Horses, like people, have different personalities and preferences when it comes to physicality. Some love physical connection, others are shyer about it, and still more blanch at the first sign of someone trying to touch them. As with people, therefore, it’s impossible to give a One Size Fits All answer to the question “Do horses like to be petted?”
What works for one horse (or person) may turn another off.
That being said, it is fair to say that, like most people, most horses like some form of contact.
So, how do horses like to be petted, and what are the do’s and don’ts of petting a horse?
Of Trust and Proper Approaches
The most important thing to realize about horses and petting is that they are a symbol of trust. You wouldn’t want just anyone “petting you.” Maybe you’re fine with your partner giving you an intimate hug or stroking your hair, but you certainly wouldn’t want that kind of contact from a stranger. You don’t have a relationship with them, and so at best such contact is awkward and a turnoff and at worst it can be downright offensive or abusive.
The same holds with horses. You can’t just walk up to a horse you’ve never met before and pet them. You first need to get to know them a bit, and that means knowing how to approach horses.
First and foremost, as with people, consent is paramount. Horses bite, after all, so you need to make sure that the horse wants to be approached. Ask whoever is keeping the horse if it’s okay, and about the horse’s mood and any turn offs they may have.
You also want to make sure you approach from the front, not the rear. The latter can make a horse feel threatened – and threatened horses can kick or bite. In terms of how to pat a horse, make sure you remain within the horse’s field of view the whole time, and take it slow in approaching it. Check the horse’s ears. If they are standing up, there’s a better chance they’re in a fair mood and fine to be petted, whereas flattened ears can be a sign of peevishness and thus not the time to pet them, especially if you are a stranger to the horse.
If their ears are up, it’s time to present your hand. Do not reach out suddenly, but slowly and in front of their eyes and nose the whole time. Let the horse sniff your hand. If they turn away, they’re not in the mood. If they nuzzle and lick your hand, you should be fine petting their nose.
Once you’ve done that, and the horse gets to know you for a couple minutes, they may be ready to let you pet them.
How to Pet a Horse
One of the best ways to pet a horse is to do so with smooth, long strokes. These can be soothing for the horse and are a good way to progress from petting their muzzle to their body.
Indeed, if you’re sitting there wondering “So where do horses like to be petted?” let it be known you’re better off petting its sides. There is much less risk that the horse may interpret this as a threat, and after all, there’s much more of the horse to pet when petting its flank. Once again, you’ll want to rub the flank in a smooth, rhythmic fashion and avoid sudden movements.
What about scratching horses? Some owners and horse lovers like to scratch horses, and while that isn’t necessarily wrong, there is some data to suggest horses prefer petting to scratching. However, as we mentioned above, every horse is different and thus has different preferences, and this is where that comes in. Just as you and your partner will have different preferences in how you might wish to be hugged or touched, horses are just the same. This is why it is so important to know what kind of horse you are dealing with, what their preferences are, and to pet or scratch them accordingly.
In addition to petting horses on their flanks, they also often enjoy being petted and rubbed on their neck and shoulder area. This can be a great way to feel horses’ hair and pet them closer to their head.
On the other hand, some horses prefer petting further south, and instead like being petted in the hip and chest area.
Then there is the wither which, if you’re new to horses, is the space between their shoulder blades. Think of how good it feels when you reach an itch between your shoulder blades, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that horses like this too! Petting or lightly scratching horses here is thus another favorite option.
Another tip for petting horses? Do so gradually in fits and starts. Too much of a good thing can go south quickly, and that goes for horses as well. Don’t spend too long with the horse the first time. Pet them for a few minutes, and then back off. Again, just as people who want more physical contact will usually find a way of signaling consent to you, the same goes with horses. On the flip side, just as standing right next to a person for hours on end the first time you meet them might naturally be a bit awkward and off-putting, a horse can feel that as well if you don’t give them their space.
Finally, it is worth noting that just because a horse doesn’t want to be pet at the moment doesn’t mean that they’ll never want to be petted, or that they have rejected it forever. Again, we all have our boundaries and those fluctuate with time. Even the most extroverted person isn’t in the mood for a hug all the time. If a horse rejects you, don’t feel discouraged, and try again a few hours later or another day (maybe with a nice food treat to help entice the horse a bit more).
How Not to Pet a Horse
As demonstrated above, there are myriad ways to pet a horse and make it a safe and enjoyable experience for you and the horse. That said, just as there are “right” ways to pet a horse, there are “wrong” ways to do it, too, and as likewise stated above, that could lead to dire kicking-biting consequences that neither you nor the horse want.
Above all, you should never pet or scratch a horse too close to their genitals. For obvious reasons, they’re likely to be understandably sensitive about that. In addition, you’ll want to be extremely careful when petting them anywhere near their tail. As already mentioned, approaching a horse from the rear is a dangerous idea and should be avoided. While you will need to brush their tail if you’re going to take care of the horse regularly, you’ll need to be extremely careful and make sure you have the horse’s trust beforehand.
Once more, that brings us full circle to what petting a horse is really about – trust. The bond between a mount and horse is unlike any other, and it’s all built upon a rock-solid foundation of trust. Without it, everything crumbles. Petting a horse and trust are thus a virtuous cycle – each is necessary for the other, and together they can create a truly rewarding experience with your horse.