Can My Horse Feel Jealousy? Horse Emotions and Bonding

horses display signs of jealousy to many owners (1)

Every morning my Arab gelding greets me with whinney while my Anglo mare snakes her head at him, curling back her lips and generally behaving more like a dragon than a horse. When I see her acting like this, I can’t help wondering if she’s jealous of the relationship I have with my other horses, or is she just ensuring that she gets her breakfast first?

Many others also see signs of jealousy in their horses, but there is little scientific research.

Do horses get jealous? Horses don’t get jealous over one another’s achievements or go green with envy when another horse secures the best stable. But, they may become possessive over valuable resources and display jealousy if others get too close to their food or owner. There are many aspects to consider. 

Horse owners appear to agree that horses do feel jealousy, with studies like this one indicating that as many as 79% of horse owners report seeing their horses exhibiting jealous behavior. (You can also check out this article on Donkey Bonding)

As horse owners, we like to believe that we have an emotional bond with our horses that is reciprocated and valued. So, we expect our horses to feel jealous, but what evidence is there that our horses are jealous?

Taking A Scientific Approach To The Horse’s Emotional State

While there haven’t been any studies conducted on jealousy in horses specifically, research shows that horses are capable of feeling emotions. Not only that, but a recent study conducted by the Universities of Sussex and Portsmouth established that horses can read and remember human emotions and adapt their behavior accordingly.   

If horses are capable of all that, then they can surely feel jealousy as well. But, scientists aren’t convinced. According to psychologists, jealousy is a secondary or complex emotion. Jealousy requires self-awareness, empathy of others’ feelings, and what their conscious intentions might be. 

Some researchers believe that only humans, some primates, and a few cetaceans, like dolphins and whales, possess these capabilities. That means that other species are incapable of experiencing emotions like jealousy, pride, guilt, or shame. Let’s see if that’s true.

The Concept Of Primordial Jealousy In Other Species

Researchers from the University of California San Diego performed a study to gauge whether dogs showed signs of jealousy when their owners interacted with a toy dog instead of them. 

They were trying to establish whether jealousy has a primordial form that’s triggered without the self-awareness needed for jealousy. If that was true, horses could experience jealousy too. To provoke jealousy, the researchers asked the dogs’ owners to display affectionate behaviors to a stuffed dog while the researchers observed the real dogs’ responses. 

The majority of the dogs responded aggressively to the situation. They snarled, pushing, or bit at the stuffed dog. Most dogs attempted to get between the object and their owner, seeking attention. 

The researchers concluded that primordial jealousy may have evolved in species that birth multiple young. Jealousy would motivate babies to compete for resources like attention, affection, care, and food. All of these are essential for their survival. 

But, horses are almost invariably the sole offspring. 

So far, it seems far more likely that what we perceive as jealous behavior in our horses is something else. But, we’re going to continue our search by turning to the behavior of wild horses. Do wild horses provide any evidence of jealousy?

wild horses show signs of jealousy (1)

Looking For Signs Of Jealousy In The Behavior Of Wild Horses 

Careful observation of the behavior of wild horses indicates that they do experience jealousy. Stallions will kill foals sired by another male. Some mares try to separate a stallion from another mare if he shows too much interest in her. That certainly sounds a lot like jealousy.

Observers of wild horses have uncovered a secret equine existence. It’s filled with disagreements and battles over power, position, and personal space. Herd life is fraught with stories of loyalty and betrayal. It seems horses do get jealous of one another.

But, could what we perceive as jealously actually be something else entirely?

Why We Might Mistake Resource Guarding For Jealousy 

It’s possible that what we perceive as jealousy is little more than resource guarding. 

Horses live in a social group and share many resources. But, when times are hard, the horse’s natural survival instinct kicks in. When it does, that animal is liable to fight to protect its most valuable resources, like mates, water, food, and living space.

One story that illustrates this point involves a particularly bossy mare in a herd of wild horses. According to the observer, a New Forest pony would get agitated and aggressive whenever the stallions showed an interest in other mares. If he showed any indication that he might mount another mare, she would charge at them, disrupting their romantic liaison. 

Horses resource guard jealously (1) (1)
Resource guarding or jealous?

I’ve observed similar behavior when I take hay out to my three horses. As I am alone, I am the only source of food, and my horses react by aggressively chasing one another, threatening to bite and kick so they can guard their precious resource. Are they jealous of one another or just trying to ensure their survival by ensuring they get the first mouthfuls of food?

