Perhaps you are interested in learning to ride, or maybe some new neighbors just moved in with horses. No matter the situation, it is always good to know how to safely approach and pet a horse before actually doing it.
If you know what to look for, horses will communicate if they want to be petted, and also provide clues to their comfort level and mood. It is important to have a basic understanding of how to interpret these clues before interacting with a horse (They are very large prey animals that have a strong fight or flight instinct, so even a simple misunderstanding between a person and a horse can lead to serious injuries!)
First, Ask For Permission to Pet a Horse
Just like dogs, not all horses want to be petted and some are more reactive than others. This makes it very important to always get permission from the owner before you pet a horse you don’t know.
The owner will also be more attuned to each horse’s cues and behaviors. It is also important to never feed a horse without explicit permission from the owner. There are a lot of foods horses are not able to digest, and some horses have very particular dietary restrictions, just like people. Always err on the side of caution and ask the owner if you can pet a horse first.
Be Aware of Your Space
Keep in mind that horses can weigh a ton – literally – and may not always be respectful of your space. Getting your foot stepped on is not a fun experience, particularly if you are not wearing the proper footwear.
Most horse owners try to teach their horses to respect boundaries so the horse becomes aware of human’s space and how to respect it; however, some horses will still try to test new people (like the sort who have never pet a horse) to see what they can get away with. It is a good idea to keep a fence or a stall door between you and the horse if you are not yet comfortable around them. This will help to keep them out of your bubble, and you won’t have to worry about accidentally getting stepped on.
Learning basic horse body language will help you to understand them better. Watching the ears is a good place to start. If they are turned toward you, it means the horse is interested in you and paying attention. If their ears are moving a bit or turned to the side then they are feeling more relaxed. If their ears are pinned back flat against their neck, it is a clear sign to not approach. Never pet an unfamiliar horse unless their ears are perked towards you.
Another sign a horse doesn’t want to be bothered is if it turns its hindquarters toward the stall door and does not want to turn to face you.
Use Your Voice
The last thing you want to do is sneak up on a horse, so you should always talk to them as you approach and move around them. Keeping your voice soft or at a normal pitch is best, as sudden loud noises can also spook them. Talking to them as you walk around them will also let them know where you are. Horses have a blind spot directly in front of them and directly behind them, so using your voice to let them know where you are will prevent them from being surprised when you pop back into their view.
For people new to petting a horse, though, it’s best to avoid moving behind them. Instead, stand in near the horse’s shoulder to pet it.
Offer Your Hand
Again, much like dogs, it is a good idea to offer your hand to the horse for them to sniff before you pet a horse. If they do not show any interest in checking you out, then they may not be in the mood to be petted. It is a good idea to check with the owner in this case as they will know their horse’s behavior the best. If the horse does reach out to sniff your hand and doesn’t seem frightened, then they are most likely fine with being petted at that moment. Make sure to keep your fingers tight together when you offer your hand because individual fingers tend to look like carrots.
Start at the Neck
Contrary to popular opinion, most horses do not like having their face touched, particularly by someone they don’t know.
Standing to the side (remember, directly in front of them is a blind spot) and stroking a horse’s neck is the best place to start patting.
You can also try scratching the horse. Most horses have a couple of favorite spots where they like to be scratched, typically along the top of their neck where their mane starts, on their chest, under their jaw, and their withers (the raised area where their neck connects to their back). You’ll know if you have found a good spot by the reaction of the horse; typically, they will lean into your hand, lower their head, or let out a relaxed sigh.
Moving Around the Horse
Once you have become more comfortable with the horse, you can begin moving around them. It is important to keep one hand on the horse, especially when walking behind them, so they know where you are. This coupled with talking to the horse will ensure they are aware of your movements at all times and will keep you safer. If you need to walk behind the horse but either you or the horse are not comfortable with you walking directly behind them and keeping a hand on them, then you should make sure to leave a wide berth as you go around them and continue talking. Be sure to stay far enough away that the horse cannot kick you.
Petting a Horse 101: Conclusion
Most horses are very friendly and love attention, but it is still important to know how to interact with them safely, as they can be unpredictable.
As you get to know the horse better and you both become more comfortable with each other, you will begin to read their body language and cues better on your own. Until that point, just remember to avoid making sudden movements or loud noises, and make sure the horse acknowledges that they know you are there before touching them to avoid spooking. Once you’ve gained permission to pet a horse and become familiar to the horse (research is clear they can recognize individual humans– even from photos!), a good scratch in the right place and friendly words are always appreciated! Learn more about what horses like and how to bond with them in our article.