Last year when Presto was very sick and spent those few weeks at the vet clinic, I spent most of those days right there with him. I wasn’t really doing much… I would hold the IV bag sometimes, or go get his vet if he seemed particularly uncomfortable. Mostly I just watched him and rubbed him and spent time with him, but I felt a strong pull to just be there. Those weeks were so up and down, so touch and go, and so… well… ominous.
Why did I feel such a strong need to just be there? It took me a while to really figure it out. When he first checked in at the clinic I don’t think anyone actually expected him to live, and the whole first couple weeks were really damn sketchy, every single day. While I wanted so badly for him to make it, I was well aware of the fact that the odds were stacked against him. I know this sounds crazy and like I’m anthropomorphizing here, but if his life was doomed to be short, I wanted him to at least feel like he was loved, every single day that he was here. At that point it was the only thing I could do for him, so I clung to it.
Are horses really capable of feeling “love” as we know it? My first inclination, from my admittedly skeptical side, is to think of course not. That’s silly right? But then again maybe I’m not giving them enough credit. They understand a lot more than I think most of us even realize. They’re perceptive. They’re intelligent. Their minds are creative enough to dream. Love, though? I don’t know. I guess first you’d have to define what love really is, and that’s tricky enough. I would venture to guess that the definition would vary, depending on who you ask. Is it attachment? Affection? Caring? Kindness? And who’s to say that horses would even define it the same way we do.
Example being: think of what it means to be “cared for”. A human might see a horse that is well groomed and in good weight and describe it as being well cared for. But that well groomed healthy horse might be pretty unhappy emotionally. We see those kinds of things manifest themselves all the time in their behavior. So would that horse agree with our “well cared for” assessment in that case? Probably not.
I do think that horses definitely understand attachment and affection. They have very strong herd instincts after all, and are social animals by default. It’s easy to see horses form bonds with each other, and sometimes with their humans. Just like dogs, I think that some of them are more intelligent than others, and some build connections with humans more easily than others.
I also definitely believe that they know when people are approaching them with kindness and caring, versus when they aren’t. It would be naive to think that a creature that communicates almost solely by body language – down to the tiniest details – wouldn’t be able to pick up on that. Horses and humans are able to form some pretty incredible relationships, and have been doing so for thousands of years.
Yes, these are the types of random ponderings that keep me up at night.
I find myself looking at both of my boys sometimes, wondering if they have any idea how loved they are. Do they have any concept of it, or are they just happy as long as they’re getting food and have some companionship? Hell if I know. But if they do, if they can perceive what it means to be loved, I really hope they know.
15 thoughts on “Do horses feel love?”
I used to think Pig didn’t really care about me much. He’s not terribly demonstrative. Almost never whickers or neighs at me. Never used to come to me, until I started being the only one to feed him. Even then, he’s sometimes obstinate about making the effort. But then I remember when I first got him, and he was the spookiest thing I’d ever ridden. And I remember how he got kicked out of the therapy program for being too spooky. And how other people who ride him think he’s difficult and spooky. And I realize now how much he takes his confidence from me, and our relationship. I see how he watches me carefully, even when I don’t think he even knows I’m there. These things aren’t my imagination, as I’ve had many moments pointed out by others at the farms where we’ve boarded. I’ve been told he’s a different animal with me around, and that I think speaks to relationship. He has always cared for me in our rides, spooking in such a way as to ensure I don’t fall off and stay in balance. He’s extremely careful with me, which is impressive for such a clumsy creature. To me, love is deep relationship based on caring for and about another. In his way, Pig loves me the best he can. I try my best to show him I love him back.
I definitely think Frankie is absolutely full of love, and I like to think that I get a special part of that. He is very aware of who he’s “talking” to- when I have friends or family come to visit and they’re intimidated by how big he is, he stands stock still and lets them approach. And then when I show up, he snuffles right into my pockets and trades scratches and makes faces and engages much more playfully. He’s always happy to receive attention/loving from anyone, but I get a lot of attention and loving back from him in return. He’s a big, goofy, happy, loving dude.
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I’ve been really intrigued by the research showing how adept horses are at reading human emotions from looking at our faces. I don’t know that that gives them the ability to know their loved, but they certainly distinguish us as individuals and have a firm sense of who’s well-meaning towards them (and who’s not). Whenever I walk into the barn, it’s clear my horses know it’s me. Even if they think of me as That One Who Always Has Cookies, they seem very much aware that I’m their person—which I love.