Do horses feel love for their owners? And, if so, is it passionate enough to evoke jealousy?

Establishing A Bond With Your Horse

Theoretically, a horse that’s stabled 24/7 and has little opportunity to develop emotional relationships with other horses will be more inclined to latch onto its human owner. The stronger the attachment is, the more likely the horse is to feel jealous if that bond is threatened.

Similarly, a horse that’s known only one human in its entire life is going to be more inclined toward jealousy than, for instance, an off-the-track Thoroughbred that’s had a different owner every year of its life. 

Let’s see what the scientists think. 

Separation Anxiety in Horses

Lina Roth, Ph.D., associate professor at Sweden’s Linköping University, and her team of researchers performed a modified Strange Situation Procedure. They wanted to gauge if horses experience anxiety when separated from their owners. They sought to establish if horses reacted differently when separated from a stranger versus their owner. If the horse’s anxiety increases when separated from their owner, over a stranger, they are bonded to their owner. 

To gauge the horses’ stress levels, researchers monitored the heart rates of 26 different horses. They checked heart rates with the owner present and then asked owners to leave and return a few minutes later. They then repeated the same exercise with a stranger. 

The results suggested that, while a unique bond may exist between a horse and its owner, the horse will still seek a reunion with a stranger as enthusiastically as it does its owner. In both situations, the horse’s heart rate was higher during the separation period than it was at the moment of reunion. 

Head out to a field with a bucket of oats and you’ll see that the horses will aggressively guard you, even if you are a stranger!

This is a simple case of resource guarding rather than a display of jealousy. After all, horses rarely show their attachment to humans with separation anxiety and proximity seeking.

Attachment as an Emotional Bond

According to John Bowlby, attachment is an emotional bond that begins at birth. Attachment to our mothers is critical to our survival, ensuring we get the food, warmth, and comfort we need. Attachment researchers maintain that jealousy is a manifestation of attachment-related anxiety so, without it, there can be no jealousy. 

While horses rarely seek close or physical contact with their owners, Roth’s research proves that they do experience separation anxiety. They also display other attachment behaviors, such as looking to us for protection in times of potential danger and turning to us for support when confronting a new object or challenge.

The more we perform those roles, the deeper the attachment becomes, making horses more likely to become possessive and display signs of jealousy. 

jealous horses compete for attention (1)

Recognize Signs Of Jealousy In Your Horse

Horse owners have reported a range of behaviors they feel are indicative of a horse’s jealousy. These include:

  • Aggressively chasing other horses away from their owner or food,
  • Displaying attention-seeking behavior, like banging on a stable door, whenever their owner focuses their attention on another horse,
  • Whinneying when they see you heading out for a ride on another horse,
  • Trying to bite, kick, or lunge at the horse they envy, or the owner over whom they feel so protective,
  • Refusing to approach the owner or turning away from contact.

If your horse displays any of these behaviors, it suggests that he feels a close connection to you, but it could also escalate to a point where it becomes dangerous for both of you.

Why We Want Our Horses To Be Jealous

Although jealousy’s not a particularly attractive trait in humans, as horse owners, we welcome it because it’s indicative of a deep bond between our horses and ourselves. 

If you go onto almost any horse forum, you’ll find hundreds of comments from proud owners regaling you with examples of their horse’s jealousy.

Some talk of how one horse chases the others away every time their owner walks into a field, others of their horse suddenly turning on a horse it was mutually grooming the moment it seems them approaching. 

This level of jealousy is tolerable and may even be desirable to some, but too much isn’t a good thing. If your horse is so possessive of you that he’s becoming aggressive towards other horses, humans, or even you, things have gone too far, and you need to start looking for a solution. 

Horses often resource guard instead of actual jealousy (1)

How To Deal With A Jealous Horse

There’s no tried and tested method for relieving your horse of his jealous emotions, but these tips will put you on the right track.

#1 Use Positive Reinforcement Training To Reduce Jealousy

Jealousy is a negative emotion so, the more you can engage with your horse positively, the less likely he is to feel jealousy or express it aggressively. 

Positive reinforcement training can help a horse react positively to all humans, making it easier for him to transfer his emotions to new people. Using this approach, you can help a jealous horse overcome his attachment anxiety and reduce his possessiveness. 

#2 Prevent Jealousy By Sharing Your Time Equally

If you have several horses, as I do, try to share your time and attention equally between all of them. I find my Anglo mare is much less tolerant of the other horses and completely forgets her ground manners if I don’t give her the same amount of attention as the others.

