What do Horses Want?

Last revised April 24, 2017.

Clydesdales grazing together.1

What do horses want? herd, carrots, and grass, in that order. Especially in comparison with ourselves, horses have simple desires. None of those desires seems to suit us. Horses don’t want to be ridden. They don’t want to tear around in the round pen. They don’t want to get on the trailer. And they often don’t want to go into the wash stall.

All of our activities with our horse are our idea. They are activities that serve our goals. They approximate what we want. Just because your horse is passive and is willing to cooperate, and doesn’t speak English, you should not assume that he finds your time together pleasing.

But let us proceed…

Learn to Value Play

Play is good for you and for your horse. Even science can establish this. Take marmosets, for instance. Marmosets will scratch themselves as a sign of anxiety. Dinner time is an anxious time, because they will be competing for food, and so scratching is very common as mealtime approaches. But allowed to play, adult marmosets are especially prone to play before meals, and when they play, their scratching — and presumably anxiety — decreases.2 Or take human kids: those who played before a dental procedure coped better with the procedure and reported less stress during the procedure than kids who expressed less affect and fantasy in their play.3

“Play” here will be those activities involving your horse that meet these criteria:4

  • Are within your ability and tap your own skills;
  • Require focusing on your horse or things that you can do with your horse;
  • Lead to a loss of ego and self-consciousness on your part;
  • Give you a sense of control over your actions and environment;
  • Contain coherent, noncontradictory demands with unambiguous feedback;
  • Involve no significant extrinsic rewards.

To play together with a horse, you will both meet these criteria:

  • Tap the abilities and skills you both have;
  • Focus on what you can do with each other;
  • Abandon ego and self-consciousness for both of you;
  • Gain a sense of control over your actions and environment;
  • Make only coherent, noncontradictory demands with unambiguous feedback;
  • Provide no significant extrinsic rewards.

Play will orient you toward a focus on process, rather than outcome, as work often does.5 It will focus on affect, rather than effectiveness.6 Play will squash anxiety and depression. It will allow you to forget your fears, the stressful demands of everyday life and even your own mortality.7 Afraid of falling out of the saddle? Play a few minutes of polocrosse, and you’ll forget all about it.

You will know when you have managed to achieve playfulness with your horse when you are having fun, feeling enthusiasm and excitement, and catch yourself laughing, singing, whistling or humming. My horse often makes me laugh. When I find myself laughing and feel self-conscious (in the barn, with other humans present), I realize that it is just my uncontained happiness that has taken over. Often it is because he has tried cracking a joke, like eating me, that I find so amusing. But whatever the details, I do not intend play to come down to a set of amusing tasks you can do with your horse. It should be more spontaneous than that, and less directed.

Learn to Show Love

Loving a horse is a contact sport. There is nothing playful you can do with your horse when you have a whip between you, or when you’ve scared the bejeebers out of him and he is tearing around the round pen. To show your horse love, you’ll need to become him and consider how he shows love: by leaning into a friend, by slathering his friend with his tongue and grooming him. You won’t be able to have “personal space” when you get into it, because horses don’t have personal space with those they love. To show love, he may want to rub his nose in your armpit. If you want to show him love, you must let him.

Leaving a carrot in his bucket is not showing him love. It is hit and run. Carrots must go from your hand to his mouth. If that leaves you uncomfortable, you can get over it. But horses don’t learn to bite the hand that feeds them. They’re much too smart for that. After 183,729 carrots, each sliced into a dozen pieces, I’ve never been bitten. Horses pick up carrots with their lips.

A horse who loves you will happily walk at your side, his front shoulder brushing yours, his feet inches from you. He will never push against you or pull away. He will never step on your foot, even though his ankle sometimes is pressed against yours as the two of you walk. He will wait for you when you fall and go around a branch that is too low for you, even though it is high enough for him. He will start walking to the gate when he spots your car and nicker when you enter the barn.

You can walk behind a horse that loves you. You can pick up his feet. You can put your hand in his mouth. You can do just about every dangerous thing they’ve told you not to do. A horse, after all, is in complete control of his body. He knows whether a bite or kick will hurt. He will not hurt someone he loves. Give him a million reasons to love you, and not one reason to feel otherwise, and he will come to the gate when he hears your voice, lower his head so you can put his halter on and forgive you when you run out of carrots.

