How can you tell if your horse enjoys grooming?
- How does your horse feel about being groomed? There are the horses that can’t possibly get enough and will try and groom you back, and the horses that despise every last minute of it. I think most horses fall somewhere in the middle?
- You may have heard about this study done in 2019 about the reactions of horses to being groomed. The results are quite telling in that most of these horses did not enjoy being groomed. Only four horses showed signs of enjoyment. More details of the study can be read in the abstract.
- The bottom line from this study is that most horses don’t like to be groomed, and most handlers have no idea what’s going on with the horse they are grooming. The handlers in this study were also found to display dangerous behaviors, such as passing under a horse’s neck, regardless of how experienced they were with horses.
Food for thought about horses that don’t like grooming.
- We shouldn’t think of grooming as something that is done to get our horses clean and shiny. The true purpose of grooming is to make sure our horse’s health is good. Vital signs, skin condition, any new nicks or cuts, how are the eyes, ears, mouth? Under the tail? Between the legs and in all of those wrinkles?
- And we should also take care to keep our horses safe and comfortable as best we can, during grooming and beyond. This means properly fitted saddles, regular farrier care, exercise, turnout, and a safe place to sleep. This also includes your grooming tools and techniques!
- So – the wobbly middle ground. Some horses just hate being messed with. Grooming and tacking up is filled with tail wringing and teeth grinding and ears pinned and tense backs.
- But there’s a point at which a horse’s drama needs to simmer down and a horse needs to just DEAL. It’s not safe, comfortable, kind, or healthy to ignore a horse’s grooming needs because of his behavior. And it’s definitely not good to tack up a dirty horse and head out for a ride. Imagine grit in your skivvies before you head out to exercise.
Is your horse sound and healthy, or is his behavior telling you he needs the Vet? The first place to explore is his physical body to be sure he’s fit and sound and comfortable. Then you can figure out how to make grooming more to his particular liking.
How your horse will “talk” to you during the grooming process.
There are super obvious signs of discomfort and/or dislike.
- Ears pinned.
- Threatening to bite.
- Wiggling side to side.
- Grinding teeth.
- Tail swishing.
- Lifting the hind legs and kicking out. Of course, they can strike with the front legs, too.
And the not so obvious signs, which could be any of the above, but your body is just in a spot where you can’t actually see the whole picture easily.
- Moving away from your hands.
- Wide-open eyes.
- Yanking his foot away.
- Gnawing at the cross ties straps. Although, some horses are just into chewing things.
- Tensing up their backs or haunches.
- Lifting their heads.
- Reluctance to lift a hoof.
Here are the signs that your horse is in hog heaven while being groomed.
- A horse that leans into you while grooming.
- Dropping his head.
- Closed eyes.
- Droopy lip and sometimes even drool.
- The twisting neck, the flapping and wiggling lips, the legs shifted so you can better reach the good spot.
- One of the easiest ways to see if your horse likes being groomed is to have a friend watch your horse as you groom.
- You can also get a pretty good idea of what your horse likes and doesn’t like if he’s in a smaller paddock and you are grooming him while he’s loose. I don’t recommend this with most horses, it works with some. My own horse lives wild in a paddock with an attached shed. He won’t approach me when I arrive, but he knows the sounds of the velcro on my grooming gloves and will approach me and position himself to get all of the scratches. The itchy places may change, and he will let me know.
- You could also set up a camera one day to record your grooming session.
Find the tools your horse likes, and find a way to use them that feels good.
Where’s the middle ground?
Think about the tools you are using.
- Could your brushes be softer, or harder? What about the curry comb or shedding tool you have? Some areas of a horse don’t have big muscles covering them, and rubbing a comb or brush over the shoulder or hip isn’t super fun.
New techniques in using your grooming tools.
- I was taught that curry combs are round, so use them to make circles. Well, some horses would like to kick you in the teeth for doing that. You may need to draw lines and skip the circles altogether.
- I have known so many horses that act irritated with a soft brush or curry comb, but are on cloud nine with more pressure and a harder brush. Some tools might tickle your horse, and you need to change the tool and/or technique to make a difference.
How can you modify the circumstances of grooming your horse to find the middle ground?
What comes after a grooming session?
- Horses can learn routines pretty quickly, and they know grooming preceded tacking up and riding. He doesn’t like his job, it hurts, he’s pushed too hard, he’s unsound? I wouldn’t want to have anything to do with grooming either. You can groom your horse without riding. He may just start to like it.
Can you provide distractions during grooming?
- Nothing says “don’t mind me while I scratch your nether-regions” like a hay net. Is this a bribe? Well, maybe? But it gives your horse something to do other than snark at you. This also might help you discover if your horse’s grooming behavior is a true dislike of grooming versus a dislike of being away from his lunch.
- This also goes for being able to see other horses and feeling safe in your grooming area. Maybe he’s acting like he hates grooming because he really hates the location of your cross ties. Sounds, sights, and invisible things can all be scary for horses, it’s your job to try and figure out how to get his brain and his body comfortable.
Hay nets are fabulous distractions during grooming.
Can you do certain things at different times to help your horse be more agreeable?
- Think of the horse that doesn’t like his mane to be pulled. Are you trying to do this all in one session? Or are you only doing one or two pulls at a time, after a ride when he’s warm, and after you have put some topical lidocaine on? And paired with as much praise as you can possibly stomach?
Can you train your horse to like grooming?
- Let’s assume your Vet has tested your horse for every last possible reason to hate grooming, you have tried all the brushes under the sun, the saddle fitter’s been out, the chiropractor, too, and your horse is still grumpy.
- This may just be his habit. There are a few techniques you can use to convince him of the benefits of grooming. Desensitization involves teaching him over time that grooming is good. It’s a baby-step method.
- Counter-conditioning involved teaching him that grooming equals ONLY GOOD THINGS. Like snacks, special scratches in his favorite spot, lots of quality praise, a good turnout following, a hay net, etc. I use a clicker, which is shorthand for “good boy” and associated with a reward.
- Train yourself to be more attentive to your actions around your horse. So often we correct and reprimand instead of making a change ourselves. If your horse is having a cow because he’s lonely and your music is stressful and he hates your brush, take a breath, and look at the big picture. Giving him a reprimand or correction might escalate things.
There’s no exact way to know if your horse likes grooming, but you can start to put together some pieces to make it better for both of you.
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