When it comes right down to it, grooming is ground work. As with every other aspect of training, it should focus on helping your horse feel calmer and more relaxed whenever he is with you. Too often though, grooming is done quickly, without paying any real attention to the horse. By changing how you look at grooming, you can help your horse develop more trust, be more relaxed and become more cooperative.
Grooming sessions can also simulate the natural behaviour of horses, where strong bonds are formed between those who mutually groom each other. This behaviour reduces social anxiety, as the bonded horses have developed enough mutual trust to relax their personal space boundaries knowing there is no threat to their safety. You can create a similar bond with your horse through sensitive grooming practices.
Your horse’s frame of body and his behaviour tell you exactly how he is feeling mentally. His frame of body equals his frame of mind and his behaviour is his communication. So, if your horse is dancing in the cross-ties, trying to bite you or stepping into your space, he is not simply being “rude.” These behaviours are symptoms of his anxiety, fear or resentment toward what is happening. If your horse stands quietly, but stoically without blinking or responding to you, he is shut down and is tuned out. If your horse stands calmly and relaxed, aware of what is going on around him and also paying attention to you, quality bonding time is happening.
Steps for Quality Grooming
Set the mood for your quality grooming time. Take your horse to a safe, quiet area where distractions for both of you are minimized. Focus your attention on your horse and save human socializing for later. If your horse has separation anxiety, minimize his stress by having your session where he can still see his herd mates or special buddy. Conducting your grooming session after your horse has been exercised can also help minimize excess energy or anxiety.
Encourage a calm, relaxed frame of body. Whether you use cross-ties or a single tie, ensure he is able to comfortably have his neck level (poll level with withers). When his poll is higher than his withers, adrenaline is turned on, his back drops and he feels physically and mentally tense. Ask him to stand with his front feet square rather than scissored (split). When the front feet are scissored, he is ready to move. Standing square puts him mentally and physically in “park.”
Be aware of your horse’s whole body – from nose to tail. Standing near your horse’s shoulder keeps you safe and gives you full view of his body. You need to notice even subtle signals that tell you how he is feeling and to pro-actively stop unwanted behaviour. If he steps, bends or shifts his weight towards you, he is pushing into your personal space. Stop whatever you are doing. Ask him to stay out of your space by blocking or pushing away the offending body part. If, for example, he leans his shoulder into you or steps his front foot toward you, block or push that shoulder until he shifts his weight or moves his foot away. If he bends into you, block or push his barrel near his girth until he straightens or bends away from you. This response tells him to respect your personal space. (For more on this, see “Boundaries: With All Due Respect” in the May/June 2010 issue of Horse-Canada). When he has yielded to your block or push, carry on with grooming. If your horse is used to pushing people around or has a lot of anxiety, you may initially spend more time correcting his posture and pushiness than grooming. It may take a few sessions, but is well worth the effort. With consistency and calmness his behaviour will improve.
Be aware of your own body language, energy and alignment to your horse. Horses respond to pushing, blocking and drawing energy from your hips, shoulders, arms and core. Your horse reads your movements and energy the same way he reads other horses. If he respects you enough to step away when you ask by pointing at or pushing his hip, he will do so even if you inadvertently push towards it. He doesn’t know that you didn’t mean it. If some part of your body pushes towards the vulnerable areas of his neck or head, he will feel threatened. A passive horse will turn his head away from you, causing his shoulder to push into you. An assertive horse will give you a bump with his head or bite you. An aggressive horse might strike or kick you. Punishing your horse for behaviours you inadvertently cause creates anxiety, conflict and resentment.
Make a connection to your horse’s body through touch. Using gentle pressure with the flat of your hand, stroke over your horse’s entire body – head to tail and back to feet. Use the hand furthest from his head to avoid pushing into his personal space (i.e. on his left side, use your right arm; on his right side,use your left arm). Notice any areas where he is ticklish, reactive or moves away. Also notice any sore spots, cuts, bumps, or hot or cold areas that can be a sign of inflammation or poor circulation. Palpate both sides of his spine from withers to croup and notice any sensitive areas which could be signs of poor saddle fit or a need for massage or chiropractic therapy.
