Like sex without foreplay!

I got Roxie out to work her, on one of those evenings when I’d had a very long day at work.  The light was waning, so I was just going to do a ‘down and dirty’ lunge session with her – fulfill my duty for the evening, as it were.  As I got her clipped into the cross ties, and began to reach for the cavesson, there was something in her expression that stopped me.  It was a soft expectant look, and somehow I knew what it meant.  So, I reached toward the other wall, grabbed the curry and brush, and got to work.  Soon her head was tilted and her lib was wiggling ecstatically.

Each and every one of my horses love to be groomed.  Each has their favorite spots to be curried: for Nash it’s his neck; for Coffee it’s his chest and base of his mane; Roxie, her shoulders and base of the withers; Tally, base of withers and top of her butt.  For Noble, just pick any old spot and start currying!

Don’t let that Appaloosa eye fool you – Coffee’s lip was twitching wildly with pleasure as mom curried him.

Throughout my life with horses, I have known those who keep their horses inside and blanketed.  One of the benefits, they say (and to my mind, probably their main reason) is that they don’t have to spend time grooming their horses.  Just run a quick brush over and they are done!  I have always thought it sad that they and their horses don’t know what they are missing!  Just grabbing your horse out, throwing the tack on, and riding, is a lot like sex without foreplay – there may still be fun in it, but you have missed out on the part that builds the relationship!

Grooming plays an important role in animal societies.  In some primates, it is said to be a sign of respect to groom an elder.  In other primates, as with birds and horses, it is a bonding activity.  Friends and family members engage mutual grooming as a way to express and deepen their bonds.  I remember, years ago, reading a study done on mutual grooming in horses that found it releases the hormones associated with bonding, such as dopamine and oxytocin.  I could not locate the study to reference here, but the other key point of it was that it mattered where the grooming was done – scratching the chest released fewer of the hormones than the base of the neck and behind the withers.  So, for the most part we allow our horses to dictate the preferred spot to focus the grooming on.

Noble and Tally prefer the nubby one on the left, while Coffee and Nash like the classic model on the right.

I have read articles on grooming that caution against putting too much muscle into your grooming – those authors have not met my little herd!  When addressing a favorite itchy spot, we have not found the amount of pressure that is ‘too much’ for their liking!  That said, it is important to listen to the feedback your horse gives you.  Choice of tool is also important – Coffee and Nash are strictly old fashioned flat rubber curry guys, while Tally and Noble adore the big nubby style super scratcher.  But with the right tool in the right spot, we can’t seem to scrub hard enough or long enough for them!

For us, grooming is less about getting clean than it is about giving something back to our horses.  Unfortunately, as with all things in the horse-human relationship, it is all too easy for the horse’s voice to be ignored and eventually lost.  I have always enjoyed grooming my horses, looking for those favorite itchy places.  But it was a horse named Rock who taught me just how much of a difference it can make in a horse’s life, and in their attitude toward the humans who handle them.

Rock, early in our brief friendship

Rock was a Thoroughbred, former racehorse turned jumper, in his teens when I met him.  He was one of six horses whose care was my responsibility when I worked on a collective farm in Hungary, as part of a farmer exchange program in the late 80s.  The horses in the little barn all lived in tie stalls with grass hay available at all times.  Of the six horses, Rock seemed the most unhappy – this was particularly apparent when he was being groomed and tacked up, ears pinned and muscles tight.  The standard tools used in the stable were a metal curry comb and stiff brush, equivalent to the hoof brush I use today.

At some point during my stay there, I was given the privilege of being Rock’s regular rider (this was not a popular choice, as he was a popular horse).  The first day that I groomed him, I gingerly used those horrid tools on his sensitive hide.  One of the riders spotted me, and came over to show my how to do it right – slapping Rock when he pinned his ears.  I thanked him and waited until he was occupied elsewhere before turning back to Rock.  I knew that I had to come up with a better way, as this was clearly torture for him.

I remembered references, in the many racing novels I’d read, to grooms grabbing a handful of straw, twisting it up, and using it to rub down a horse (I later learned it was called a hay wisp).  So, the next time I groomed Rock, I made sure we were alone and I tried my experiment.  As I reached toward him with my improvised curry, his usual reaction of pinned ears and shaking head began.  I slowly worked the straw twist in circles and watched his reaction change from defensive to quizzical.  By the time I reached his other side, he’d relaxed enough to return to nibbling his hay.

Over the days that followed, Rock went from accepting to enjoying his grooming sessions.  He began to show signs of pleasure when I would hit key spots.  I had found a shoe shine brush, while shopping for groceries, so I could follow up the straw curry with a soft brush.  He began to enjoy having his face brushed, lowering it for me and closing his eyes.  His coat began to shine.  But the changes went beyond grooming.  His ears would prick up at hearing my approach, and they would stay alert during our interactions.  He even started nickering when I would come in.  By the time I had to return home, I’d picked up a regular rubber curry and a normal horse brush, which I gave to his regular rider when I left.  I’ve always hoped that he was able to keep the change in Rock that I’d experienced.

Grooming is so much more than just cleaning – it is a chance to deepen the bond with your horse.  Think of it as a way to give back to your horse, and to get him ‘in the mood’ for the ride that comes after … or even thank him for the ride that just ended.  It’s the least we can do for them, in return for all they give us.

Be good to your horses!



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