#3 Be sensitive to the dynamics of the herd 

The alpha mare has a right to expect her food first and, if you fail to accommodate her expectations, she’s liable to explode in a fit of green-eyed rage that you’ll never forget. While you shouldn’t let any horse bully you, showing respect for the natural herd hierarchy is simply good manners.

horse jealousy is usually resource guarding (1)

#4 Don’t give in to a jealous horse’s sulks

Some horses seem to try and manipulate their owners by sulking. If your horse refuses to come to you or turns its tail on you whenever you approach, rather than following them around the field trying to placate them, lavish some attention on another horse instead. Once your jealous horse figures out that the sulking is doing him no good, he’ll soon come around to your way of thinking. 

#5 Be aware of your own emotions

Many of us believe that our emotions impact our horses’. As prey animals, horses have a keen awareness of what’s happening around them. As a result, they respond to the slightest changes in the environment including those in your energy, emotion, and intent. If you bring negative emotions, like jealousy, to the yard, you could evoke the same feelings in your horse. 

Similarly, a jealous horse may be simply reflecting your anxiety so, taking a few deep breaths and focusing on the positive things you’re going to experience with your horse could ease that anxiety and tackle your horse’s jealousy at the same.

How To Establish A Strong Bond With Your Horse

While I’ve established a strong bond with my one horse simply by spending many hours in the saddle, with my younger horses I’ve tried various methods to help establish a strong bond based on trust and mutual respect. Being the primary caregiver gives you a head start when it comes to creating that bond, but you can reinforce it using the following five techniques:

#1 Engage in mutual grooming 

My young mare and I have a mutual grooming session every morning after she’s finished her breakfast, during which I scratch her neck while she nuzzles the top of my head. Note, that I don’t allow her to bite me (stop horse biting here). In doing so, we establish a so-called “pair bond” that replicates the bond my horse had with her mother. By focusing on one another’s needs, we also learn each other’s preferences and become more familiar and comfortable with each other’s behavior.

#2 Play games together

Playing games is a great way to establish a bond with another human and works just as effectively with horses. Sometimes I’ll hide behind a bush in the field and then jump out, surprising my horse, who then runs away, before wheeling back and pawing the ground until I repeat the game. For horses that aren’t particularly keen on physical contact, this is an effective way to get them to focus on you and begin to anticipate your actions, therefore making them comfortable and secure in your presence.

Horses exhibit separation anxiety when owners are gone (1)

#3 Go for a walk

Walking side by side with your horse allows you to observe their behavior and offer support when something surprises or scares them. I also find walking my horse for the first 100 yards or so of a ride advantageous. In doing so, I can help her to switch her focus from the herd to me. This process reduces her separation anxiety while reinforcing the bond between us. When I then mount her, she’s a lot calmer and more focused on where we’re going rather than what we’re leaving behind.

#4 Try positive reinforcement exercises

As with games, positive reinforcement exercises encourage your horse to focus on you and respond to your actions. Every time they understand a request and respond to it correctly, they get a reward, whether with a piece of carrot or a scratch behind the ears. Using these techniques encourages your horse to look forward to spending time with you while giving you a better understanding of their mental processes. From this foundation, you’re able to develop mutual methods of communication that strengthen your emotional bond.

#5 Experiment with T-Touch and the Masterson Method

Both these interactive techniques can help you deepen the bond between you and your horse. T-Touch and the Masterson Method help your horse release tension and emotions and improve his physical and mental well-being. Just as you would trust and appreciate a person who alleviated pain and tension in your body, so a horse who feels a similar release will naturally want to connect with the person facilitating it. 

Conclusion

While scientific evidence is lacking, it seems clear to horse owners that horses do experience some level of jealousy. To what extent that emotion aligns with our own experience of jealousy is difficult to say. Resource guarding may be mistaken for jealousy. 

Jealousy is often welcomed by horse owners who see it as an indication of a deep bond. But, when it escalates into aggressive behavior, it needs addressing. We can, to some extent, combat our horse’s feelings of jealousy. 

 

Nicky Hoseck

I’ve been around horses since the age of six and, 15 years ago, leapt at the chance to leave behind my London-based career in journalism and start life on a small-holding in South Africa. Sharing my experiences with horses, goats, and other farm animals allows me to flex my writing skills and help others find their way to a happy, healthy herd.

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