Horses show affection for one another through vocalizations as well as by actions. They nicker to show happiness when greeting other horses, scratch to show affection, mutually groom one another as a sign of care and attention, and rest their heads over the necks of their pasture mates. Horses are a demonstrative species, and use many nonverbal signals to show their emotions. Understanding how horses signal affection for one another offers insight into how they show affection for their human friends, and helps you understand how to better communicate with your equine friend.
Nickering is a soft sound made when horses greet one another. They make it by keeping their lips pressed together while simultaneously using their vocal chords. It's a sound that means, "Hello! I'm happy to see you!" When horses nicker with happiness, they have an alert expression on their faces. Their ears are pricked forward facing the other horses, and the head is often slightly raised. Nickering horses sometimes touch noses and share breath, breathing into each other's nostrils. This affectionate gesture ends the greeting.
Another way horses show affection for one another is by scratching the itch of a friend. Horses often reach over and use their teeth to scratch the back, neck and rump of a friend. The friend returns the gesture. It's similar to asking a close friend to scratch your own back; it's a hard to reach place, and a friendly gesture that's much appreciated by the one with the itch. Newborn foals show a similar affection for their mothers by rubbing against their legs while mares nuzzle their foals. While not necessarily scratching, this intimate exchange between mare and foal signals love and affection.
Like scratching one another, mutual grooming is another way that horses can touch one another to show affection. Horses may stand nose to tail, side by side, using their tails to flick flies off of a friend's face. They use their teeth to rub burrs and weed seeds off one another's mane and remove them from the coat, often picking at the debris until it's thoroughly removed. Social grooming is a trait horses share with many other animal species who use grooming as a way to signal comfort and affection for others in their herd.
Head Resting or Hugging
Lastly, horses do hug one another by resting their heads and necks over the heads and necks of their friends. This indicates affection for one another. The horse will stand nose to tail with his friend and lean over, resting his neck over the crest of the other horse. The two horses may doze this way, cocking a back hoof and closing their eyes. They may switch positions after a while or exchange mutual grooming after resting on one another's necks.
Jeanne Grunert has been a writer since 1990. Covering business, marketing, gardening and health topics, her work has appeared in the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" books, "Horse Illustrated" and many national publications. Grunert earned her Master of Arts in writing from Queens College and a Master of Science in direct and interactive marketing from New York University.