Can Horses Be Loyal to Humans?
If you grew up reading books or watching movies like Black Beauty, The Black Stallion, or The Horse Whisperer, you may have developed a romanticized notion of the bond between horse and human. Whether these notions are realistic or not may differ depending on who you are speaking with and anecdotal evidence, but there is research that can attest to the relationship between humans and horses. How loyal are horses to humans? Are horses as bonded to humans as humans are to them?
Are horses loyal? Research seems to suggest that horses do not reciprocate the bond with us that we believe we have with them; however, they do view humans as safe havens if their experiences with humans have been positive. They also have long memories and remember specific humans and the way they were treated by those humans.
While research suggests horse and human bonds are not reciprocal, this is in contrast to what we often hear anecdotally, and it seems more research is needed on this topic. That being said, I know I have had encounters with my own horses that make me think they do have preferences and they do know who I am. Maybe they aren’t loyal like a dog would be, but I do think horses can recognize their handlers and see them as friends.
To learn more about how horses view humans and what can affect their relationships, keep reading!
How Loyalty Relates to Horses
Before we can determine whether horses are loyal to humans, let’s first define what the term “loyal” means. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, to be loyal means to be “unswerving in allegiance, such as . . . faithful to a private person to whom faithfulness is due.” To be loyal to a human means that a horse must feel respect and unwavering faithfulness to a particular human.
In order to be loyal to a human, that means the horse must trust that person completely. Can horses learn to trust their humans? Yes, horses are certainly capable of building relationships built on trust. Loyalty also implies protectiveness – if you are loyal to someone, you will feel protective of them and come between that person and danger. Are horses protective of their humans in this way? While research is more limited in this area, anecdotally some horse owners will attest to this protectiveness, while others will not. Horses are prey animals, so the chances of them staying and trying to protect you compared to running away from the danger are slim. Loyalty also reflects unwavering faithfulness. Are horses unwavering in their faithfulness to their humans? No, not especially. Horses are adaptable animals, and can often move on easily from one human to the next.
Understanding how your horse communicates can help you learn what they feel around you. To learn more, visit my article Horse Affection: 10 Clear Ways Horses Show Affection.
What Does The Research Say About Horses Being Loyal?
While not a lot of research has been done on horse loyalty and the horse-human relationship, there are two noteworthy studies that we will take a look at.
Do Horses Show Preference To Specific Humans?
Whether or not horses can develop close relationships and bonds with humans will first depend on whether horses even remember and show a preference for specific humans.
Horse Memories and Positive Reinforcement
The first study we will look at was performed by the University of Rennes several years ago. During this study, a female trainer spent time working with 23 horses in Chamberet, France, teaching 41 voice commands to the horses. The training technique used was entirely based on positive reinforcement; specifically, offering food treats each time the horse did what was asked of him.
Of note, these horses displayed more positive behaviors during this training, such as licking and sniffing the trainer. One of the ways that horses display affection, trust, and peacefulness is by oral body language – specifically by licking and chewing. This result seemed to reflect that the horses felt calm and trusting around this trainer.
After this training ended, the trainer was separated from the horses for 8 months and then brought back. When the trainer was brought back to the horses, the horses gravitated toward her, seemingly remembering her and associating her with positive memories.
Horse Memories and Negative Reinforcement
During this experiment, another group of horses was trained using no positive reinforcement, by a different trainer. This group of horses, on average, were 4-6 times more likely to display negative and aggressive behaviors such as kicking and biting. After this training ended and the trainer was brought back to the horses, the horses showed no preference to the trainer.
Based on this research we can see that horses remember humans and the way that they have been treated by them – gravitating toward humans who have treated them well in the past, and avoiding or ignoring humans who have treated them indifferently in the past. Notably, the trainer used for this group did not use negative reinforcement – rather, she simply did not give any negative or positive feedback.
Do Horses Prefer Familiar Trainers Over Strangers?
