Have you asked them?
How do you ask them?
Last week I read an article about a study where researchers observed 69 horses being groomed. They found the vast majority of horses exhibited body language, behavior, and other signs that grooming was anything from stressful to downright painful. I’m not surprised by this discovery based on the number of horses that come my way that genuinely dislike being groomed. There are so many reasons a horse might dislike grooming, but in my experience, at the end of the day, it comes down to me. How I go about engaging in this quite intimate activity.
Grooming provides an opportunity to learn if there is anything going on with our horses that needs our attention. It can be an important part of maintaining healthy skin and hygiene, depending on a horse’s living conditions. But it only works if we accept the things a horse does in response to grooming as communication. I’m not surprised studies show horses don’t like being groomed all that much because touch is extremely powerful. Touch amplifies everything – what we feel, what we’re thinking about, our mood, our energy – it’s all transmitted to our horses. Then we go grabbing for those feet to pick them out. Never underestimate what a big deal that can be to a horse, to give us a leg, taking away their ability to flee…
We know horses have a vast array of facial expressions and body language gestures by which they communicate. It’s easy enough to turn grooming into a pleasant experience for a horse. All that’s required is for me to groom mindfully rather than treating it as just another task to be completed as efficiently as possible so I can get on to the fun stuff. By paying attention to how my horse feels as I groom him, I can sense when he is giving me permission to touch him, when he is worried, when I’m touching a place that is sensitive, painful or itchy. If grooming is treated as a conversation it makes all the difference and can be a tremendous bonding experience for both horse and human. It is also the time where I discover if my horse is in pain so that I can skip riding that day or modify my training plan to assist him so that I don’t ask him to work through pain.
So how do I know how my horse feels about being groomed? What do I do with this bit of research? Do I assume he hates it and stop grooming? No, I take this new knowledge and I go ask my horse to show me how he feels.
Merlin is a great example of a horse who genuinely seemed to dislike grooming when he came a few years ago. When I began exploring grooming with him, he fidgeted, and twitched, wiggling his lips and constantly moved away. His eye would go dull and he would shut himself down if I groomed like I was taught – that task-oriented scrubbing. I tried a variety of grooming tools, even my bare hand. He still seemed to hate it. I took a step away and felt my feet on the ground. Breathing and standing back from him I could feel/sense/see his anxiety.
When a horse expresses anxiety about something like grooming, tacking up, being haltered, or having their feet handled, it’s important to acknowledge their feelings by taking that step back. Understand that whatever they are experiencing and feeling is valid for them – whether we understand it or not. It doesn’t always matter what caused the anxiety to build. I don’t know when or why or how Merlin developed his anxiety about being groomed, and it doesn’t matter. Focusing too much on the story behind the behavior puts me into the realm of intellectual exercise, taking me out of the moment with Merlin. He can feel that and it only adds to his anxiety.
As I stand back and breathe, I can see Merlin visibly relax. The next time I approach with a soft grooming mitt that seemed the least offensive to him, he tenses as I reach out with the gloved hand. So I pause, take my hand away and breathe again, thanking him for telling me how he feels. Horses can only really let go of anxiety around us when they believe we understand what they communicate and then (and this is extremely important) respond appropriately to that communication. It does no good for me to recognize Merlin tensing and just go in and touch him anyway. If I do that I only prove to him what is likely the cause of his anxiety to begin with – I don’t listen well and I’m just going to do what I want to do regardless how he feels about it.
When Merlin tenses I pause, hand hovering in midair, waiting to see if he invites me in or not. If he remains tense or leans away, I take my hand away and step back. Who wants to be touched without giving permission, without an invitation? By taking this time to re-negotiate contact, I get to let Merlin know I listen and I won’t do anything without his permission. With every fiber of my being I let him know I hear him and I won’t just blow through this process. I know it’s uncomfortable and I want to figure out why.
Grooming is an act of intimacy. Merlin taught me that he needed me to feel my feet on the ground and groom slowly. I could do one small circle and swipe and take my hand away. Give him a moment to relax and then do another slow circle and swipe. The first day he let me do 5 strokes along his shoulder. The next day he let me do a few more. Within a week I was grooming him from head to toe, mindfully, and he was able to relax. Merlin doesn’t mind being groomed so long as it’s done mindfully. But he doesn’t love it so we don’t belabor it.
Most of my horses come running when the grooming bucket comes out. They gather around, jostling for position, shifting to where they want to be brushed next. They actively show me where they have sore spots, itchy spots, anything that needs my attention. They know I work hard to make them as comfortable as possible. They know I listen, and so they both trust and enjoy our interactions around grooming. Take the time to find what your horse likes, discover what underlies any behaviors that occur during grooming and make this important first interaction with your horse something that sets the stage for a stress free, peaceful, and mutually enjoyable session.