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?