Your horse probably recognizes your face and knows your voice—maybe even the sound of your car driving up to the stables. And while he or she may develop some level of attachment to you, it might not be the same kind of bond that grows between parents and children or even humans and dogs, according to a new study.

And that doesn’t mean the relationship between horses and their humans isn’t special. It just means horses can—fortunately—turn to other humans for support and comfort in stressful situations, said Lina Roth, PhD, associate professor at Linköping University in Linköping, Sweden.

“We are not saying that there is not a special bond with the owner, but rather that even a stranger could give some support to a horse that has been stressed or separated from other individuals,” said Roth, who adds that she considers that she and her own horse have developed a “kind of bond.”

Roth and her fellow researchers, including colleague Paulina Lundberg, MSc, observed the behavior and monitored the cardiac activity of 26 privately owned horses living in boarding stables as they were led to an arena, walked, and then left alone for one minute before being reunited with their handler. The scientists tested the horses with their owners and with a handler they didn’t know in the same circumstances.

They found that in both cases—with the owner and with a stranger—the horse seemed stressed when separated and less stressed when the human returned, Roth said.

Interestingly, overall, there wasn’t any significant variation in the horse’s behavioural or cardiac reactions between being reunited with the owner versus being reunited with a stranger. In similar experiments with dogs and with young children, there’s a significant difference in reactions when it’s the dog owner or parent, compared to the stranger, she added.

“This might not be that surprising, when you think about the fact that most dogs live in our houses and are together with their owners from when they’re puppies,” said Roth. “But with horses, it is not as common that we keep the same individual throughout its life. In addition, the horse is a prey animal, and we might need to modify the research methodology in order to capture its complete behavioural response in this kind of studies.”

That doesn’t mean horses never develop special bonds with their owners, however, cautioned study co-author Elke Hartmann, PhD, of the Department of Animal Environment and Health at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, in Uppsala. When and how they express attachment behaviour may depend entirely on previous interactions and the situation – where the horse lives, how much time the owner spends with the horse, what they do together, how long the owner has had the horse, etc. “It’s really important not to generalize research results,” said Hartmann.

This needs to be highlighted, because some media outlets reported on this study with misleading headlines.

“One study can’t give all the answers,” Roth added, “but this one is a really good start and has given us and the research field [investigating horse-human attachment], more interesting research questions to investigate.”

The study is open access and published in Applied Animal Behaviour Science. You can read it here.

The article is titled: Does training style affect the human-horse relationship? Asking the horse in a separation–reunion experiment with the owner and a stranger by Paulina Lundberg, Elke Hartmann and Lina S.V.Roth.

This study is about how horses bond with humans. To read a report on a study about how humans bond with horses, click here.