Grooming your horse should be a Fear Free activity for both of you. When done correctly, grooming is far more than removing your horse’s dead hair, removing tangles from his mane and tail, and dirt from his hooves; it helps to build a bond between you and your equine pal.
No horse is bombproof. If you don’t know the horse, start slowly to see how he will react.
Horses are naturally curious. If he’s not familiar with grooming tools, show him the brush and let him sniff it until he decides it’s not a threat. Move it around in front of him, over his head and off to either side before you actually touch him with it. When I got a new untrained horse, I tossed all the tools on the ground and let him explore them before I ever picked one up and approached him.
Even if you do know the horse well, grooming in a new place or doing something new may make him anxious. If he gets amped up because he knows you are going to ride, practice grooming him and then putting him away, or groom him at home before you trailer him out.
Don’t groom when he is agitated or pestering you for food.
Schedule grooming for when you are relaxed and can take your time. If you are in a hurry, your horse will pick up on your energy. I like to groom after a meal or let my horses munch on hay while I groom them.
If he can’t see you, your horse could startle and injure you. Let him know where you are at all times. Run your hands down his sides and touch his hindquarters as you walk around him. He’ll know where you are and where you are going, even if you get out of his line of sight.
Before you put your face down at his hock where you might get kicked, he should be comfortable with being touched all over. Stroke his legs and belly with a rope to accustom him to being touched in sensitive places. Firm strokes are less aggravating than light feathery pressure. Bump him occasionally with your elbow so he isn’t startled if you accidentally do it later.
Spray him with fly repellent (or use fly wipes) so they won’t irritate him while you are brushing. Use conditioner on his mane and tail and try not to tug hard on knots. Hold a clump of hair in your hand and brush from there to reduce the pressure.
Watch for signs of stress. Download the Fear Free handout on how to recognize fear, anxiety, and stress in your horse.
If he’s worried, just do a stroke or two with the brush, quit, and wait for relaxation signals such as blinking, chewing, or licking his lips. You may have to step away for a minute to get this reaction.
He might react completely differently when you move to the other side of his body. Be sure to practice on both sides until he is comfortable.
Praise often. You can use treats if he can remain calm and takes them gently.
If a normally easygoing horse suddenly resists grooming, look for reasons. Is there a tree trimmer next door making a lot of noise? Is there a foxtail in his ear or mouth? Does he react in pain anywhere on his back or body? Does he have an abscess in his hoof? If you lift a hoof and he suddenly snatches it back, there may be pain on the other side.
What about his environment? Has anything changed? Are you wearing a raincoat or carrying an umbrella? One of my more exciting moments on the trail was when two guys were hiking towards me with backpacks and bedrolls on their backs. They looked like SpongeBob Squarepants. Horses don’t necessarily see people when confronted with an unusual shape!
Think of grooming as a spa day for your horse. It’s a time to bond with him and create a trusting partnership. If you make it something he looks forward to, it will go a long way toward strengthening your relationship in the saddle.
The Fear Free certification Program-Equine (https://fearfreepets.com/fear-free-certification-program-equine-overview/) offers veterinarians as well as horse owners valuable training on how to create a safe and relaxing environment for a horse in any situation, including basics such as how to read body language and methods to train your horse to cooperate during grooming, medical care, and more.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Terry Albert is an award-winning writer and pet portrait artist in Bear Valley Springs, California. She has been active in rescuing homeless dogs for more than 20 years and has served on the board of directors for several nonprofit organizations.
Published August 22, 2022