Grooming Gremlins

As grooming is such an essential part of horse care, it can be a real problem when your horse has an aversion to the process. The number of horses who dislike being groomed is surprisingly high, and yet grooming issues are not something we commonly talk about. The good news is that these issues can be rectified or at least improved upon, with just a bit of time and effort.

Subtle body language

First and foremost, it’s worth becoming familiar with more subtle signs your horse may be giving you that he is uncomfortable in order to head off a big emotional response or physical reaction during grooming. When you start to see these signs, you can then adapt what you are doing or stop altogether to see what it is that is making your horse unhappy. ‘Listening’ in this way is time-consuming, but really can help you to a) understand your horse better and b) build a better bond with him.

Signs of discomfort during grooming may include:

  • Pinning ears
  • Hard eyes
  • A raised head and short, tense back
  • Tense ears
  • Wrinkles and tight skin above the eye
  • Tension or wrinkles around the lips and muzzle
  • Brisk tail swishing
  • Muscle tension
  • Flinching
  • Skin flicking
  • Fidgeting
  • Pawing
  • Trying to move away or leaning away

Signs that a horse is enjoying your grooming session include:

  • Droopy lips
  • Floppy ears
  • Standing square
  • Resting a hindfoot
  • Soft eyes
  • Relaxed muscles
  • Heavy eyelid
  • Head down
  • Leaning in

Physical causes

While horses all have varying innate levels of sensitivity and individual preference in how they like to be handled and groomed, pain is the first thing that you need to explore when encountering a horse that doesn’t want to be groomed. Pain must especially be ruled out when a horse is used to enjoy his grooming and now doesn’t.

Back pain, reproductive issues, pain due to gastric ulcers, and dental pain can cause a horse to be reactive and generally sore. Grooming on top of these issues can make the horse reactive and opposed. Similarly, vitamin E deficiency; Lyme disease; selenium and magnesium imbalance; and some neurological issues can also make a horse very sensitive, making grooming uncomfortable. Finally, skin issues can also contribute to sensitivity and discomfort throughout the grooming process.

TIP: Try to notice if the issue is specific to one area, which might indicate an injury, or whether it appears to be a whole-body issue.

Tools and techniques

Horses can dislike being groomed because of the way they are being groomed or the tools being used to groom them. Fixing this problem requires some serious listening on the part of the human and some trial and error with different tools.

Sometimes the issue will be that we are being too rough, and other times it will be that we’re not being nearly firm enough with our brushing and we’re tickling the horse. It all depends on the horse.

Here are a couple of techniques that can be used as part of the trial and error process:

  • Reverse curry: We are usually taught to start grooming at the front of the horse and move backward. However, some horses find this to be an invasion of their personal space. In these cases, it is worth reversing this process, starting your curry session on the hindquarters where there’s a large muscle mass that may be a less reactive area for the horse. This can make them feel a little more comfortable as you start the grooming process.
  • Different strokes: A common mistake is to push the brush too hard into the horse to try and be vigorous. Many horses don’t like the ‘thump’ when you put your hand down quickly, as it can be startling and even painful. Instead, it needs to be the sweeping action that is vigorous, not the initial contact.

Location, location

Along with technique, the location in which the grooming session is taking place can also be part of the problem. With a horse that jigs in the cross-ties during grooming, you need to find out if the issue is the cross-ties, the environment, or the grooming process itself.

As horses are outstanding associative learners, if something bad happened in a particular location previously (even if it had nothing to do with grooming), they may begin to associate the grooming with that incident just because it is occurring in the exact same location. Grooming your horse in a different place is a simple step to try and make things better.

Equine ‘bullies’ nearby can also be a source of angst when a horse is in a confined position for grooming, so make sure your horse is out of reach of mouthy friends to see if this improves the situation.

Find the scratchy spot

Almost every horse has a spot where they enjoy being groomed or scratched. Try and find this patch and use your rubber curry comb here to try and build positive associations. Finding this patch can let your horse know that grooming can feel good. It is especially worthwhile starting and finishing each session in this spot so that your horse develops positive associations with the entire process.

If you are struggling to find the mysterious scratchy spot, watch your horse in the paddock with his friends and see where his friends groom him. Observing him in this way will give you a clue as to where he likes to be scratched. You can then investigate a bit in the stable. Watch your horse’s face and body language at all times – the upper lip can be particularly revealing!

Take-home message

First and foremost, make sure that your horse isn’t in pain or suffering from an injury, and then experiment with some of the ideas above to see how you can make the experience more pleasant for both of you. Fundamentally it’s all about listening to your horse and becoming an expert in their body language. Once your horse realises that you are listening to him and honouring his body language, he’ll be more relaxed.