I never know if Remus is happy (or loves me) to see me because I feed him or because he has such a chill life but the way he nickers when he sees me in the am in the barn and the way he lets me do all the things to him without a halter on and the way he really watches where I go at all times in the barn and comes to the fence whenever I go outside and he is in the field may not be love but it is definitely affection. Maybe it is just affection but I do think horses have ‘feelings’ for their owners, riders etc. Even Tate has gone from a slightly spooky pony to more like Remus in affection to me.
I do think it is our responsibility to make the horse as comfy as possible and life good for them. Same with dogs. And i feel sorry for those animals who don’t get to see love like we shovel on our horses and pets. 🙂
Presto is special and i LOVE that photo of you though it does give me chills too as i know that was when some of the worst things were happening with him.
And Presto also has the love of a LOT OF people who may never even meet him. Special guy for sure:)
I don’t want to anthropomorphize but I do think we tend to discredit animals in general when it comes to intelligence or feelings.
Makes it much easier to do what we do to them that way (if you don’t have to deal with thinking that maybe the sow misses her babies and that those babies die in absolute terror – takes the tastiness right out of the bacon, no?). No, I am not a vegan but I do think about the sacrifices animals have to make for me to enjoy a steak, etc.
That aside: most mammals are social with sometimes very complex herd or family group structures. They form attachments, lifelong friendships and it is not uncommon for them to mourn the passing of members of their circle. They feel better with their “friends” around, with being groomed, etc.
Not sure if love is the right word to describe it but I am sure that horses something for their people and experience it in return. To me, there are defintely happy and unhappy horses and the difference isn’t a shining coat but experiencing emotional warmth from their caregiver.
I don’t know if horses would define it as “love” but I think that they form complex, emotional relationships with humans that can be positive or negative. And if, as humans, we view that relationship as a healthy, mutually fulfilling one, then that sounds like love to me. Also, and this is not scientific proof by any stretch, but Duke nickers at me in greeting every single time I arrive by his stall, and I’m not the person who feeds him. Nor do I typically give him treats. We just have a bond, a relationship built on trust, and at the end of the day, yes, I think we love each other. We might love each other in different ways, but I think it’s there.
I hesitate to say this is love as a scientist, since it’s so hard to quantify. Emotionally I would absolutely say Gwyn loves me.
At the very least I am very much part of her herd and in turn she has brought my kids into that circle of protection as well. And as another commenter said, often you don’t realize how much until you see a comparison of how the horse behaves with you vs. others. And I can think of so many scenarios too. At the very least it’s a highly positive relationship that we both derive pleasure and satisfaction from and feel safe with one another.
I think they do feel love, in their own way. Obviously they’re not people, and I don’t like to anthropomorphize them too much, but especially since they like certain members of herds more than others and are extremely social animals, I certainly think they have affection. Some things have happened with Amber and Whisper that I have no explanation for, other than horses are amazing creatures and we still know nothing about them. Whisper had plenty of other horses around, but my mom said Whisper was depressed for a good 3 months when I took Amber to Texas with me. I certainly think Amber has a lot of affection for me, and maybe love in her own horsey way. I don’t think it’s like human love because horses aren’t people, but Amber will certainly do things for me that she won’t do for anyone else. Every horse is different in this, but I found in working with many horses that there were those that really didn’t care who rode them, as long as it was fair. They liked all people and were the same for everyone. There were those in the middle that were okay with other people, but still preferred a few over others. Then there are the 1-person horses. I think these 1-person horses are the ones that show the most affection, the most love if you will. I know Amber really likes people and attention, but I do think she loves me, in her own way as I said. She likes to be near me, to just stand there with me. I’ve come up to her as she’s been laying down, and just sat with her, held her head in my lap, and she’s closed her eyes and sighed. We’ve laid there for a good few minutes. She’s always calmer and more confident when I’m around too. Maybe I just wish horses can show us their version of love and affection, but I’ve seen it with other people and their horses, too. So, I don’t know. Maybe I anthropomorphize a little too much haha. But others that have commented here have put it really well, too. I think mine’s a bit muddled haha.
