BY LI ROBBINS
When I was twelve my riding ambitions were all about jumping. I jumped everything in sight with Dusty, my scrappy little Palomino gelding. Water-filled ditches, hay bales in fields, barrels on their sides, and sometimes even actual jumps.
But what I wanted even more than to show jump was for Dusty to love me. Actually, I would have settled for “like,” since Dusty’s typical response when I showed up was “where’s the carrot?” After that, he mostly lost interest in me.
I hear people talking all the time about what and who their horses love—from peppermints to particular people. It’s hard not to wonder whether that’s actually anthropomorphizing. (Not the peppermints, that’s obviously love.) How do you know if your horse loves you? When are they truly connected to you as opposed to another human being?
The scientific community has had similar questions. A Swedish study published in 2020, tried to determine whether or not horses showed attachment-related behaviour to their owner compared to a stranger. The conclusion was that horses do show attachment, but it doesn’t matter whether the human in question is the horse’s person or not.
This led to headlines like “Horses Don’t Love Us As Much As We Love Them,” or, my favourite, a news story that began “A horse is a horse, of course, of course, but it probably doesn’t like you.” Playing-for-yucks reporting aside, the truth is that the study didn’t prove that horses don’t bond with specific people, it just didn’t prove that they do.
Around the same time, Italian researchers concluded the opposite—that horses do respond more positively to known handlers. Funnily enough, the Italian study didn’t make the news. The logical conclusion is that more studies are needed. The more we learn about horse and human interaction the more we may understand horses. At the same time, all the studies in the world can’t reflect the day-to-day experience of building a relationship with a horse.
American anthropologist Helen Fisher describes falling in love as like having “someone camping out in your head.” If you’ve ever been in love you probably agree. And maybe you’ll also agree that by the time you figured out if the camper was worthy of occupying the site it was too late. You were already sharing a tent! But at least with people, you have the opportunity to find out if the feelings are mutual. Sooner or later you’ll either hear the “three little words” or some version of “it’s not you it’s me.”
Of course, not so with horses. Without verbal language, you’ll never know for sure what your horse feels. But you can guess, based on physical signs of affection. The muzzle resting on your shoulder. The nickering at your footsteps. That moment when your horse sees you coming and walks towards you across the field.
Even short-tempered Dusty was capable of affection. One time I arrived at the barn early in the morning when he was still lying down. He looked up at me, and I decided to interpret his expression as “hello” rather than “Oh, god, you again.” Throwing caution to the wind I sat down beside him on the floor of his stall. He turned and curled his neck around me, more or less holding me in a hug. We stayed that way for a moment. Right then I had no doubt he felt something positive for me.
I’d like to say it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, but it wasn’t. We did eventually have a modest amount of show jumping success, and he was handy with things like Pony Club egg-and-spoon races (except the time he tried to eat the egg). But he never entirely quit his human-removal efforts. Like on the December afternoon when he abruptly squealed in what sounded like joy and twisted into the air…repeatedly. By the time I sat up, a scrape of icy mud on my throbbing face, he was in the woods looking disappointed to discover edible leaves were out of season.
It’s been demonstrated that horses recognize human facial expressions and the emotions they convey. The facial expressions experiment gave headline writers fun too, resulting in “Not Only Can Horses Read Your Facial Expressions They’ll Hold It Against You Later,” and “Horse Lookin’ At You Kid.” But the experiment makes me wonder—when Dusty saw me coming, did he read something like frustration? My facial expressions could have been a contributing factor. I know that when I was around Dusty’s successor joy always bubbled up into smiles, and he turned into a true heart horse.
Do horses have people camped out in their heads though? I suspect not. Their fiercest bonds seem to be with other horses. Also, horses, though they obviously remember things like pain, can out-yoga us. They live in the moment without constantly having to tell themselves to do so. Which isn’t to say they don’t remember us, nor to deny that they have positive feelings about their people. Every glimmer of that—the moment alone with your horse when they breathe sweetly into your face—feels like a signpost to love. Or at least to a deep and abiding interspecies friendship.
Maybe “does your horse love you” is the wrong question. Maybe a better one is “does your horse view you as a friend?” Not a perfect friendship where no one ever argues, since who even experiences that with another human. But a kind of companionship that in some ways transcends human friendship since it’s based on communication without words.
Who can say what lies in a horse’s heart? But then again, who can say what love really is. All we can do is experience it—if we’re lucky.
Li Robbins is a freelance writer and former Canadian Broadcasting Corporation producer whose work has appeared in publications including the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and The Walrus magazine. As a teen she competed on the local hunter/jumper circuit; as an adult she has become a passionate “re-rider.”