Grooming = Bonding
The grooming of horses is often approached in a very practical and technical manner and it surely has its place in that way.
We remove dirt, dust and loose hair before riding or other exercises where saddles and tack are being placed to avoid rubbing and also to have the horse look clean and presentable. It gives us the chance to check the horse all over for lumps and bumps, scratches, cuts, rushes, swellings, skin irritations, heat etc. Also, circulation and the blood flow to the skin are increased by grooming which will improve the horse’s coat.
However, beyond the practical and health related aspects it also gives us a great opportunity to deepen our bond with horses.
Mutual grooming is the most common social behaviour of horses concerning the relationships within a group of horses and it is not only considered to be grooming but also to facilitate pair-bonding. This in addition includes to allow another horse into their personal space.
As this is an enjoyable experience for the horse, we can make use of these aspects when grooming to improve our own relationship with our horses. And while I would not suggest that horses will consider us to be another horse they will still enjoy the scratches and massage that is involved which then is associated with our presence and company.
I work a lot with rescue horses who often did not have very good past experiences with humans, to put it mildly. Therefore, it is all about re-establishing trust and improving the horse-human relationship which takes place on the ground where basic handling and grooming is an essential part of it. The more a handler works with feel and consistency, provides re-assurance without flooding the horse, knows when to stop and has his/her focus on giving the horse a pleasant experience, the quicker a turnaround is possible. The horse will learn that it is not that bad after all to be in the company of humans.
We all can deepen the human-horse pair-bond by making it enjoyable to be with us and to give something back for all that horses provide and offer to us. And grooming offers a perfect chance for doing this as it is something most of us do with our horses anyway. While it is often considered a necessity, for example before riding or other activities, it is worth going about it consciously to connect and to relate to the horse; spending a little more time minding the horse’s “sweet spots” and being very gentle with any sensitive areas making sure the horse is and remains relaxed throughout.
Some horses may respond to this stimulus and want to reciprocate by starting to groom us. What to do in such case? Certain horsepeople are of the opinion to never allow the horse to groom you back because that would make them to become dominant and trying to dominate you. Well, you know my stand on the dominant concept which is supported by scientific research and therefore to me the answer is not that straight-forward.
It is right that we need clear boundaries. Horses tend to groom each other in a way using their teeth that is a bit too rough for us as humans. We do not want to get hurt and we do not want to encourage and teach biting. And you also want to be very clear what you allow with foals and young horses and what you teach them. Remember, they do grow and what may be nice and ‘cute’ now can be pretty dangerous once they are fully grown.
Where you draw the line and the boundary depends on the horse and on what you are comfortable with. Some horses get too enthusiastic and excited so you have to set a limit to the behaviour to avoid getting hurt. Others are very good in understanding and picking up that the use of teeth is a ‘no’ but that a gentle nuzzle is okay. It all depends on the personality of the horse and the overall relationship you have, i.e. are the boundaries between you clear, which not only starts with grooming. It is important to be in a position where we always can say “no”. We do not want to be pushed over.
Just to be clear and at the cost of repeating myself, I do not mean to encourage any dangerous and risky horse-human-interaction (and what you sometimes witness, often on social media… is simply just that). However, if it is based on a relationship where there are clear and working boundaries in place, I do not see any harm in a horse that responds to the stimulus provided by grooming through nuzzling us back and I do not feel the necessity to discourage this type of behaviour where it is appropriate. Beyond that, it neither undermines my position in the respective human-horse-pairing nor the lead and guidance I bring to the horse. Rather, it strengthens the bond, improves the time spend together and gives us many chances for being – present – with our horse, to feel and tune into the horse intuitively, to connect and to communicate with and to learn from another species beyond the chatter of our rational minds.
Enjoy your time with your horses, including the grooming and the communication and connection involved!
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