How To Approach a Horse Safely?
Learning how to approach a horse safely is horsemanship 101.
Every equestrian needs to learn the signs and methods for their own safety and to start the bonding process with a horse.
It takes time but everyone can achieve this.
I hope my introductory guide will get you started on safe, rewarding relationships with the horses in your life.
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Table of Contents
How to Approach a Horse for the First Time?
Learning how to approach a horse safely means you need to have some understanding of horse behavior.
Horses are prey animals, which makes them very sensitive to sudden movements or sounds, especially when they are in their blind spots. They are also herd animals, which can affect how it responds to you.
A horse has blind spots directly in front of its face, along its sides, and directly behind it. 
Don’t be followed into thinking that because a horse is big that it will have slow reactions. Horses have extremely fast reactions and can throw a powerful kick within a split second.
While many horses are very friendly animals, it is important to remember that any horse, no matter how docile it seems can react dangerously.
With that in mind, you should always follow certain steps when you approach a horse for the first time. Each individual horse will have its own way of reacting to an unfamiliar person.
You can’t predict what an unfamiliar horse will do.
#1 Use Your Voice
The first thing you should do when approaching a horse is to use your gentle voice. Say something in a kind, non-threatening voice. It doesn’t have to be complicated, just keep your tone of voice soothing.
‘Hello Prince (or whatever the horse is called), how are you?’ is perfectly ok. Do this when you are close but at a safe distance from the horse that it can’t harm you if it reacts badly.
This also gives you a chance to read the horse’s signs, which will tell you if he knows your there and is happy for you to approach.
#2 Make Sure The Horse Sees You
Before getting closer make sure the horse has given you a sign that he sees you. As I mentioned, horses have blind spots. You never want to pop up out of their blind spots.
The best way to approach a horse is to approach from the side around their shoulder area.
#3 Stay Calm and Move Slowly
As you move towards the horse, walk slowly and calmly. Running or bouncing around will spook most horses. Don’t speak loudly or aggressively or make scary noises.
Horses are very good at reading our moods. They can tell when you are tense or anxious. This can trigger them to think there is something to worry about, so try to stay as calm as possible.
Keep your body position confident and relaxed.
#4 Allow The Horse To Smell You
When you are close enough hold your hand out so the horse can sniff it. You should be standing around arm’s length and slightly to the side, not directly in front of the horse.
Sometimes offering a treat, such as a carrot at this point makes a positive impression on the horse. If the horse is showing signs it is happy and not frightened then proceed to the next step.
If the horse reacts in any way that isn’t positive, slowly step back and wait a bit before trying to approach again.
#5 Touch the Horse
The best place to first touch a horse is on its neck. Most horses are more comfortable with you to gently stroke them on their lower neck or shoulder. Start there.
Avoid the upper neck or the face. This can upset a lot of horses, especially if they don’t know you. Stick to rubs instead of pats.
If that goes well, you can try giving the horse a scratch. A great spot to try this is at the end of the neck right by the withers. I haven’t met a horse that doesn’t love scratches in this location.
I found this educational video from the University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE Central Sierra) It really explains how horses see and react and how you should approach them.
How to Approach a Horse in the Stable?
Approaching a horse in a stall is slightly different because you are dealing with a confined space. Most of the time, the horse will be facing where it can see out.
It may even have its head sticking out the door if they have this option. This means the horse is more likely to know you are near.
You should still remain calm and relaxed, first introducing yourself. If you notice that the horse is facing away from the door, you must be cautious.
First, say hello before opening the door to encourage the horse to turn around. If the horse shows a sign that it heard you but doesn’t move, you can do two things.
The first is to leave the horse alone as he may not want to socialize with you at that time, and you should respect their space. The second it that the horse is just not in the mood to move.
This is a judgment call you will have to learn how to make. It won’t happen overnight. But experience and practice will help you achieve this.
If I know the horse well and know what call to make, this is what I will do if the horse doesn’t move when I say hello.
If I can reach the horse without opening the door, I will gently give the horse a rub on the haunches while talking to it. Hopefully, this will get the horse to focus on me more and turn around.
It often does the trick. Just remember, never open the door and walk in if the horse is facing away from you. This is a bad idea, which can cause the horse to kick you or spin its hind end at you.
Also, be careful to never let yourself get caught between the horse and the wall while in the stable.
For more insights and tips for approaching a horse, I recommend this helpful video. It gives you some great explanations of signs and vision.
How to Approach a Wild Horse?
