In The Saddle: I love my horse -but does she love me?

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Women have love affairs with horses, that much I’m sure of in life.

We kiss their warm noses, we snuggle into their manes and love to feel their warm breath on our faces...but do our horses actually love us?

At university, one group dissertation we wrote about was the level of understanding of animal intelligence and the studies both from a ‘behavioural science’ point of view as well as a philosophical side in order to help answer the question as to whether animals should have rights.

So, as a woman who requires proof (and research) to come to a balanced view about practically everything in life, it still surprises my friends when I ask them in a whiney voice ‘but does my horse actually LOVE me?’

Love is hard enough to work out in human relationships, but for some obsessive and horse-mad reason I just want to ‘know’.

My horse seems to have an attachment to me. She comes to call most days, she occasionally puts her head on me and closes her eyes, she wickers when she sees me...but is it love?

Research has shown that when horses are played familiar voices over a hidden speaker they look for that person, as opposed to ignoring a strangers voice. This, known as ‘crossmodal’, was once believed to be a purely human trait.

Horses can understand words better than expected and recall human friends after periods of separation. Even remembering complex problem solving techniques after ten years. Does it prove they remember owners they have loved in the past?

I can see that my mare and I have formed a bond and have an understanding of each other. Maybe this is through learned behaviour -she knows I feed her, groom her and bring her into her stable. I am her routine.

Yet she’ll pass something she is ‘fearful’ of, despite being a natural ‘flight’ animal when out riding.

There is certainly trust between us and at that point out riding - a definite level of respect for me being assertive, the leader. Does respect translate into love? Probably not.

I’ve known horses suffer clear ‘separation anxiety’ when parted from a companion horse in the field, with owners suggesting that this is love. It’s more likely however, because they are herd animals, they do not feel secure in being left alone.

Ultimately they are sophisticated cognitive and emotional beings who are more like us than we ever thought, but the reality is I know we can never confirm if they love us.

It doesn’t stop me wanting to think she loves me and whilst the ‘reasoning’, side of my brain tells me not to attribute human-like behaviour to my horse and to treat her as she is - a horse. The other

part of me, ‘my emotional side’, is already nipping over to tuck her in at night and pop on her pyjamas (indoor rug) ready for bed.