Grooming provides physical and physiological benfits;
- The rubbing and brushing promotes optimal coat quality
- Tick and parasites can be discovered and removed
- Loose hair can be removed
- The skin and muscularture benefit from massage
- Circulation is improved
- Pre exercise grooming is a good warm up exercise
- Post exercise grooming is a great cool down
- Behavioural changes can be spotted and noted
Grooming is an activity which most of us who are involved with horses have some experience of. It is an integral part of any pony club itinerary, and it is something which we have been taught to carry out not just before and after riding, but also as part of any horse-care routine. Why then, is grooming sometimes the first hurdle we fall short at when it comes to nurturing our relationships with our horses.
Many times I have watched horses being groomed in a hurry - their owner, getting ready for a ride, hurriedly whisks away the dust and dirt before tacking up. There is sometimes an element of excitement on the human's part with regards to the impending ride. A quick dash through the grooming routine and you will be on your way! After the ride, a cursory sponge over the saddle and girth area for good practice is often as thorough as the post riding groom will get. Time restraints in the winter can exaggerate this, as it can be a race against the clock to ride your horse within the short daylight hours.
The horse gets used to this experience of their human quickly scrubbing their skin and raking through their mane and tail. I understand. I would be lying if I said I haven’t done this myself in the past. But I would like us all to take a moment, and consider the horse’s perspective of this activity. Lets try to put ourselves in our horses' hooves. Many aspects of horse handling involve a breach of personal space. Horses are taught to put up with us striding into their personal bubble and expecting 100% manners on their part. We forget that ‘manners’ are a two way dance! With regards to grooming, this is taken a step further. Not only are we intruding on our horses’ space, but we are now pulling their mane, scraping their skin, and yanking their tail. We are teaching the horse during this exercise, that we will not listen to their subtle body language, and that we will not consider waiting for consent to touch any area on their body.
While it is important for domestic horses to be confident and comfortable with being handled all over for health reasons, some training regimes take this to the extreme. The horse, who once made it known through subtle communication, learns that he/she may not express their concern as their human approaches an area of discomfort. This leads to them simply tolerating the experience, where before they would got to great lengths to make their concerns known. Conversely, you may come across the horse who tries to tell his/her handler about the pleasant areas they are reaching. The ends in the same result. The handler is too busy to notice these small signs of enjoyment. For them just to stay a little while at those areas and provide some lip curling scratches would make the world of difference to that horse’s perception of the exercise.
During my research for this blog article, I decided to check out some “how to groom your horse” videos on YouTube. Overwhelmingly, the videos I came across could easily have been “how to wash your car” videos. It was painful to see so many horses trying to communicate favourite grooming spots to their handler, only for them to swiftly move onto the next part of the job, none the wiser about their horse’s favourite scratchy area. The handlers are all missing a wonderful opportunity to build the bond between themselves and their horse. Isn’t that one of the reasons for a grooming session? It is as far as horses are concerned. Mutually grooming is often a pleasurable shared activity between two close equine friends.
“When a horse (either by itself or with the help of others) is rubbed, scratched, or groomed it oftentimes exhibits behavioural evidence that intense pleasure is occurring. The expressions of sensual pleasure are characterised by the extension and action of the upper lip [see picture below]. The eyes orient laterally and may close slightly; usually the ears are up. As the tactile sensations continue the upper lip extends more and more and twitches rapidly. If the upper lip contacts something, the object is rubbed using the quivering lip. The nostrils do not dilate but shake in conjunction with the active upper lip. The head extends somewhat and may turn to one side. Heavy breathing, groans, and leading toward the stimulation may also occur.”
- Horse Behaviour, Second Edition - G H Waring
"At one time scientists considered mutual grooming only a way of getting out-of-reach itches scratched - get a friend to do it and return the favor. Today it seems more significant. Mutual grooming also serves an important function; it establishes and maintains social ties."
- The Assateague Ponies - R. R. Keiper
As stated in the above quote, mutual grooming establishes and maintains social ties between horses. Surely we could be using grooming as a way of establishing and maintaining a meaningful horse-human relationship too? For me, this is absolutely invaluable, and is an important message for all horse-handlers to take on board. If you are a horse owner who regularly grooms your pony, think about what kind of experience you are encouraging in your equine friend.
The time spent slowing down your grooming and taking note of your horse's responses may well shorten your riding time initially. The time gained through a solid foundation of trust and a firmer relationship however, makes up for this tenfold.
We all need to slow down at times anyway, so approaching this activity with more consideration and a slower approach, you will likely be doing yourself a favour as well.
In the picture below, Spirit is being very carefully introduced to a cool sponge bath on a hot day. She treats this with some trepidation, and her handler is using positive reinforcement and a very slow, quiet approach.
She watches her body language and waits for cues from Spirit to tell her how to proceed. Spirit is also free to leave should she wish to. This situation is one example of a different approach to grooming. Spirit, who is a traumatised mare, is encouraged to choose to take part. Through taking this approach, we enter into a contract where we need to honour her choice should she say "no" on that particular day.
I realise that the above situation may be trickier to set up in come circumstances. Spirit is a non-ridden equine, and we don't have any time constraints or agenda to stick to. It is certainly possible though, to at least resolve to be watchful of your horse's responses during the grooming process, and then make the necessary adjustments. Creating a physical gesture as you approach each part of the horse can help. This gesture could non-verbally say, for example, "I am moving onto your neck now, okay?" Opening up the lines of communication is not only polite, it also encourages safety, as the horse and their human then have a clearer understanding of each others' intentions.
If you are uncertain about what your horse is saying through their body language, I recommend checking out the Ladder of Fear information on the Equine Behaviour and Training website. This also includes some excellent demonstrative videos.
Turning grooming into a pleasurable experience for your horse (and for you!) creates an invaluable foundation which will extend to other elements of your partnership as well.