If you encounter wild horses in their herd while out riding, you should not approach them. Respect their space and quietly observe them from a distance. Also, stay out of their path.
Wild horses are much more in tune with their natural instincts than domestic horses and behave differently.
Many people adopt Mustangs that were taken out of the wild. There are experts that are great at training these horses.
It is a slow process to get these horses to trust you. Some people call the process wild horse gentling and the very first steps are not to approach the horse at all but let them see you.
Spend time in their presence without invading their space. Let them observe you and get closer to you on their terms. I advise that if you are new to working with horses you leave approaching a wild horse to a professional horse trainer.
This is a long video that shows you the initial steps an expert uses to approach a wild horse.
What Not to Do When Approaching a Horse
Just like there are things you should do when approaching a horse, they are things you should NOT do. I’ve broken down some of the most important into points to make it easy for you to study.
- Never walk up behind a horse, especially without speaking to it
- Never run at a horse
- Don’t shout at a horse or speak loudly or overly lively.
- Don’t reach straight for the horse’s head
- Don’t show a lack of confidence
- Don’t make sudden movements, such as swinging your arms
- Don’t make loud noises
- Don’t use aggressive or angry body language
- Don’t avoid making eye contact
I really enjoyed this video which shows you the serious topic of how not to approach a horse but done in a humorous way.
Signs Your Horse Does Not Want to Be Approached
As you understand more about basic horse body language, you will get better are reading the signs they are giving you.
When a horse doesn’t want you to come close it gives you some very obvious and some less obvious signals. Dominant horses will react differently than shier horses.
Here are some of the most important warning signs with the help of the RSPCA. 
- The horse raises its head and tenses its body with its ears out to the side or back
- Widens its eyes and you can see more of the whites of its eyes
- Its ears are back
- A horse puts its ears back and looks at you or shakes its head at you
- The horse turns its hind end towards you
- The horse walks away from you
- Pins ears flat back, threatens to move at you, and opens its mouth
- Ears are back and they are swishing their tail
- Subtle changes to facial expressions from soft to hard or tense
This video shows you and explains the warning signs horses give.
Can You Pet a Horse After approaching: Do’s and Don’ts
Where you can pet a horse after approaching will depend on the horse’s behavior. It will let you know if it is happy for you to pet it.
Here are some tips for petting a horse, what to do and what not to do.
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How to Pet A Horse
Once a horse shows that it is happy with you in its space you can start to pet it. Don’t slap the horse or pat hard. Just gently rub the horse and talk to it nicely.
Always pet it on its lower neck or shoulder from the left side. When the horse is more comfortable with you, you can slowly start to pet its face. Some horses don’t like this and others do.
I have a horse that loves to be rubbed on her forehead.
Signs He Does Not Want You To Pet Him
If the horse shows any negative signs, such as putting its ears back or turning away from you, it probably does not want you to pet it.
If you are petting the horse’s neck and he turns his head around and tries to nip or even full-on bite you, he wants you to stop.
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Do horses like being hugged?
Some horses like being hugged while others find this too intrusive. I have one horse that loves to snuggle her head in your arm while being gently stroked.
Do horses like to be talked to?
Most horses like to be talked to but only in a soft, calm voice. Raised or aggressive horses will worry or even panic a horse. If the horse is attentive to you with happy horse ears (pointed forward), you know he likes it.
Do horses like to be kissed?
Some horses just lap up any kind of attention including being kissed. While other horses are indifferent or don’t like being kissed. Treat each horse as an individual. It will give you signs that it doesn’t like kisses.
I hope you found my guide helpful as you begin your journey to learn how to approach a horse safely.
As you get better at reading the signs horse give you to communicate, you will quickly be able to change your behavior and eventually make friends with every horse you meet.
- 1. Blind Spot – Extension Horses [Internet]. horses.extension.org. [cited 2022 Apr 20]. Available from: https://horses.extension.org/blind-spot/#:~:text=A%20blind%20spot%20is%20an
- 2. Understand Your Horse’s Body Language | RSPCA [Internet]. www.rspca.org.uk. Available from: https://www.rspca.org.uk/adviceandwelfare/pets/horses/behaviour/bodylanguage
Siun is an all-around animal lover, with a passion for horses. She grew up in the United States, competing in the hunters, equitation, and jumpers. Now living in Ireland, she competes with her own showjumping horses. She is experienced in the care and training of horses, as well as teaching riding lessons. She loves to combine her love for horses with her work. When not working, Siun will be found at the stables, rain or shine.
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