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Touch can be connecting, soothing, reassuring, and calming. But not when it is unwanted.

We love to touch our horses. They are beautiful, from their shining coats and flowing manes and tails to their soft muzzles.

We love to touch our horses, however, it is important to recognize if the horse also appreciates that touch.

I have witnessed many nips and bites that happened through an open stall door, in a pasture, or across a fence that only happened after a horse had been clear in his expression and body language that he did not want to be touched. The unaware person continued to try to pet them and at best created a disconnection between themselves and the horse or at worst, ended up with teeth marks on their arm.

Recognizing whether it is appropriate to touch a horse, and when it is not, is very important to establishing rapport with the horse, building connection, and being safe.

In the video below, I will discuss what to notice to determine if touch is ok.

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57 Responses

  1. You are so right. My gelding looks so inviting with his beautiful head over the stall door. But we have to remember that what we love about horses is that they are not human. He sees an extended hand as a solicitation to play, which means a nipping match.

  2. Right on cue! or was she trained to that! All good points as always. Occasionally my mare greets me with a stretch and a yawn (forelegs stretched out like playing dog) – mostly when she’s in stable, which is open to yard/ field. Not sure if that’s good or otherwise. She also comes and stands alongside – requesting back and with scratches and shifts back and forth to indicate where. This is especially with husband who is VG with massage, feels all the tight muscles.

  3. Great lesson in recognizing what the horse is signalling. I have a horse who likes to be touched ONLY on his terms and I have oftentimes ignored the signs, thinking I should try to desensitize him. Will be paying much more attention to what he is telling me.

    Thank you!

    1. Note Callie mentioning stepping back. This is gold to your relationship with your horse. When your horse’s thought goes away from you, signaled by something as slight as an ear flicking back, he’s telling you you’re making him uncomfortable. Stopping and giving him space relaxes him. Sounds as though you were raised with horses as I was, imposing ourselves on them. It’s amazing what happens once the horse starts having a voice in the relationship!
      P.S. Desensitzing is a slippery slope. Can end up in a shut down horse. Which means a time bomb because he’s holding it all in. When that scale gets tipped watch out! And then he’s deemed “bad:, or worse “rogue” when it’s a human problem. Geez I’ve learned a lot thank goodness!

  4. I’ve just bought my first horse and she’s been a little difficult to catch from the field in the mornings. This morning, I took a carrot! She walked away the first couple of times and then when she noticed the carrot, she stood still while I put her lead rope on. I will be paying much more attention to her body language when in the stable from now on. Thank you for your video.

  5. Great topic Callie. This is a foundational piece of making the horse an equal partner in a relationship and giving him or her the respect of attention to their communications. I have seen people being invasive in horses’ faces and not taking notice of the feedback the horse was giving them and felt like I wanted to say something. Maybe in future I will refer them to your video!

  6. Callie, I find it so amazing that you always have the ability to address issues and explain them that other trainers do not.
    We recently bought this mare with an extensive show record who demonstrates the exact signs you describe in your video. When you approach to halter her or touch her she will turn her head away or her nostrils enlarge or her eye looks away. As you said, thinking I can bond with her, I try to touch her or approach her when she shows she doesnt want that. I now wait and talk to her until she comes to me on her own. After a short time if she doesnt I leave and continue to the next horse ; she then comes and whinneys . After i finish with the current horse i return to her and she gives me her head to halter. I find this so annoying since none of the others do this. You have to use a step in order to mount her or she will act up (side step, half rear, half buck, etc) Have you dealt with this? She has such an impressive show record in numerous events ( placing in 7 out of 10 world classes) Seems like her previous trainers should have dealt with this.
    Thank you so much for your videos and training series. I am impressed every time i watch them. You have a gift and I am so blessed that you share it .

    1. I’m glad this video is helpful with your mare! I think it is very common with show horses who associate people with ‘work’. I can’t say I’ve ever experienced that pattern with a horse…

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  7. That was just perfect timing with the horse behind you-huge smile!! Thanks as always for increasing my awareness of horse related behavior. You are terrific!

  8. My horse is very clear when she want attention or not, and I respect it. If I approach her in the field and she walks away, I leave. On the other hand when she wants to interact she will come to me and follow me to the gate. I decided never to chase her or try to get her to do any thing when she is not in the mood.

