Thursday, March 20, 2008

Human and Horse Bonding

Anyone who has spent some time with more than one horse knows that each horse has a different personality, just as we as humans have different personalities. Some horses bond with some humans while others don't. Why is that?

I can only consider myself and my own horses. I have the strongest bond with my little filly, Gabbrielle. She needs a lot of affection, and I give a lot of affection. She literally will not let me remove her blanket in the morning until I have hugged and kissed her first. If I don't, she sticks her lips in my face and starts planting kisses all over my cheeks, forehead, and yes, my lips. I totally trust her not to bite, and she doesn't. She just plants her lips on me and sniffs a lot. She likes the various scents I put on myself in the morning, including shampoo, powder, and sometimes perfume. I kiss her in return all over her face, wrap my arms around her chest, and she wraps her head and neck around my head and neck. I let her give me a sniff-down once more, and then we can get down to the business of removing her blanket. (I didn't mean to make that sound kinky. Sorry, folks.)

I have the next strongest bond with Bombay. I raised him from a yearling, just like Gabbrielle. I believe that the younger that you can obtain the horse, the easier it will be to bond. While the big plus of purchasing an older horse is that it comes to you trained, you really don't know what kind of experiences it had with its previous owners. Those early years help to shape the horse's personality, so it is important that the horse have good experiences. Bombay and I used to hug a lot, but he's become grumpy over the years. He gets openly jealous if I give Gabbrielle too much of my attention, yet isn't always willing to accept affection when I give it to him. He has the classic middle-child syndrome. He was replaced in his role of being baby in the family by another horse. Despite that, we still do have a deep bond. I can look him in the eye, and he looks back into my eyes in a kind manner. When I talk to him, his expressions change in a way that suggests that he really does understand what I'm saying. After I interact with him, he follows me and shows me that he doesn't want me to leave.

Lostine and I have had to work on bonding. I believe I was her fourth or fifth owner in 13 years. I know that the lady I bought her from treated her very well, but I know very little about her previous owners. Lostine is head-shy, which suggests that someone had hit her across the face at some point. She is also shy about my affection. When I talk to her and hug her, she turns her head away. I tease her and say, "What's so interesting about that stall wall, Lostine?" If we are in an open location where she can escape, and I approach her with my arms spread, she turns and walks away. I chase her down and make her stop to get her hugs, pats, and kisses. Over the years she has allowed me into her bubble just a tiny bit a time. She's learning to enjoy my affection and trust me. Lostine does whinny each time I walk outside, but I believe that 90% of it is because she is demanding her food, while maybe 10% is that she's happy to see me.

So, why do some horses bond with some humans better than others? One factor is probably early experiences that the horse had with humans. Bombay's breeder told me that he had an infection when he was born and had to spend his first few days of life in a vet hospital surrounded by people. She thinks that made a difference in him getting acclimated quickly to humans and their behaviors. She used to put him in the pen closest to her front door, so that he could greet people who came to visit. He is a horse who needs to socialize with both humans and horses alike. Lostine, on the other hand, is a horse's horse. She could be cut loose in the wild with a herd of horses and probably wouldn't care if she saw another human ever again.

I do think it helps if the horse is in a location where the owner can visit and spend quality time with it every day. It is difficult to understand your horse when all you do it catch it, groom it, toss a saddle on it, ride it, clean it up and put it away once a week or so. I spend a lot of time just hanging out with my horses. I don't want them to associate me with just food or just hard work in the round pen or just riding. I want to be a member of their herd. I observe how they communicate with one another, and I try to get my communication techniques as close to how horses talk to each other. However, as you can see by Gabbrielle's kissing, horses certainly can learn human communication too.

Much of bonding involves getting to know your horse's personality and figuring out what human behaviors are most likely to be appreciated by your horse. Lostine is my alpha mare, so I am nothing to her unless I can prove my leadership skills. I had to gain her respect before any bonding could take place.

I think the rescue factor probably comes into play with a horse's ability to bond with a human as well. If you take a horse out of a bad living arrangement, and put it into a good one, it will probably appreciate what you did on some level. If it perceives you as its rescuer or someone it can trust, the bonding capacity is probably higher. I took Lostine out of a living arrangement that she loved. She was in a herd of mares who were her very best friends, and I dragged her away from them. I suspect she has always held a grudge against me for that. To this day she still stands at the fence looking off longingly in the direction of her old home.

