Horses are like dogs in the respect that some want to be petted, and others aren't so thrilled about the idea. Some like to be rubbed in some areas, but other areas of their body are off-limits. This article is about petting a horse safely and finding out the "awe that feels good" spot on your horse.
Safety comes first
One of the rules in our article 15 Important Ground Rules for Horse Safety is "Where can a horse see you? How to approach a horse safely." This rule explains that horses have blind spots in the front and the back. Therefore, it is safer to approach a horse from the side at the neck and shoulder area. This area is the safest place to start petting a horse.
If you get a negative reaction
Pay attention to the horse's body language. If a horse does not like where or how they are being petted, their first reaction is to move away. The next response may be to pin his ears and raise his head. Remember, each horse may react slightly differently. If your horse has a negative reaction, don't get discouraged.
Patience is the key to a good relationship with your horse. Start with one or two rubs. The next time you are near the horse, rub him again until that one rub does not produce a negative reaction. Then start building on the number of rubs and the amount of time the horse lets you rub him.
"Awe that feels good" spot
Have you ever scratched a dog behind the ears, and he pushed his head into your hand? Horses will sometimes have the same reaction to a good scratch. Another thing they might do is lower their head and push against your chest. Or they may just stand still and let out a big sigh. Each horse is different. It is up to us to learn their body language and determine when they are saying, "Awe that feels good."
Not all horses like to be petted
Horses are similar to people because some love to be touched, others only want to be touched in some places, and others definitely don't want to be touched at all. So, how do we know what kind of rub down our equine friend likes the best? Horse communicate through body language. The more time we spend with our horses, the easier it is to understand what they are trying to tell us.
How to pet a horse
Massage - Once you have approached a horse in the safe zone, start making long strokes along the neck and shoulder. The majority of horses want to be rubbed with strong rhythmical strokes. Think of it as if you are giving the horse a gentle massage.
Areas to massage – neck, shoulder, chest, hip, barrel When rubbing under the barrel, be sure to pay attention to the back legs to avoid getting kicked.
Scratches - Reserve the scratches for the ears, face, and areas that are hard for a horse to reach on their own.
Under their jaw – Horses have to use their hind feet to scratch anywhere on their heads. The results are often not satisfying. Then they will find something to rub on, like a fence post or tree. Some horses love to be scratched on the bottom side of the heads, between the jawbones. If you live in tick country, giving your horse a daily scratch is an excellent way to check for the pests.
Ears – A horse's ears are very sensitive. This is an area that may take some patience and work to be able to rub and scratch. However, once they figure out how good it feels, the majority of horses love for their ears to be rubbed.
Forehead – On the forehead under the forelock is another good place to scratch. This is especially true if the horse is shedding or in need of proper grooming.
Withers – It is not uncommon to see horses grooming each other on the withers. This is another good place to scratch. Especially if it is shedding season, or the horse is sweating after a ride.
Behind the front legs where the leg meets the body – This area is hard for horses to reach. It is also a good area for those troublesome ticks to hide.
Places to avoid
Ideally, we want to be able to touch our horses everywhere. But this takes time and trust. With that being said, there are a couple of areas that need to be avoided.
Genital region - We don't want to scratch the genital region. This area will need to be washed instead. Horses can build up oily, dirty gunk called smegma between their teats on mares or the sheaths on geldings and stallions. It can be very itchy. If you notice your horse rubbing its tail or rear end, it is a good idea to check for smegma.
Tail- This area can be tricky. We want to be able to brush and groom our horse's tail. But some horses can take it a little too far. For instance, they might enjoy the tail scratching and start backing up to you every time they see you. This can be misinterpreted as wanting to kick. It is important that you know your horse's body language and a good idea to stop this habit as soon as it starts.
The majority of horses enjoy a good massage and scratch. It is essential that we can safely touch our horses everywhere on their body. Especially if they get hurt. A horse will communicate with us through body language if they are not happy or if we have hit the "awe that feels good" spot.
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About the Author
Wendy Sumner grew up on a quarter horse ranch in Wyoming. She helped raise and train horses to be shown in the American Quarter Horse Association. At college, she received her Equine Science degree and pursued her love of everything equine. She has spent the last 35 years raising and training horses and teaching lessons. We are excited that she has agreed to join our team as a researcher and writer.