  9. I have an abused pony that suffered a great deal of punishment, starvation and neglect. She has a broken face and scars that run from her ears, across her face, down her neck and through her legs. She has always, and I mean always approached with ears down but with her face up trying to touch you… It was scary at first, but I took her trying to contact me as a positive and the ears back / white eyes as her defensive posturing. She has nipped that have responded in fear. Not so with me, but I’ve always corrected bad behavior and do not excuse any bad behavior towards any one… As I tell people new to Pony Princess, she had a hard start but her past can not be her future. Correct the behavior, ignore the posture and reward her attempts to contact. She has gone from running through stall walls and kicking out to being claim an accepting after a measure for procedures from me… (the vet knows to call ahead of visits so I can prepare her and the farrier knows her dark corners) I know you have no way to diagnosis from afar, but Is this OK?

    1. As you state Philip it is difficult to diagnose from afar but it sounds like you are handling everything slowly with her which is the best way to keep her from feeling too stressed to process. I would just caution to be careful in how you are correcting the behavior as to not cause her to have any more negative associations with people!

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

      1. Not to yea but… But, Pony Princess (formally know as Lizzie Borden) has made some progress in that she walks up to me in the pasture looking for some affection… She is also nuzzling me at the stall door. I know some say its not good to let your horse nuzzle but … I’m taking my lead from a video “A Suggestion for Horses that are Mouthy and Nip”

  10. 2 (Arab & TB mares) will stand unhaltered for pets, grooming, detangling and tummy rubs hours on end. 3rd (also TB mare) doesn’t like being touched or groomed, but will stand quietly if haltered. This video will help me be more sensitive to Prissys mood in approaching her when unhaltered. Thank you!

    1. Hi Melanie, that is a great question! Callie usually uses a technique to get the horse to connect a bit in the field before she halters them – which may or may not be paired with food. There are quite a few videos on this in our Training Journals program!

      – Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  11. A very important topic. It worries me when I see people rush up to horses and hug them around their necks not paying any attention to the signals the horse is giving that this isn’t welcome. In fact, it’s stressing the horse. It’s important to read these signals to develop a deep relationship with our horses and also to stay safe around them. Good job explaining some of the important signs and signals!

  12. Ive noticed my gelding does not like to be touched or messed with in any way during feeding time. He gives me several cues thst tell me NO, not now!! Whikr hus ears arent totally pinned, they are back abd he gives the slightest toss of his head to say, “not now!”
    So i do give hime that leeway to send me away until feeding time is over. He then offers himself up for pets and pats.
    Thank you for your blog on this!!! Karen

  13. When I was buying my horse, one of my main criteria was a horse that, at least generally speaking, enjoyed grooming and touch. I *love* to groom and wouldn’t want to torment a thin-skinned horse that didn’t care for it!! But even after I found that, I knew that horses (like dogs) don’t care for hugs, and as a hugger myself, I wanted to be able to hug my horse. So, I made sure to always pair hugs with treats. Now I’ve got a horse who not only loves being groomed but who leans into hugs (and suggests them himself occasionally, when he feels like he needs a treat!). It’s definitely a mix of his natural inclination and a conditioned emotional response, but it’s exactly the outcome I wanted 😀

  14. I am a novice rider, I have 2 half hour lessons per week up to now on the same school horse. The poor girl went lame last week, so for the first time I went on a hack for the first time and on another horse who I hadn’t ridden before as she is a bit faster, but what a ride! I felt so much better on her ! Afterwards she let me pet her, turned her head to me and I felt she was happy with this. Gorgeous girl. At 69 I’m loving my riding! I’m living the dream!!

  15. As an equine massage therapist, I interact with horses that I don’t know and they don’t know me so what I do is just stand there and let them smell, hear and feel my energy. I very slowly will put my hand on their neck in front of the shoulder and let them come to me then I’ll turn away so I’m not too much energy and don’t seem threatening. Then I’ll turn back. It usually takes about 5 minutes. Usually works. Horses can sense our intention and my intention is to help them heal and I feel that really helps a lot.

