Does My Horse Love Me?

Does My Horse Love Me?


Q. Do we know if horses feel love toward humans and each other?

A. If someone were to ask me, "Does your horse love you?" I would not hesitate to respond, "Of course my horse loves me!" Right?

However, even love between humans is barely understood, even when looking at the emotion’s many dimensions, such as neurochemistry, philosophy, and anthropology. Likewise, behavior science can't tell us--at least not yet--if horses love each other let alone if they love us.

Some behaviors among horses seem like attachment, but they can be explained by forces of natural selection that favor behaviors that make survival and reproduction more likely. The mere sociality of horses confers protection from predators.

Certain behaviors might look like some kind of emotional attachment between a horse and his owner or caretaker: Selectively responding to only one person's call, attention-seeking or a preference to abide with a person rather than do other things, or profound obedience. However, it is generally possible to explain these behaviors as things the horse learned through reinforcement or association. For example: “This person is the one who feeds me, or if I wait around for a while, I'll be fed or scratched.”

Although the science isn't there yet to really study emotions in horses, that doesn’t mean some scientists don't think horses have a kind of emotional life. There are certainly ways to begin to study emotions such as love in horses. We can try to measure positive responses of horses to humans (change in heart rate, behaviors that suggest relaxation), though this does not specifically measure love.

Perhaps some of the studies done in recent years on equine cognition, which is the ability to learn by thinking and understanding, will get us closer to understanding horses' emotions. We know horses and other animals show certain behaviors that seem similar to human psychological disorders, and sometimes human psychotropic medications have helped change problem behaviors in animals. So perhaps we can begin to study emotions from the neurochemical or brain activity approach.

We do need to understand though that horses live in a different perceptual world than we do, they have different priorities, and they have their own complex set of behaviors and responses to their environment. This, too, makes it difficult for us to study or know what emotions a horse might have, and how a horse might express those emotions.

In the end, does it matter? We get joy out of being around our horse and believing that our horse loves us. That joy and belief probably leads us to make our horse's welfare a top priority.

My main caution is that we must be careful not to go overboard on attributing humanlike emotions in our horses. It is important to see a horse as a horse, not as a human, because we need to make sound management decisions based on what we know for sure about horses' basic physical and behavioral needs.

About the Author

Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS

Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.

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