Not so many years ago, horses and horsemanship were part of everyday life. Because they were so ordinary – a bit like cats or dogs are today- most people understood quite a bit about horses, their likes, and their habits. Today, the vast majority of people don’t get to have hands-on experience with horses very often. In our mostly urban life, for many people, horses are a far removed species with strange habits and unknowable preferences.
As a rider at demos and educational events, I’m used to getting all kinds of questions about horses. People want to know about what they eat, what they’re like, and their social habits, but you might be surprised that one of the most common questions I get, especially from kids. is simply, “what do horses like?”
It makes sense, knowing what a creature – or even a person – likes is how we build trust and bond. Dogs like food, balls, walks, and scratches. What are the same likes for horses? In this article I’ll address that question in four parts:
1. Horses Like Food
Like most animals, horses are food-motivated. Food is the best way to get a horse’s attention or make them like you. Horses like horse food (they usually eat whole grains, fresh hay, pelleted horse feed, and grass). They also like human foods that are safe for horses (like apples, carrots, pears, and- in very, very small amounts- cereals, crackers, and bread). It’s very important not to overfeed a horse. Because of their delicate digestive systems, the type of stomach upset that would cause minor discomfort or vomiting for a human can lead to death in a horse.
Caution: Never feed a horse you don’t own. Although feeding can be a great way to make a horse your friend, feeding someone else’s horse can be very dangerous. Some horses have a special diet and all horses have a very sensitive digestive system. If, against this advice, you choose to feed someone else’s horse, limit what you feed them to grass that you can pick in handfuls nearby, as this is the safest option and the least likely to cause stomach problems or death.
2. Horses like Safe Predictable People
Never jump or dance around any horse, or talk in a loud, excited, or animated voice. Horses like people who move slowly, safely, and who talk in soft voices. Horses are prey animals and even though they are large, they naturally find humans terrifying! Social horses who like people were socialized to trust people through lots of contact with gentle handlers, but horses that don’t have exposure to this kind of handling will be far more fearful of humans. To make friends with a timid horse requires lots of patience.
Horses like when people approach them with slumped shoulders and eyes turned away. This signals to the horse that you are safe- not a focused predator ready to pounce!
3. Horses like being able to see you – from the side
Horses like being approached from the side. Never approach a horse from directly ahead or right behind. Horses have a blind spot directly ahead and behind them, so when you approach from behind you’ll appear, in their vision, to have “pounced” into their space, which can easily startle horses and make them run away or even kick out.
4. Horses like being brushed
Despite popular opinion, No horse particularly likes to be patted or pet (although some tolerate it). Horses prefer you place your hand gently on their lower neck, chest, or shoulders and then run your hand down their body, in the direction their fur lies, with gentle but firm pressure. Most horses like scratching after they get used to the feeling, but horses that haven’t been handled much usually don’t. Most horses do not like having their head or face touched. Many people want to scratch the horse near an ear when they meet a horse, but you’ll make a better impression if you gently stroke their neck instead.
This quick summary is a few ideas about what horses like and don’t like. As a horse owner and rider, when people are introduced to my horses and want to know what they like, this quick summary is my short answer. It’s important to keep in mind that horses are individuals, like people, so what they like varies from horse to horse. Think about humans, and how one person may love giving and receiving hugs, while other people even in the same family people don’t like to be hugged very much. Horses’ likes and dislikes are not so different from the very personalized likes of us humans!
other questions about horses people often have but are sometimes embarrassed to ask:
Why do horses wear masks?
In the summer, driving past a horse pasture, you may notice that some of the horses appear to be wearing mask over their eyes. As a horse owner in a semi-urban area questions about these “masks” are common. Contrary to popular belief – or even how they appear to an untrained eye – these masks don’t obstruct the horse’s vision. Just how buses and vehicles wrapped with advertisements appear differently from inside or outside the vehicle, from the inside, these horse masks are completely see-through and don’t obstruct the horse’s vision at all.
These masks are used spring through fall by some horse owners to help protect horses’ eyes from irritating flies. Flies and horses seem to go hand-in-hand no matter how well kept a farm is, and these masks prevent eye irritation by ensuring that flies don’t come into contact with horses’ sensitive eyes.
Why do horses like to eat dirt?
Another question that gets asked sometimes by non-horse owners is “Why Do Horses Eat Dirt?”
Horses do sometimes eat dirt, but it’s important to mention that often when they appear to be eating dirt they actually aren’t. A horse without access to lots of fresh grass will nibble at the tiniest shoots of grass coming up in an otherwise dirt lot. Look closely and you may find that a horse that appears to be eating dirt is actually eating shoots of grass, dry stalks of grass, or even roots they’ve exposed by scratching the dirt with their hooves. Other times, horses look like they are eating dirt, but instead they are picking up small pieces of hay or food left behind from their last meal. Though large, horse’s lips are extremely sensitive, and if motivated (or just bored) they are able to pick up tiny pieces of food from dirt ground.
When horses do eat dirt, they do so for a variety of reasons. Horses, like all forms of life, require certain vitamins and minerals to survive. Minerals naturally occurring in small quantities in dirt meet many of these essential needs and horses can ingest those necessary minerals by eating the dirt. Horses and other animals seem to know innately what minerals they need to consume, and in the wild horses will travel many miles to consume a certain type of dirt containing minerals they’re low on. Thankfully, modern horse owners typically providing a manufactured block of minerals that horses can lick to get a good balance of necessary minerals, but horses may still practice an instinctive behavior of eating mineral-rich dirt.
Why do some horses wear muzzles?
Horses wear muzzles for a number of reasons- and likely not for the reasons you might expect! Although horse muzzles are fairly uncommon, most long-term horse owners have found occasion to use some type of horse muzzle at some point.
There are a few types of horse muzzles, the most common muzzle is a GRAZING muzzle. A grazing muzzle is used for horses that have trouble processing the high levels of sugar that are present in grass at certain times of the year – especially in the spring. Muzzles may also be used as horses are transitioning from living in a stall or “dry paddock” (a dirt lot with hay fed instead of grass) to living in a pasture. Getting too much grass all at once can be dangerous, so for horses that are used to eating a lot of grass, a soft muzzle is used. This muzzle is typically made of nylon webbing and rubber and has a small hole near the horse’s mouth which they can use to graze on small amounts of grass at a time. This type of muzzle serves to limit- but not totally restrict- the amount of grass the horse can eat. By using the muzzle, the horse can still graze, walk or run around the pasture, and spend time socializing with other horses without risking serious health complications. Horses are able to drink freely while wearing this type of muzzle.
Another reason that horses wear muzzles is to prevent biting or CHEWING on blankets, bandages, or leg wraps. Some horses need to be turned out with special equipment like leg wraps or blankets. Some horses can be incredibly destructive to this equipment, so special muzzles with very wide openings are clipped onto the horse’s head halter. These muzzles allow the horse to eat freely, drink freely, but prevent them from getting a good grasp on blankets or bandages.
A final reason a horse might wear a muzzle is to prevent BITING other horses. This is not a common use for muzzles since if a horse is aggressive, the horse actually has many ways of being violent towards another horse. Biting is just one aggressive horse behavior, but horses can also kick, chase, and lash out with front hooves towards another horse. The muzzle used to prevent biting is more likely used in a public stable to prevent biting wandering human fingers or biting at another horse in a stall nearby.