    1. Thank you for your insight as a equine massage therapist! That is great that you give them some time to ‘warm’ up to you a bit – I bet once you get started they start to ‘melt’ 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  16. Often in barns there are school horses that do not enjoy grooming at all. Maybe some riders do not pay attention to what they do not like, or want to go fast and efficiently and the horses find it uncomfortable. So they flatten their ears, pretend to bite, and so on, when their rider comes. When younger, I used to be very strict with this kind of behavior, I had been told that I must be the boss, show no fear, and so I tended to be quite “no nonsense” and mostly I got my way but I did not like having this kind of relationship with the horses I was to ride.
    Of late, I noticed that often if I take my time, hint the horse warnings and remain gentle, it often works better to help the horse calm down. For exemple there is this school mare, Tethys. She hates being brushed on the belly. She has a very fine skin and I believe she has had bad experiences being brushed a bit too harshly so now she puts her ears down and pinch her lips or bites in the air when she sees the brush coming near her ribs. But I noticed also that she relaxes when being brushed on the neck near the mane, or on the head near the ears. So I decided to consider her actions as a show of displeasure rather than as a threat and to adjust. So I start with a place she likes, then I go to a place she dislikes, but gently, and when she gets restless I do another part she likes, she calms down and I go back to a part she dislikes, and so on. It takes more time, but she calms down after a while and I can brush her as I want eventually. Maybe she realises I will not hurt her, or the parts she likes make it up for the rest. As a result I groom her properly, and we both end it up in a better mood…. and I do not feel like my pleasure is a cause of discomfort to her which is great !
    So my advice would be : better not be in a hurry, and try to adjust to the horse as much as possible than to try and be the boss at all costs. It pays!

    1. Caroline, school horses I think since they have such a wide range of skill levels working with them and each person doing something so differently that they can easily disassociate or develop some protective behaviors.

      I think it is great that you are noticing where your horse doesn’t like to be brushed and being mindful of that is so important for not only developing a friendship with your horse but also diagnosing if she is experiencing physical discomfort.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  17. My lovely mare is not one who likes too much touching so I try to respect that and don’t touch her more than is necessary for grooming etc. She tolerates that but does let me know when she’d rather I didn’t touch her at all! What she does love though is a comb between the ears. She drops her head and stands still for quite a while enjoying a good between the ears scratch. I don’t fuss her too much so it is lovely when she decides to touch me and rests her nose on me for a bit – a rare moment but special and something that is happening more and more the longer I have her. I’ve owned her 5 years. Seems it can take a long time to build a bond and learn to understand each other!

    1. Charlotte, it sounds like the two of you have grown to have a great relationship – I’m sure she appreciated you giving her some time to be more comfortable with touch!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  18. Thank you soooo much for such wonderful videos..and instruction.
    I have learned more in 7 days about myself and my horse!
    I am an older rider, and my horse is turning 21.. we are aging together.Your instructions, about small things, such as correct breathing dynamics been marvelously helpful!
    I look forward to all your videos..
    Thank you again for such thoughtful , incredible suggestions and help!
    Kindest regards

  19. Apologies if this is a double post — my first one seems to have gone missing.
    When I was buying my current horse, one of my main criteria was a horse that, generally speaking, enjoyed touch and grooming. I *love* to groom — I usually spend at least 45 minutes a day currying and brushing and getting a gleam on my boy’s coat — and I certainly didn’t want to end up with some thin-skinned guy who would find that a torment! Even given his natural propensity to touch, though, I knew that he wasn’t likely to appreciate hugging … but I’m a hugger, and still basically 12 years old, and I wanted to be able to hug my horse without driving him up the wall. So, every time I hug him, he gets a treat. He knows the deal and now not only leans into my hugs, but occasionally initiates them himself when he thinks it’s time for a treat!! Between his basic temperament and a well-developed conditioned emotional response, it’s worked out really well for both of us 😀

    1. Sandy, sounds like you both are getting something out of the deal 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  20. This is such a wonderful topic. Personally, I feel it should be part of riding lessons…even before you start riding.
    Thank you for bringing this subject to light.

    1. Jill, we feel it is an important conversation for any level of rider!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    1. Jennifer, he definitely did! That is not the first time that has happened for us in a video!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  21. Thank you so much for ypur video. It is like the others very helpful. I pay attention to the cues my mare give to understand her more thanks to your advices .

  22. Some video examples of the facial expressions mentioned (facial tension around the mouth, etc) could be helpful. It’s sometimes tough to read a horse. I love your videos.

