I have spent my entire life in the midwestern US. For the past eight years I have blessed enough to spend my time working with horses.
How to Pet a Horse: Always Use Caution
It's always a magical experience to see a horse up close and in person. Maybe you are out walking trails and you come upon people exploring with their riding horses or are in a city where there are carriage horses, or you are going to see horses or take lessons at a barn for the first time in your life. If you like horses, seeing one is sure to draw you to him. There are a few rules of etiquette to be followed for the sake of you, the horse, and the horse's owner.
How to Approach a Horse You Don't Know
Ask for Permission
Ask, ask, ask! Before you touch, feed, or even get within arm's length of a horse (or any animal for that matter) be sure to ask if it's safe to interact with them. Horses do bite, they are large creatures with teeth that can take off fingers and hooves that can crush your toes. I'm not trying to scare you; many horses you will encounter are friendly and love attention, but there are some that just do not like strangers.
Be sure to show respect to both the animal and the handler by inquiring about the nature of the horse and whether or not you are allowed to interact with him. If the horse person asks you not to pet or feed the horse, be respectful and move on. Don't try to force the person to let you. If they tell you no, it's probably for a good reason.
Approach From the Front
If it is okay to pet the horse, hopefully, the person handling him will assist you. Either way, approach the horse from the front where he can see you. Horses do not like to be sneaked up on. If approached from the rear or an angle where they don't see you coming they could possibly spook or kick out at you. Believe me, this is the last thing you want.
Read the Horse's Body Language
Once you are in front of the horse, take a look at him. What are his ears doing? A good way to tell how a horse is feeling is to look at his ears. If they are sticking up and pointing at you (forward), this is a good sign. A horse with ears front means they are interested and paying attention. If the horse's ears look relaxed and maybe not pointed right at you, this is okay too. The animal is probably feeling okay, just not paying much attention to you.
Horses with ears "pinned" or flatted against their heads are the ones to stay away from. This means they don't like you or something that is happening around them. They usually will do this before biting you, so consider it a warning. Maybe it's not you, the horse could just be having a bad day. In this case, it's best just to leave them be.
Present Your Hand
If you see happy horse ears, and you have confirmed with the handler that the horse isn't much of a biter, go ahead and present your hand to the animal to let him get a smell of you. If the horse smells you and touches your hand with its nose, even if just very lightly, then you have the horse's okay to be pet.
A horse that turns away from you probably doesn't want to be bothered. This animal still may be well trained enough to accept pets and treats, like I said, just check with the handler.
How to Pet a Horse: Where to Pet and What to Avoid
Give Him a Scratch
A horse looking at you and sniffing you is interested in you and what you are doing. Show him you are his new best friend by giving him a nice scratch. They aren't the kind of animals who much enjoy soft strokes, this probably tickles them more than anything.
A good scratch on the horse's neck will make him very happy. Some horses like their faces, ears, and even the area at the top behind their front legs (think horse armpits) scratched. Some really do not want you to touch them in these places. See what the horse responds to, and as always ask the handler. The horse thinks you are grooming him, and this is how other horses bond with each other. You know you're doing something right if you see the horse cocking its head and quivering its lip.
Feed Him Snacks
Feeding horses carrots, apples, or other treats will cause them to want to follow you home. This is an easy way to gain affection, even a grumpy-looking horse will completely change his disposition at the sight of treats. Proceed with caution: horses who are over-treated may start to get pushy and nip at you. Feeding treats may seem innocent, but actually can easily be misconceived as submissiveness by the horse. Try just to feed one or two.
Also, many horses are taught to do tricks for a treat reward. If the horse knows how to do a trick, asking him to perform it before you treat him is much better than just treating him for no reason.
How to Make Friends With a Horse
Groom the Horse
If you are lucky enough to be able to visit with horses at a barn or take lessons, ask to learn how to groom them. As we know, horses groom each other as a sign of affection. Grooming horses, especially on a regular basis, is an important aspect of building a relationship with them.
Trust is paramount to earning friendship from a horse. If it's a brief interaction, be sure and keep your voice down and your gestures small. Horses are quiet and gentle; they like it if you are too. For people who will be having an ongoing relationship, try to be as consistent as you possibly can.
They are forgiving animals, and don't give up if you have made a mistake when handling them. However, do try your best to have a routine with them and to mind their sensibilities. They will like you much more from the beginning if you aren't mishandling them.
The Effort Is Worth the Time!
Horses are beautiful and intelligent animals that can teach us to be mindful of ourselves and the way we approach and interact with the world. I encourage you to form a relationship with a horse if you have a chance! Doing so mindfully and with respect will gain you a much higher return on your effort. Enjoy yourself, stay relaxed, and have fun.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Bob on May 12, 2020:
Thameen is right but the rest of the article was great
Caitlyn O'Leary on June 17, 2018:
Thank you this was very well written and helpful. I really appreciated it!
Evelia Veronica Rivera from Bridgeport, CT on July 21, 2014:
Thanks for the read!
Thameen on October 14, 2013:
Sorry, but the second pt from "The Initial Approach" is not giving correct information. Horse's have a blind spot between their eyes, so if they are approached from the front they won't see you and will be scared. Their eyes are on the sides of their heads, so one must approach from the side to be seen and to not spook the horse.