My horse nickers when she hears me coming. She comes to the fence to greet me and stands quietly while I scratch her on the forehead or kiss her on the nose. She always lets me catch her. She respects my space. She will take treats very carefully from my hand. She seems to enjoy being in my presence, and when I ride her, she always gives me a try, no matter what I ask her to do. I certainly love her, but does she love me?

I don’t think so, at least not in the human sense of the word. Human love can refer to a variety of different emotions and experiences related to a sense of strong affection and attachment. These feelings, states of mind and attitudes can take many forms: “Interpersonal attraction,” “Eros (romantic love),” “Agape (parental love, divine love),” “Generic pleasure,” “Philia (love of country, love of job, love of animals).” Each is a complex mental construct consisting of sense memories and abstract thoughts. Love is a product of the human brain.

So what is wrong with believing that your horse loves you? The tendency to anthropomorphize is strong with all of us and a balanced view of this is often harmless. But far too often, horse owners live in that fantasy and get hurt because they think their horses will be motivated by love and not primal instinct when they become frightened. Many people say, “I would die for my country” or “I would die for my children.” Well, test your horse to see if he will die for you when you shake a plastic bag at him. His love for himself (self preservation) outweighs any attachment he has for you. We expect beings who love us to behave in a certain way, to protect us, even to place our welfare above their own. A horse just can’t do that – it is hard wired to always make its own safety number one. That is part of its essential nature.

We can assuredly correlate certain human “mind states” to equine “mind states.” For instance, fear. When a horse acts fearful, we think we know how that feels because we know how we feel when our safety is threatened. We can thus empathize with the horse and that is useful in giving the horse what it needs from moment to moment. But love is different. --“No! It’s not true! My horse loves me”! You can believe that if you want, but rationalizing is also a human trait that is dangerous if left unchecked. The idea of “Natural Horsemanship” has created this world of a warm, touchy, feely, hands-off, unrealistic view of horses. Being kind, fair and compassionate to a horse is important and the “right thing” to do. But a more realistic view will keep you safer. We can even redefine the meaning of the word “love” if that makes you happy, although that is a dangerous thing to start doing. It doesn’t change the reality: a horse is a horse, not a human.

Horses are perfect just as they are. They don’t need to have human emotions or feelings or “mind states” to add joy to our lives. It is part of the journey to recognize the true nature of the horse in all its glory and uniqueness, and celebrate it for what it is

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