    1. Hi Adrijana, thanks for your request! That would make a great video for us to make 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  23. When I first met the rescue horse that I subsequently adopted, I went to stroke her on her face, and she gave me a look that said “Hey, I hardly know who you are! That’s a bit forward!” Then I got on her for a trial ride, and she was very good and very responsive, despite being known as a somewhat ‘difficult’ horse. As our relationship has progressed, often she will voluntarily put her head between my arm and body after I dismount from a ride, which I find very endearing. However, when she doesn’t really want to be affectionate physically, even though she is very affectionate and sweet all the time I’m with her, she will somehow create a bit of metaphysical distance that she doesn’t want you to cross, and it’s quite obvious. At those times, it’s best to leave the stall and let her be for a while. She is generally a very sweet, willing horse, but she is also ‘her own horse’, so to speak, so best you recognize that and respect her space, as it were.

    My last horse was extremely physically affectionate and cuddly, so this is somewhat hard for me as I want to have lots of physical contact with her, but sometimes she just isn’t into it. When she IS into it, it’s very obvious and quite sweet. I do sometimes feel somewhat rejected when she doesn’t want to snuggle with me, but I have to accept that this is just her personality and not to read too much into it. BUt it makes those times that she does want physical contact with me so much more special and meaningful to me. The first time she put her head against my chest after a ride was very special! I hope that in time she will be more outgoing, but her early life wasn’t too pleasant and it will take time for her to feel safe with people, I think.

    1. Kathy, it is a great distinction you made about some horses like physical affection more than others! They might relate touch by people to bad situations, unless we show them there can be positive touches which it sounds like you are working towards developing that!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  24. I was just talking with my barn friends Friday night that my older horse Feliz was like a cat. She lets you know when she wants to be petted and where. It’s on her terms. She is getting more affectionate as she ages.

    1. How sweet is that! Love to hear about when horses are making requests and people around them honor those requests 🙂

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

    2. Very interesting… I can see that starting to happen in my other older horse too. She seems to appreciate grooming more these days.

  25. This lesson interested me. I care for a senior citizen (32 yr old gelding) and he (Monte) is so sweet to me every morning. I thought your readers might enjoy this video showing how he talks to me while I groom him. I am sure he loves to be petted! Check this out… turn up the volume so you can hear!

    Here is a bit of history. Monte was born feral and ended up in bad hands as a young horse. He was not properly trained and was very frightened. Eventually the right trainer adopted him and applied the Monte Roberts training techniques. Hence his name sake. He went on to be a hunter lesson horse for many children. Now he is old and very arthritic but such a gentleman!

  26. My cob mare Maggie is now super-clear with when and where she wants to be touched: she stops what she is doing (usually eating!), and ‘presents herself’ politely side on to me to be scratched! If I’m not scratching in quite the right place, or if I’ve stopped and she wants more, she turns her head and ‘shows me’ with her nose precisely where she wants to be scratched! I think she was so surprised initially that I understood her… she can be quite demanding now, but equally she understands and respects when I say ‘I’m done’ when I turn my back and walk away – she just sighs and goes back to eating again. Love her! ❤️

  27. Brilliant video, thank you Callie. I read that horses value space over touch, but humans value touch over space. I’ve never thought of it like that before! Letting my horse initiate touch has meant he has choices & is being listened to.

  28. Hi Callie,

    I always approach Sienna from the left side making sure that she is aware of my presence. She will typically nudge me with her nose and then I know that she wants to be petted. I love the way your video ended that was so sweet.

    1. Serge, we didn’t even do that on purpose – Rocky knew it was his time to shine!

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  29. I have a 19 yo OTTB who sometimes stands with his head facing back of stall. I will call his name, if he turns and comes over I will pet him. I’ve learned it is just his personality. In the stall next to him is my QH gelding and he can’t get enough attention. He stretches his nose as far as he can towards me. Just different personalities.

    1. So true Sarah, they are all individuals and just like people have different feelings towards touch.

      -Julia Burdy, CRK Training Community Manager

  30. Since watching CRK Training videos, I have tried to be aware of what the horses are trying to tell me and respect what they like or don’t like. It enhances the bond that we share. Each horse is different. Some like to be touched on the face, others make it very clear that they do not like it. It is amazing how the horses communicate with us if we will pay attention and recognize the signs. I love that connection!! 🙂

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