Grooming is the first thing you do with your horse after catching them. The quality of grooming time can set the tone for all that’s to follow so it’s important. Some people have ‘issues’ when grooming. It can be such a positive thing, a personal body pamper session, and normally horses love it, but sometimes not. Problems include moving away, trying to bite/kick or having no-go zones.
What’s happening when we see two horses mutually grooming? Mutual trust and affection while touching. When we see this, we think it’s sweet, they like each other. When we groom, we can adopt this headspace, that we really like our horse and want to give them a lovely experience. Not ‘get the job done’. This positive headspace is essential.
To do this, we need to be in the present moment. If we’re on auto pilot, thinking about other things and just getting the job done, we can’t feel our horse and respond to them in the moment. If you’re grooming and your mind strays, place a bare hand on the horse, or go to their head and stroke for a while to bring yourself back.
Ensure your tools are comfortable for the horse. Some horse grooming tools are uncomfortable and even painful for the horse. Hard, stiff bristles hurt on sensitive skin, especially a summer coat, and many horses hate them. Some mane and tail brushes rip the hair out, causing pain. Look at your tools and discard any that may be causing discomfort.
Look at the amount of pressure you’re using, not too hard or soft. Sometimes people push so strongly it hurts, or so lightly it tickles. Both may incline horses to dislike grooming. In the middle, with a nice firm pressure but not pushing too hard works best.
Be aware of areas of sensitivity. The flank is very sensitive, plus belly, inner thighs and face. When in a sensitive area be careful not to tickle or push too hard. Grooming in the direction of hair growth can assist with comfort. When grooming the head move slowly so they know you are aware of the eyes.
If approaching a sensitive area slide into it from a less sensitive area. For example, if you want to groom the flank and just plonk the brush there you can expect a protest. Groom along the horses’ side, then slide onto the flank. Similarly, if you want to pull off a tick don’t just grab it, especially if it’s in a sensitive area. Rub toward it then slide to get the tick. For a tick on the muzzle, slide down from the forehead. The same thing goes for poking and prodding. No-one, yourself included, likes it if someone comes up and just pokes them. If you must poke an area, approach the spot by sliding there with an open hand first.
Looking at all the possible things we could be doing to cause the problem is always the first approach to any horse issue. If you’ve ticked all these boxes and still have a problem, it’s time to start re-training. Horses with a long-term aversion to something may have formed a habitual response. This can take time to change, but every session should show improvement. If not, then look again at what you’re doing and make necessary adjustments.
The priority is to remain safe. If the horse is showing aggressive behaviour and you are not sufficiently experienced to re-train, call in a professional to start. If it’s safe and you have the skills, the goal is to reward the positive behaviours and ignore the negative. Hitting or reprimanding will only confirm to the horse that grooming is bad.
If grooming the body and the horse moves or goes to kick/bite, try and keep the brush on their body (it doesn’t matter where) until they stop. The moment they stop, remove the brush. It’s best to have the lead-rope in your other hand for this. If they’re tied up and pull back, they may feel trapped and panic, again confirming it’s bad. If you have the lead you can move with them, show them what’s wanted plus control dangerous behaviours
If grooming the mane and the horse turns the head away, continue and wait for them to move back to centre. When they do, stop grooming. Set up a rhythm. Every time they move away keep going, every time they come back stop. Pretty soon they won’t be moving.
Using this simple method horses can see being groomed as a pamper session, not as a punishment. This is what it should be, pleasurable for both the horse and the human. Your special time together.
Suzy Maloney B.Eq.Sc.
Happy Horses Bitless
Ph: 0401 249 263