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Responding to Horses who Rub their Head on Humans

You may have noticed that during grooming, after a ride, or even during casual interaction, your horse likes to rub its head against you. In this article, we discuss 3 competing theories that attempt to explain why many horses like to rub their head or face on their owner’s body, plus how to respond safely to this behavior.

A woman touches the face of a brown horse.

Three reasons horses rub their head on your body:

 

1. To Show Affection

Both wild and domesticated horses bond with each other and develop their friendships through mutual grooming: you may have seen this in horses in a field or pasture. Usually, mutual grooming looks like two horses standing near one another, with necks sometimes intertwined, gently biting each other. This behavior is a way horses naturally groom each other. When your horse tries rubbing its head on your body, it may be attempting to “groom” you as a show of affection. Even though some horses rub their head on humans as a way to show affection, it’s a behavior that should be discouraged due to the risk of injury. Keep reading for tips on redirecting.

2. Because They “Don’t Respect You”

For many years, a leading theory on why horses rub their head on humans is that the behavior is based in a power struggle between horse and handler: in which the horse is asserting dominance by rubbing against the human.  While these types of power struggles can occur with horses, they occur far less often than we tend to think. As humans, we often ascribe human motivations and ulterior motives to horses, but, like with many things in life, usually the simplest answer is the correct one: although a horse rubbing its head on a human might be related to a power dynamic, it’s far more likely that your horse is just itchy or exercising innate instinct for mutual grooming.

Note: lack of training and defiance are not the same thing! If your horse has never been trained, through redirection, not to rub their head on humans, then it’s only natural they’d want to! Reading this lack of training as disobedience can set up a negative relationship with a horse.

3. Because They are Itchy and you are Convenient

In the wild and even in domesticated horse’ stalls and pastures, horses scratch themselves on anything that’s convenient! Fence posts, trees, and anything else sturdy enough to scratch hard-to-reach places can be used by horses as a scratching post – and that includes their owners! Although it can be easy to read into this behavior as a positive or negative sign of how your horse feels about you, sometimes the cause of horses rubbing their head on you can simply be to relieve themselves of a pesky itch during a time – like grooming or tacking up- when a good place to scratch themselves might be otherwise inaccessible.

A horse rubbing its head on another horse.

How to Respond to a Horse Rubbing their Head on You

Horses that are sweaty or in the process of having their tack removed after a ride may feel extra itchy and the need to scratch an itch caused by sweat under their tack. Here are some tips on satisfying that urge, safety, and training via redirection.

Should you allow your horse to rub its head on you?How can you tell if your horse likes youShould you allow your horse to rub its head on you?

Even though, as described above, horses may rub their head on humans for positive, negative, or neutral reasons, this behavior can be dangerous and should be discouraged. Horses are much, much stronger than humans, which can make this behavior unsafe. Due to the size of a horse, their attempts rub their head on your body could knock you over, causing injury or startling your horse in a way that could cause a secondary injury to either you or your horse. Additionally, a horse allowed to rub their face on an adult may try the same behavior with a child, which could be very dangerous.

How do you get your horse to stop rubbing its head on you?

The best way to stop a horse from rubbing their head on you is through redirection. Usually, horses trying to rub their face on a person are itchy or the seeking connection of mutual grooming. Good grooming can help meet both needs.

When your horse is trying to scratch their face on your body, use your hand to gently redirect their head away from your body and then use your fingers to give their head or face a good scratch. If you recently removed a headstall or bridle, scratch your horses face gently along the line where the straps touched their body.

If your horse shows that they enjoy the sensation, you can even use a soft curry comb to help relieve their itchy spots. Although not all horses like their faces groomed, for those that do, face grooming can be a bonding experience with their owners.

How can you tell if your horse likes you?

Horse head rubbing is one cue that might signal that your horse likes you . For more information on how to tell if a horse likes you and how to bond with horses, check out our article on the topic.

Why is my horse’s face itchy?

Many culprits can be the cause of a horse with an itchy face, and horses with itchy faces may try to scratch the itch in places that aren’t safe – like human bodies or fences, trees, or stall walls with sharp corners.

Horse face rubbing can be a cause of bald spots, and all potential causes of itching – such as allergies, skin issues, insect bites, sunburn, or fungal issues should be explored with your veterinarian.

Do horses engage in bunting?

Bunting is most commonly referred to in domesticated cats, but it happens in horses too. Some horse professionals may use the word to describe any horse behavior in which a horse bumps or “bunts” something or someone. Bunting, however, is different than the movement of the head designed to scratch an itch, as described in this article. You’ll notice bunting if the movement of your horse’s head tends to have a “fling” or a “bump” when it comes in contact with your body. A horse’s attempt to scratch an itch on you will be slower and more insistent compared to bunting type movement.

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