Bonding with a Slow Blink: Not just for cats anymore

Many of us have heard about bonding activities for humans and their pets. Have you ever wondered if your horse might respond to them too?

A few years ago, I read the book “Total Cat Mojo: The Ultimate Guide to Life with Your Cat.” The author is Jackson Galaxy of Animal Planet’s My Cat From Hell TV fame. One of the methods he suggests for bonding with a cat is the slow blinking technique. Basically you wait for the cat to make eye contact with you and then you make a series of very slow blinks. Often the cat will reciprocate.

I’ve had the opportunity to try the technique with my own cats, barn cats and multiple foster cats. It’s a quiet, relaxing way to share space with a cat. No talking or touching needed. It feels very rewarding when the cat blink back at you.

More recently, there appeared a feature titled “Bond with a Slow Blink” in the March/April 2021 issue of Catster magazine that linked research to this technique.

“Researchers at the University of Sussex in Brighton in the United Kingdom demonstrated that humans can positively engage with cats by participating in slow blink sequences (a series of half-blinks followed by prolonged eye narrowing or eye closure). . . According to the researchers, the act of narrowing the eyes seems to be a form of positive emotional communications.”

In my daily interactions with my horses, I often notice them noticing me. Yes, their watching me is often food related. I can almost hear them say “When IS she bringing us that next load of hay??” But there are other times when they are already eating that I see their gaze follow me as I do barn chores.

I also notice that their eyes sometimes follow me when I’m grooming them. This especially occurs when I offer them a brush or a scratch while they are just milling around their paddock, unconstrained by halter or lead.

I wondered if I could catch a horse’s gaze and do an equine version of the slow blinking technique? I was pretty sure I could stand there and blink at a horse, but would the horse blink back?

One warm day before the start of Winter, Shiloh came up to me while I was doing chores. He acted as though he were interested in a little mini-massage session. So I put aside the pick and muck bucket to give him a series of rubs and scratches in his favorite spots.

Shiloh became quite relaxed but was still following me with his eyes and ears as I moved around him. At one point, I stopped touching him and stood back from him at a bit of an angle to his shoulder. I’ve read about how equine vision is quite different from ours. I wanted to stand where I thought I would be within his clear field of vision.

I began making soft eye contact with him and doing a series of long, slow blinks. To my delight, he began gently blinking back! We went back and forth like that for maybe a minute or so.

Now it could have been that he was just relaxing into the quiet moment we were sharing together. Maybe he would have been blinking anyways, even if he didn’t see me blink? But due to the rhythm of the exchange, I did have the distinct sense that Shiloh was mimicking my blinks. He eventually stopped responding when his eyes got semi-hooded. His gaze sort of went inward like he was getting drowsy. Whatever was or wasn’t actually going on, it was definitely a positive moment between us.

I enjoy reading about non-invasive research studies with horses. There is some really interesting experiments conducted in the last ten years or so involving horses being able to recognize human emotions just from photographs. Another study showed horses learning a method to communicate their blanketing preferences to humans. You can bet I am keeping my eye out for some equine slow blink research.

Almost all studies with horses have small sample sizes so I often wonder about the veracity of the results. And yet the study outcomes clearly hint at a level of horse intelligence that is not widely recognized by the horse industry. It definitely leaves me intrigued and wanting to learn more. Here’s a sampling of write ups about said research:

How do Horses Communicate with Humans?

Study: Horses can Communicate Blanketing Preferences

While I wait to read the next scientific study that comes across my desk, I’ll be doing some more of my own backyard research from time to time. If you ever meet up with me in person and see me gently winking at my horses, now you’ll know what it is all about!

3 thoughts on “Bonding with a Slow Blink: Not just for cats anymore

  1. Well, I Googled “horses slow blinking” and landed here, precisely because I know about the cat one and last night at the stables, I had the uncanny sense that I was “catting” with a horse. And to the same effect as you describe, the horse hung his head and seemed to become drowsy. But I’d interpret it a little differently than you did – he let his guard down, felt safe, didn’t have to watch for predators….

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    1. I am glad to see someone else curious about this issue too! I appreciate your conclusions. All valid possibilities. In my book, any horse-human interaction where the horse ends up in a relaxed state is likely a positive one, even with varying interpretations behind what it all means. I find the blinking a really interesting dynamic. Thank you for taking your time to stop by the blog and leaving your comments.


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