Horseback Riding in San Diego – How to Meet a Horse


Many of us love horses, when we see them we just want to touch them and talk to them.  Unfortunately, in our gusto, we forget how we may be impacting them.  Here are some quick reminders of how to approach, touch, and meet a horse.

1-      Approach-We are predators, horses are prey animals.  Predators often are very direct, we see something we want and we go and get it.  If we approach a horse in this fashion we can make them feel uncomfortable and insecure.  When approaching a horse, take a minute to check into yourself.  Are you talking, walking, and just going for what you want?  If so, relax, take a breath.  Stop talking and wait until you feel calm, and the horse appears calm, then proceed.  Pay attention to the horse’s body language and adjust or wait if you see signs of discomfort.  Approach from the side, at an angle or arch. Keep an eye on  horse’s body at all times, the horse will give you feedback about how he is feeling about you (i.e. look for slow feet, low head, lose ears, horse approaching you, or horse licking and chewing lips- all good signs).

2-      Talking-Pay attention to how you speak to your horse.  First, speaking all the time is pressure or distraction for your horse.  Second, horses read body language, they do not speak English.  Unless specifically trained for voice commands, using any kind of verbal request or reprimand may be at best, ineffective.  Finally, being mentally present with your horse is super important.  Having a constant monologue going with your horse may be taking you out of the moment, and worse, may be creating a story line that does not exist for the situation.  For example, “horsey, you just aren’t listening today, you are distracted by the garbage can and your friend back at the barn, ugh, you are always like this, you are so dull, it is so frustrating”.  This illustrates an ongoing monologue that is likely distracting for the horse, and illustrates the kind of thinking/talking that people do when they are not clear how to train/ride a horse in a tricky situation.  Effective riding would have the rider focusing on him/herself and the pressure he/she is putting on and off the horse in order to assist the horse to keep its mind and body working correctly, despite a garbage can, etc.

3-      Space- Humans have a space bubble (roughly an arm’s width between us and other people), horses have them too (roughly 1-2 arm’s width between them and other people/horses).  Horses are very sensitive to space and pressure.  Be aware that standing less than 1-2 arm’s width near a horse is putting pressure on it.  Remember that eye contact, and looking square on with a horse is a form of pressure and space encroachment.  Knowing/remembering this can make you effective and pleasant for the your horse when handling, tacking, and leading.

4-      Touch- How to touch horses.  Horses enjoy touch, they often have particular zones that they enjoy having groomed and rubbed.  Here are a few tips on how to pet horses:

  • Ask first before you pet someone’s horse, there may be a history, problem, or issue that you are not aware of.
  • Do not pet horses when someone is riding, working, tacking them before getting specific permission, this is distracting for the horse and handler (and poor etiquette).
  • Do not approach with straight on, with your arm stretched you, and go for the nose.  This can be intrusive and intimidating for the horse, it probably would be for us too 😉
  • Approach the horse from the side, rub on their withers or neck in gentle rhythmical motions.
  • Watch the horse’s body language, if the head is low, feet are slow, and ears are relaxed they are pretty comfortable with whatever you are doing.  If they are not, step back and try later or consult the owner.

These are just a few quick reminders.  There are always exceptions to rules, if you have any questions contact us anytime at, or consult your local horse professional for more information or for the nuances that always exist in horse/human interactions!

Happy Trails and Thank you!

Horses Helping Humans

About Amy

Dr. Amy Jane Hayden Oleson is the founder of Salisbury Farms. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and lifelong horse enthusiast. She has combined her passion for working with horses, instructing, and helping others into a unique and versatile community support program. She offers equine assisted activities and classical riding instruction to individuals interested in learning more about horses and themselves.

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