Do Horses Bond to Humans? Proof Is Lacking, Says Researcher

Study results confirm dogs bond with humans, but science has yet to show horses do as well, even after people use positive reinforcement for training.

Do Horses Bond to Humans? Proof Is Lacking, Says Researcher
The researchers had one person, whom the horses had not known before, train all 12 horses to perform 10 new basic ground movements. | Courtesy Dr. Elke Hartmann/Animals
We humans often bond with our horses. Few people would debate that. But is that feeling mutual?

Perhaps, but not necessarily, researchers say. The reality is no matter how much we might think our horses love us or get attached to us, scientists have yet to prove horses bond with humans.

“Based on our research, we just can’t say anything about bonds right now,” said Elke Hartmann, PhD, of the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala.

That doesn’t mean horses don’t bond with humans, she added. It’s that even the newest studies—including Hartmann’s latest publication in Animals—fail to provide the proof for the phenomenon.

“If horses can bond, how much time do they need?” Hartmann said. “And what kind of interactions are needed, and how frequently, outside the training context, does it take for them to see us as a ‘significant other’?”

Dogs Bond, Horses Tend to Feel More Relaxed With Preferred Humans

Researchers have already proven dogs bond with humans, Hartmann said. They consider their humans to be safe havens, staying near them when they’re afraid, for example.

Comparing dogs with horses isn’t easy, because as different species, they have different ways of expressing their attachment bonds. “Dogs jump on us and invite us to play and seek security with us,” Hartmann said. “Is that how horses would show attachment? I don’t know.”

An Italian group recently found that horses tend to be more relaxed around familiar humans. But Hartmann and her fellow researchers wondered if horses develop a true attachment bond beyond a feeling of relaxation with familiar humans, and whether that might depend on the kind of training the horse received from that person.

Studying Positive, Negative Reinforcement and Signs of Attachment

In particular, Hartmann and her colleagues wanted to see if horses would show more signs of attachment with a person who had incorporated positive reinforcement (food or wither scratching) into the training program.

Her team worked with 12 Standardbred school horses, including six mares and six geldings aged 5 to 13. The horses were usually trained for driving, riding, and handling by various students using pressure release (negative reinforcement).

At the start and end of the experimental period, the horses underwent the following fear tests:

Before training

The horses were set free in an arena with four pink rubber gym balls on the ground, near two unfamiliar humans who stood still throughout the 10-minute test.

Each of these two unfamiliar people led each horse by halter and leadline through a ground obstacle course with five stations, containing new and scary objects such as open umbrellas and falling plastic bags filled with metal cans and plastic bottles.

After training

The horses were set free in an arena with four rubber gym balls, this time covered in blue plastic bags, on the ground, near a new, unfamiliar human and the now-familiar trainer.

A new unfamiliar person and the now-familiar trainer led the horses through the same ground obstacle course as before training.

The researchers had one person, whom the horses had not known before, train all 12 horses 10 new basic ground movements, such as stepping to the side, stepping backward, staying grounded, and lowering the head. Training lasted 15 minutes per day for 10 days, and the individual used a different method for each of three experimental groups:

  1. Negative reinforcement alone (gentle pressure and removal);
  2. Negative reinforcement with food-based positive reinforcement; and
  3. Negative reinforcement with wither-scratching-based positive reinforcement.

Few Remarkable Differences Between Training Styles, Little Show of Attachment

Regardless of training method, all the horses had similar responses to the fear test after training, said Hartmann. In particular, they acted calmer after training than before—perhaps due to habituation—but they showed little difference between the unfamiliar human and the familiar trainer.

The horses showed very slight tendencies toward attachment to the trainer in certain situations, however, she said. For example, in the free-ranging fear test after training, some of the horses were more likely to explore the balls on the ground that were closer to the trainer they had come to know. They also had slightly lower heart rates when they were closer to this trainer. However, those same horses were already showing signs of approaching balls on the ground that were closer to any human during the fear tests before training, she added. So it’s possible these school horses already associated humans with security—without bonding to one human in particular—or that they had more curious and less fearful personalities.

The team also found that in the post-training obstacle course fear test, horses that had been trained with negative reinforcement plus wither scratching took significantly less time to get through the course with the familiar trainer compared to the stranger. The horses might have developed attachment to the trainer thanks to the wither scratching—a common mutual grooming act among companion horses, said Hartmann.

Beyond Training: Could Quality Time Build True Horse-to-Human Bonds?

The time spent training the current study horses might not have been sufficient to create true bonds, even with positive reinforcement, Hartmann said. And perhaps, the time owners and riders spend with their horses might be inferior to what horses need for scientists to see genuine signs of attachment.

“With dogs, we share living space with them,” she said. “But horses aren’t in our living space and, in my experience, seem to prefer the company of other horses instead of humans.”

What some people conceive as a bond—like a horse approaching eagerly—isn’t necessarily emotional attachment, she added. “Just because a horse comes up to me in the field, does that mean he’s bonded?” Hartmann said. “Or does he just know I’ve got the food he wants?”

Still, horses could possibly develop attachment bonds with humans who spend significantly more time with them beyond the training seen in this study, said Hartmann. “We just don’t know enough about it yet,” she said.

Until then, people should be aware that their feelings of bonding might not be reciprocated, said Hartmann. Misunderstandings of horses’ “love” or other positive humanlike emotions toward us could put people in dangerous situations of trust or could lead to disappointment and emotional hurt—which could in turn cause people to act differently toward their horses as a result. “I think it’s very important for horse welfare that we don’t overestimate the attachment of the horse to us,” said Hartmann.

The study, “From the Horse’s Perspective: Investigating Attachment Behaviour and the Effect of Training Method on Fear Reactions and Ease of Handling-A Pilot Study,” was published on February 9, 2021, by Animals.


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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