I have never been good at making friends with humans. So many of my "friendships" have been a one-way street with the other person getting the better deal. Late in life I learned to shed myself of those types of relationships, because all they do is suck up my time and energy. The other person has to show some signs of being able to reciprocate in a friendship, or I won't make the effort to get to know him/her. I find that horses are usually more willing to reciprocate than humans. Horses, like dogs, seem to be less selfish than most humans (if you don't consider their behavior at feeding time). Horses do so much for us. I often hear people say, "Why would you want a horse? All they do is stand around in a field and eat, and they are very expensive to keep."

I guess all I can say to those people is look kindly into the eyes of a horse. There is an entire world of love in there. You just have to learn how to bring it out. Once that bond is formed, the expense of keeping a horse is understood.


On The Bit said...

As I was reading your post I was going to mention about rescues and care as a factor of bonding, but you got there in dure time as I was reading on. I must still throw in my 2 cents and ask what your personality is in relation to your horses? I often joke that Gennyral and I are so the same it is scary.

Nuzzling Muzzles said...

On the bit -- I hadn't thought about that one. I had to ask my son. He says both Gabbrielle and I are loving and excitable. Bombay and I both like to play and be silly. With Lostine, we both like to be in charge. So, it sounds like you are thinking that similar personality traits between horses and humans help them bond faster. I'd agree with that.

Rising Rainbow said...

I think given an equal playing field like horses born in your care, the bonds are affected by the personality of both the human and the equine. There are three humans here and we all have our favorites and usually those horses feel the same way. lol

Certainly foals who start off with some form of distress that get handled more grow up to be much more social horses. They have learned from the beginning to expect human companionship.

Twinville said...

I'm so happy you wrote about the horse/human bond in this post. I knew it was there, even if some people said it doesn't exist.

I think thos people are the ones that just spend time riding on their horses a couple times a week, but don't actually spend TIME with the horse, just observing and doing 'horse stuff'.

ps, I also loved that gorgeous photo and your accounting of the relationships you have with each of your horses.

Mrs Mom said...

Over the years, I have noticed certian breeds are more likely to bond to one person as well. Arabs seem to like "their" person, while laid back QH will just kind of go along with whomever has the apple. The Paso Finos are also more of a one person horse.

Little Mare, our Appy boarder, reminds me more everyday of my old Appy gelding. It was not until I read this post that I realized that an Appy with older lines in their breeding (not so much modern QH) will also pretty much be a one person horse. My old gelding would do the job for anyone- but with a sour puss face. Little Mare, while a very willing mount and really a total joy to be with, will let you know wihtout a doubt when her Mom arrives here. She can see the car come in the drive, and she lets out a loud loud whinny in welcome. In fact, she will not stop talking until her Mom is out of the car and in the paddock with her. Little Mare may "like" lots of people, but boy howdy--- she LOVES her Momma!

(On a side note, Sonny the Rehab Horse now won't speak to his Mom when she pulls up. Unless my son Cub is out there- then he will "show her" his little pal... Now THERES one heck of a bond!)

misha said...

I really liked this post! This one horse that I rode seemed to bond with people really fast. I had only just met him, but he seemed to like me, and was sad when I left him. He kept on trying to get me to play with him!

chris said...

Hi Muzzle,

Your post seems to be very interesting!!!! Horses need a quality life just as much as any other living thing.

Breathe said...

Hi NZ -

Since I'm sick and don't watch TV, I'm reading some old blog postings to pass the time. This one is just lovely.

I think horses get attached as young things, and, when they realize their human herd is not stable (no pun intended), they trust those attachments less. I wonder if time impacts that.

symphonious sweets said...

Hi I just found your blog while cruising around Horse Centric and she commented before me. Anyway this story really struck a chord with me since I am having some relationship problems with my horse. He was basically a rescue and we bonded really quickly. He had 10 owners that I know of before I found him. Your story reminds me that it takes time and commitment with certain horses. In the end it IS worth it. In our current situation I am not able to spend as much time with him as I used to. He is standoffish and barely acknowledges me unless I have carrots. It really sucks. Until my work/living situation changes this is how it will be. He is pretty happy with his horse friends and is the type like your Lostine who could run off with a herd and forget humans all together. My boy is an arab as well and we did not meet until he was 19 years old. He is my forever horse but I hope my next one will be less damaged!
thanks for sharing your insights on horse human bonding!

lytha said...

NM, wow, great post, i'm glad i got to see it, thanks to Breathe.