One of the most notable studies surrounding how horses see their humans is one done by the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences. In the study, groups of horses were trained using 3 different methods – negative reinforcement alone (specifically, the release of pressure), negative reinforcement + positive food reinforcement, and negative reinforcement + positive wither scratching reinforcement.
Before and after these training sessions, the horses were tested by both the familiar trainer and an unfamiliar stranger. For the most part, the horses performed equally on both tests, showing no difference between the familiar trainer and the stranger.
The only situation in which the horse showed preference was when the familiar trainer who used wither scratching tested the horses – these horses finished the obstacle course test remarkably faster with this trainer.
What does this evidence suggest? Some may interpret these results as a horse’s disinterest in humans – after all, for the most part, the horses performed in the same manner with both their familiar trainer and with a stranger. Some may interpret it as a horse’s ability to bond with its trainer – the fact that the stand-out was the horse that was trained with wither scratching may suggest that touch and “grooming” behaviors are what helps to build a bond with a horse more than any other technique. Some, like us, interpret this to mean that more research is needed in the field before accurate judgments can be made.
Experience With Horses May (Or May Not) Contradict The Research
The reason that it is difficult to definitively say how horses feel about humans is that there has been little research into the matter. Dogs, more so than horses, are known to be loyal and protective of their humans – this may be because dogs are more loyal to humans than horses, or it may be because more research has been done into dog behavior, and more people have experience with dogs than horses.
If you talk to a few horse owners, you will hear stories of horses acting fiercely loyal and protective of their humans. You may hear stories of horses warning their humans of a medical condition that they sensed in their owner before the person knew anything was wrong, and you may hear stories about horses putting themselves in between their humans and a dangerous threat. You will hear from people who have both horses and dogs, who say that a horse of theirs has shown just as much courage and loyalty as a dog of theirs.
You may also hear a contradiction to this as well. You will likely hear horse owners talk about the aloofness of their horses and how their horses may step on them without even noticing they are there. You might also hear about a horse preferring a neighbor’s company over their human’s company and the horse’s (seeming) indifference to their welfare.
Of course, every horse is an individual, and you will find a whole range of personalities among them. There is no doubt that a horse can be fiercely attached to their person, and there are also many horses who form no real attachment to their owners at all.
History’s Loyal Horses
When you think of horse loyalty in history, war horses may come to mind. World War I was the last major war in which horses were heavily relied upon. These warhorses faced danger every day – not only from the bullets and bombs but also from the freezing conditions and thick mud. If you research the horses of this war, you will find countless stories of soldiers protected and even saved by their horses, and you will also find stories of soldiers dying to protect their horses. It is clear that these horses were extremely brave, and many formed deep bonds with their handlers.
Horses in the war were seen as invaluable and thus were targeted by opposing forces. In World War I, 10 million soldiers lost their lives. 8 million horses lost their lives. Deceased horses were so commonplace on the battlefield, that troops began using this to their advantage – creating horse “corpses” out of paper mache and hiding in the hollowed-out bellies with sniper rifles. Horses were integral to the efforts of the war, and this is a testament to the bravery and loyalty that a horse can display.
So, Are Horses Loyal To Humans?
As you can see, much is lacking in terms of research into a horse’s ability to bond and feel loyalty to a human. However, anecdotal evidence should not be discounted. Scientific studies are controlled and have not been done on horses that are already bonded with a specific human. If you have a horse or have had one in the past, you may not need research to tell you anything – you may have all of the evidence you need in the way that your horse behaves around you, shows you affection, and responds to you.
Sometimes, a horse’s aloofness can make you feel as if they don’t like you. Horses may also display behaviors, like running away from you in the pasture or trying to kick you when you go in the stall, that can make you feel like they really don’t like you. Why do horses do this? To learn more, check out my article Why Doesn’t My Horse Like Me?
P.S. Save this to your “Horse” board!