Learn to Trust

The dictionary tells us that trust is a firm confident belief in the reliability, goodness, honesty, ability or strength of someone. Do you feel that about your horse? If not, what is it that shakes your confidence? Is it his behavior? Is there something about his reliability, goodness, honesty, ability, or strength that you find suspect? Are you sure?

The two of you are on the trail, and come to a fork. He thinks you should go left. You don’t really care, though you’d prefer to go right. Which way do you go? When I don’t care about a decision, my horse is the boss. He’s the boss of where he puts his feet, which side of the trail we are on, whether we need to stop to check for danger or not, and whether we are going left when I don’t care. This is what he knows: collective decision making (see the chapter on Leadership). In exchange, this thoroughbred wears only a halter with lambs wool padding as headgear–and never lets me down.

The two of you are on the trail and come to an old wet wooden bridge. You think it is safe. He thinks it is dangerous. Do you trust his judgment? Or do you urge him on and get angry when he won’t cross it? Yelling is not an option. He doesn’t understand what has made you angry and doesn’t know what to do with your anger. Kicking him must not be an option, unless you think it okay for him to kick you when he gets angry. I know of only three things to do in such a situation: make a U-turn and approach it again, to help him get unstuck; hop off and lead him over it; make a U-turn and head the way he wants to go. My horse is not the bravest boy in the woods, and there have been many bridges that we’ve almost crossed. But we always have a good time together. And it is now rare that he won’t cross a bridge that I propose we cross. I appreciate him for trying to take care of us when we are together. He may appreciate me for trusting his judgment and not bullying him.

Mark Rashid writes “Most of us are constantly searching for a relationship with our horse that is based on trust. In theory, we want to trust our horse and we want our horse to trust us. In reality, however, what we usually have is a sort of one-way trust. In other words, we trust that our horse trusts us, but we don’t really trust our horse.8

Laying on of hands…  When you are on a trail ride, you won’t be bringing a brush. Throw away those brushes. Use your hands and fingers on your horse to remove dirt. Learn to massage. Study your horse’s ears and mouth as you do it, to see which touches hurt, which touches give pleasure.

To see how touching your horse might cause him pleasure, watch him with other horses. A mare will lick her foal, never pat. Two horses who feel affection toward each other will lick each other, never pat.

Patting your horse’s neck might be easier or might keep your hands (or tongue) cleaner than rubbing, but it doesn’t have the meaning of a rub — in fact, it has no inherent meaning, and scarcely fires those pleasure nerves that rubbing fires. Horses never pat each other. Rub your horse. Pleasure your horse. Feel free to wash your hands or change your clothes when you are done.

Unshared Goals

Horses will not share many of your goals, or even understand them. For example, you may want your horse to execute a perfect 10 m circle. Your horse has no conception of this geometric shape and would be just as happy executing an oval. You must be the judge of the route to perfection and give your horse meaningful instructions that bring him to moving along the route you have chosen. Any rider may trigger an undesirable behavior through unintended signals and confusing communication. You might know what you want, but there is no guarantee that your horse does.

Your goals may be complex, maybe a little unclear even to you. His goals are simple and pure: to get this saddle off his sore back; to get the rest of those carrots; to get back to his friends in the pasture. Nothing wrong with simple and pure.


1 Image source:

2 Norscia, Ivan, and Elisabetta Palagi. “When play is a family business: adult play, hierarchy, and possible stress reduction in common marmosets.”Primates 52.2 (2011): 101-104.

3 Christiano, Beth Alexis, and Sandra W. Russ. “Play as a predictor of coping and distress in children during invasive dental procedure.” Journal of Clinical Child Psychology 25.2 (1996): 130-138.

4 This list is adapted from Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Beyond boredom and anxiety. Jossey-Bass, 2000.

5 Glynn, M.A. The perceptual structuring of tasks: A cognitive approach to understanding task attitudes and behaviors. Doctoral dissertation, Columbia University, 1988.

6 Dandridge, Thomas C. “Ceremony as an integration of work and play.”Organization Studies 7.2 (1986): 159-170.

7 Becker, Ernest. The denial of death. Simon and Schuster, 2007.

8 Rashid, Mark. Horses never Lie: the heart of passive leadership. Skyhorse Publishing Inc., 2011. p.137


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