. There never was a better horse.
Harley likes me and greets me with obvious happiness (he knows I have carrots), but he LOVES food, and I am okay with that. He likes a shower on a hot day and seems to like grooming but he doesn't make funny faces for itchy spots. I wouldn't describe him as cuddly, but he definitely sees me as his person.
Actually, some horses that others describe as puppy-dogs annoy the heck out me. Your acquaintance should give the horse some time and thank her lucky stars.
An acquaintance has just bought a 3yo largely because the filly is "affectionate". However it responds badly to training and has just kicked its owner who is fortunate to remain intact. I wonder whether what some call affection in a horse actually is a symptom of poorly developed boundaries? In the field, is a lower-ranking horse affectionate to the alpha? Is a mare even affectionate to its foal?
Love is a gift given unconditionally. Humans can work that way. Horses can't. Expecting anything approximating to love from a horse is to imagine that an animal is capable of human feelings. It isn't.
My cats give me a great deal of something that passes for affection. But that happens to suit them very well - I feed them, provide a couch and beds to sleep on, etc. And I would argue that they haven't developed to emotional maturity - they are not predators, don't breed, etc. They are big juveniles, which is fine for a house cat. But I don't want to ride a horse that hasn't developed to full mental maturity. I don't want to depend upon an emotionally needy horse.
I do have a horse that - like several described in comments - is utterly focussed on food. She likes to be ridden and her behaviour is civilised. She accepts grooming though it bores her. I'm happy with that much.
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