Making your horse your best friend
Mutual grooming is an excellent way to bond with your horse. Obviously you don’t need to use your teeth! You can use a dandy or body brush!
When horses are turned out together it is often possible to find two horses mutually grooming each other. This usually involves two horses standing in a way that they can both scratch each others withers at the same time. One horse generally starts the scratching and the other horse seems almost unable to resist the urge to return the favor. Is this where the expression, “I’ll scratch your back while you scratch mine” came from?
Horses living in the wild have a natural pecking order within their herd. Top horse is the stallion, closely followed by the alpha mare and so it goes all the way down to the least dominant mare, who tends to get picked on by everyone.
Domestic horses sharing a paddock will often show herd-like behaviour…there’s usually one or two dominant horses who boss the others around. If there’s some choice grazing or feed going, the dominant ones will grab it first, chasing the others away.
Bonds are often formed within the herd between pairs of horses. Feral horses tend to bond with others who are roughly their age and dominance rank, while domestic horses will bond with whoever they are sharing a paddock with, once they get to know them.
Horses often start by scratching each others withers but will move up and down each others body, not only rubbing with their strong upper lip but also using their teeth to both scratch and to gently nip.
It is always interesting to watch two horses scratching like this to observe how they interact. Many horses seem to both agree on the amount of pressure, while others will increase the pressure and nipping until offending the other horse who generally leaves.
So why do horses do it? What purpose does it serve?
It’s actually an important social aspect of a horse’s life, it helps develop bonds and has also been observed as an ‘appeasement’ gesture after two horses have been involved in a bit of an argument. In other words, it helps reduce the tension.
Often when a young horse is being groomed by a human the horse will also turn and try to groom the human back. I have seen some people who allow this, some who hold out their hand for the horse to scratch and others who teach the horse to enjoy the grooming without returning the favor to the human. Which do you encourage?