Treat your horse’s skin gently. Horses do not have elephant skin. It is sensitive enough to feel a fly land on it, so save your hard metal or hard rubber curry for cleaning your other brushes. Use a soft rubber curry to remove dried sweat and dirt. For re- ally sensitive horses or areas, a “scrubby” sponge may be a better alternative. To remove loose dirt and hair, brushes with natural hair bristles are gentler than hard, synthetic bristles, and naturally polish the hair. Try the brushes on your own arm or face to feel the dif- ference. A sheepskin mitt, a wool sock over your hand or a soft cloth is good for very sensitive areas on the body as well as on the face. A very soft brush (goat hair is great) is also nice on the face.
Quality grooming is a massage. When using the curry, a mitt or cloth, move your hand in circles with gentle pressure. Take your time and let your horse enjoy the experience. Experiment with the amount of pressure your horse likes in different areas and with different types of brushes. Pay attention to his behaviour so you will know whether or not he is enjoying it. He may show pleasure by learning into your brush, moving his lips or even trying to reach around to reciprocate the grooming. Do not punish him for returning the favour by yelling at him, hitting him or pushing his head away. If you are paying attention, you will notice his intention and can quietly, without aggression, block him from coming into your space with your flat hand or the bristles of the brush. If your horse gets upset, stop what you are doing, bring him back to a calm frame and protect your personal space. Start grooming again in an area he enjoyed then gradually move back to the sensitive area. Adjust your pressure or try a different grooming tool.
Grooming is an opportunity to develop a positive relationship with your horse based on mutual trust and respect. When you pay attention to your horse’s feedback, you’ll know what areas he enjoys having groomed and will be able to identify areas that are sensitive, uncomfortable or sore. How you groom sets the mood for your riding or ground work session. When it is a mutually pleasurable experience, you both reap the benefits.
DEALING WITH PROBLEM AREAS
Pain, old traumas or anticipation of discomfort can intensify your horse’s resistance to having certain parts of his body handled. Areas that commonly present difficulties are head shyness, eye/ear sensitivity, sheath or udder cleaning, mane pulling and clipping. When dealing with these areas:
- Avoid using force as this increases anxiety and does not address the underlying cause of the behaviour.
- Apply “shape of body equals shape of mind.” Bring your horse into a feel good shape to minimize stress. Bring him into a low, deep bend by massaging his girth button.
- Stand to the side rather than in front of your horse.
- Start massaging an area your horse finds pleasant, gradually moving towards the problem area. Pay attention to your horse’s feedback. At the first sign of stress, stop, bring him back into the feel good shape and start again where he is comfortable.
- Allow time for the behaviour to change. If your horse has a strong resistance, the behaviour is not likely to change in one session. Recognize and reward small improvements.
With your horse in a low, deep bend, gently massage his chin, lips and/or muzzle. As he relaxes, gradually move over his nose, cheek bones and forehead.
Stroke over his eyes with cupped hand. Gradually and gently stroke around eye with finger tips.
Find the soft spot at the base of the ear and massage it gentle pressure. As your horse relaxes, gradually stroke the entire ear. Always return to the soft spot at the base of the ear. Be gentle! When haltering and bridling your horse, always fold his ears forward.
- Do not tie a horse that is uncomfortable having the sheath or udder handled. Have an assistant hold your horse and keep him/her in the level, calm shape. Ask the horse to keep weight on the hind leg closest to you.
- Stand just in front of your horse’s flank facing towards his barrel. Place one hand (nearest his head) on the horse’s barrel. Place your other hand on the horse’s stifle or thigh so you can feel if the leg lifts and block or get out of the way of a possible kick.
- Gently, but with enough pressure to avoid tickling, stroke the horse’s side. Gradually stroke down to the tummy and then back towards the sheath or udder. Any time your horse gets stressed, stop what you are doing until your assistant brings your horse back into the level, calm shape.
- When your horse is comfortable with you touching the sheath or udder, massage the area with a warm, wet (not dripping) cloth.
Avoid pulling your horse’s mane all in one session. Make tidying the mane part of your regular grooming sessions. With your horse in a level, calm frame, comb his mane. Randomly pull out just one or two hairs with your fingers (do not wrap the hair around the comb) and continue grooming. Pull from random places on the mane rather than starting at one end and working your way to the other end.
There are three stages to introducing clippers. Your horse must be comfortable and relaxed with one step before progressing to the next.
1. With clippers turned off stroke your horse’s body with the back of the clippers.
2. When he is comfortable, hold the clippers away from him and turn them on. Do not “show” your horse the clippers by putting them in his face! You just want him to become familiar with the sound.
3. Stroke his shoulder with the back of the clippers (not the blades) pressing gently, but firmly, against him to minimize vibration. Gradually move the clippers over his body.