I wonder if horses (and some other animals) might not have a better grasp on love than humans do, when you look at how our species treats each other. Talking about love ≠ being loving…
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I think they do, in their own way, feel love. I think we all have our own stories of that special horse that turned around just for us and will always hold a place in our hearts and I believe us in theirs. My old horse April is one of those special cases but she is a LONG story. One of my current boys, Luther, is another special one. It would be putting it lightly to state that he is known as the ASS of the barn! When he came into my life there were farm hands that would not go into his stall. I hated him at first! Long story short he is my baby now and earlier this spring put himself in danger to save me. I went out to the paddock to get him and as always he started to come my way but he was in the back so I walked out a bit to greet him when I heard hooves thundering towards me. I looked up and saw one of his pasture mates galloping straight at me and there was absolutely NO chance of me getting out of the paddock in time. Luther, who no longer moves at any great speed, saw this and ran to get between that horse and me. The horse then reared straight up, his hooves over my head, and came down on Luther’s back twice before some farm hands heard me yelling and came running out with lead ropes flying to scare the other horse away from us. I do not think if Luther didn’t feel some sort of love for me that he would have risked himself to save me. On a side note, that horse was not allowed in Luther’s paddock after that!
If it makes you feel any better, this is essentially the basis of my dissertation (and hopefully my doctorate).
Can we use the horse’s themselves to assess quality of life, instead of using adequate resources and the environment to assume that is enough.
I did find a paper, lost it but happy to find it again if you’re interested, that said horse’s have the ability to recognise the moods of their handlers when approaching them and remember that in future. I try to always be smiling now when I get my horse haha.
I really think they do. This is a super sad story, be warned.
When I was 10 or so I had a job at a barn and was ‘paid’ with a lease on a pony there. There was a herd of about 25 horses and ponies at the time, all out in a huge pasture together. “My” pony had another pony she hung out with and they were inseparable for the few years I was there – they just hung out together and pretty much ignored the rest of the herd. Eventually, they were both retired from work and I moved on to another horse. Sadly, her best buddy had to be put to sleep finally. We knew it would be hard on her, but she went into what I could only guess was a depression – she’d lay in the field, alone, all hours of the day and was completely uninterested in anything. I used to take her treats and bring her in and groom her and generally let her know she was special, and she’d perk up a little, but I’m thinking it was only a few months later she was put to sleep too…she wasn’t eating well enough and was laying in the field so much there were complications from that (I forget what exactly, all these years later). Could have been an old pony health related coincidence that she kind of ‘gave up’ right after her buddy was PTS, but I don’t think so, especially remembering how close those two were.
I would never have said they feel love. Respect, comfort, understanding of herd structure etc etc but not love… UNTIL. I really stopped and looked at my 2 daughters and their 2 mares. I generally DO ALL THE THINGS for those 2 horses: feeding, rug changes, etc etc. They think I’m OK, and they let me do what needs to be done. But they LOVE their small people, even though all those small people really do is show up, groom them, and ride them. The horses have no reason to feel affection for them other than the fact that they dispense carrots a lot! But they do defintiely think those small people are “theirs” and they love them.
So then I stopped and had a long hard look at my horses, and yes, they love me. Joe demands a head hug form me every time I put his bridle on – he has no good reason to do that other than that he likes it, and it makes him feel safe. How is that different to a human hug? It makes us feel good, for no understandable reason.
I’m a b=vet and a scientist, so I found it hard to anthropmorphosize to this extent, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to ignore.
I’d rather not think about the sheep and the cows… Especially since I know cows are smarter than horses!
I think they feel love or something similar. I feel it’s stronger if you’ve helped them through a bad time like you did with Presto. My relationship with Jamp has changed a lot since he foundered. And it feels like he cares for me more. He’s always looked to me for guidance, but he’s gotten a lot sweeter toward me. He’s a funny one though, if he’s scared of something, and I do it first for him, he’ll be brave and let it happen. The first time I thought it was a fluke. We were at Tufts for the big de-manning and he was afraid to walk on the scale. So I asked if it was ok if I walked on it first. He saw me do it, and walked right up and stood there. But it happened again! I just got a tape measure that’s in hands and I wanted to see how tall he was. Well when he first saw it he was about to come unglued. So I stepped back and measured myself in front of him. He let me measure him after that. Stood like a statue. Maybe it’s just trust more than love…. But I think those feelings are related.
It’s funny about that need to be there when they’re unwell. When Jamp first foundered, he didn’t need to be stared at 24-7, but that’s pretty much what I did. And I think it’s comforting for them.
Rio is really skeptical of people other than me. New people aren’t allowed to put his halter, and he’ll run to the corner away from the vet if I don’t get him myself. But he’ll do almost anything for me. Again, it might just be trust, but I like to believe there’s love there. There’s certainly something.
I’m not exactly sure of the degree to which my flying potato cares about me, but I am unquestionably her person (for better or for worse) and she is my girl.