Routine grooming is an important part of equine health care and might be the most common interaction between humans and horses. But does your horse really enjoy being groomed? If not, he’s not alone.
Body brushing, mane combing, and hoof picking aren’t particularly pleasant for many horses and might even be stressful, uncomfortable, or painful. Some horses begin to anticipate being groomed and become anxious and avoidant before the session even begins, and other horses are aggressive when groomed. For example, I recently heard about a lesson barn that included grooming as part of the program, which seems like a valuable skill to teach new riders, but the horses were kicking or biting at the students.
Researchers recently reported in one study that more horses avoided being groomed than showed signs of enjoying it.¹ In the study Horse’s emotional state and rider safety during grooming practices, a field study, researcher Leá Lansade, PhD, and her colleagues Coralie Bonneau, Céline Parias, and Sophie Biau, observed 69 horses and ponies during grooming. Fifteen behaved as if they disliked being groomed, and only four seemed to enjoy it.
Horses that found grooming unpleasant were tense and avoidant: They moved away, had tension in the belly and/or back, and displayed threatening postures, often repeatedly during the session. Horses who found the experience pleasant were relaxed and encouraged contact by attempting to nibble or rub against the handler.
Why Some Horses Avoid Grooming
This study’s researchers didn’t explore why horses avoided being groomed, but some reasons probably include underlying pain, tactile sensitivity, and grooming technique. Horses might also dislike being groomed if they are separated from their social companions, if grooming takes place in a noisy or busy environment, or if the horse is ridden or worked right after being groomed, especially if these activities are stressful or physically demanding.
The handler also plays a role in whether the horse has a positive or negative grooming experience. As the authors of this study note, “some riders [sic] pay little attention to their horse’s threats and signs of discomfort.”¹ Different horses like different brushes and techniques, and owners rarely try several brushes to find the one their horse prefers. Moreover, a horse that avoids being groomed is often restrained or reprimanded, adding to the unpleasant experience.
Groomers Engage in Unsafe Behavior
Lansade and her colleagues found that handlers put themselves at risk of injury when grooming horses.¹ Not only did some horses kick and bite but handlers also engaged in a significant number of unsafe behaviors. The most common were stepping under horses’ necks and walking closely behind the horses while they were outside the handler’s field of view. Squatting down next to the horse was another common unsafe behavior. Horseback riders frequently experience lower back pain, and the researchers reported that many of the postures adopted during grooming had the potential to cause or contribute to back problems.¹
A somewhat surprising finding was that experience didn’t matter; both experienced and relatively inexperienced riders showed the same frequencies of unsafe behaviors.¹ The researchers measured experience by rider level, which might not be the same as grooming experience. This study did not address the question, “Did horses groomed by experienced handlers show more relaxed behavior and positive emotions?”
Make Grooming Pleasant and Safe
Lansade and her colleagues encouraged “raising awareness” of best grooming practices to make the experience safer for handlers and more pleasurable for horses.¹ It’s generally believed that grooming and touch can lead to positive emotional states in animals, and in one study gently groomed horses showed a distinctive facial expression with elongated neck and lips and had higher levels of oxytocin—the “love hormone”—indicating the horse was having a positive emotional experience.²
“How to” resources on grooming generally focus on equipment, with an occasional cautionary note to avoid squeezing a tendon too hard and to avoid scraping the sensitive frog with a hoof pick.
Grooming guidelines that also include behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning could help prevent avoidance behaviors and promote positive grooming experiences. Desensitization would involve setting up progressive low-stress grooming sessions; for example, initially using only a soft brush on less sensitive body areas. Counterconditioning would involve pairing grooming with something pleasant; for example, offering hay or other food while the horse is being brushed and curried.
When both the horse and handler have a good grooming experience, it can strengthen the human-animal relationship and create a positive emotional state for what comes next, such as tacking up and going for a ride.
¹ Lansade, L., Bonneau, C., Parias, C., & Biau, S. (2019). Horse’s emotional state and rider safety during grooming practices, a field study. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 217, 43–47.
² Lansade, L., Nowak, R., Lainé, A.-L., Leterrier, C., Bonneau, C., Parias, C., Bertin, A. (2018). Facial expression and oxytocin as possible markers of positive emotions in horses. Scientific Reports 8, 14680. DOI:10.1038/s41598-018-32993-z