The other day I spent some time watching the horses. I watch them often but today when I went to the farm my only intention was to observe the herd. I treated it like a walking meditation, observing the horses and observing myself. When I had questions or what I perceived as negative thoughts I tried to acknowledge them and told them we could come back to that later but right now I was soaking in my horse’s world. In today’s post, I will take you through my observations and a few of the questions that came from those observations.
It was around 7 in the evening, here in North Carolina in late August that means it’s just turning into the perfect time of day. The sun had settled behind the trees for the most part and a cool purple-blue hue lit the sky. It was, in my eyes, a perfect evening.
Mutual Grooming in Horses
When I arrived, Bucket was in the zone scratching an itch on his belly on a small dead tree in the pasture. I said hello to the horses that came up to me then found a seat to observe nearby. The herd my horse Bucket lives in is currently comprised of 2 geldings and 3 mares. He has been spending he seems to spend most of his time with a paint mare named Apache who is newer to the heard. She came over after a while and when she got close Bucket slightly pinned his ears and she stopped where she was several feet from the scratching post. A few moments later he walked a few feet to where she patiently waited and they groomed each other’s backs for a while. I started to wonder how do horses choose grooming partners?
They used their lips and teeth roughly and really got in there. I thought about how I normally groom Bucket or give him scratches, I don’t normally put that much pressure into it, maybe he would like that? I also don’t typically scratch the center of his back which brought me to the question, how do they know exactly where the other wants to be groomed? There wasn’t much fiddling around for the right spot when they got started they seemed to both know exactly where to itch.
When I started to think of touch and grooming as something I needed consent for each time I approached him, he started to show me exactly where he wanted to be scratched. He walked past me to the point where his croup was lined up perfectly next to me, and looked back. He had a few itchy swollen fly bites back there and when I started to scratch his upper lip started to quiver around and I felt like my question had been answered.
Boundaries and Consent – Do Horses Want to Groom Us?
I spent more time with the herd walking among them then went home to think. My horse has places he almost always wants to be scratched by me. The lowest spot on his belly and up to his elbows always being number 1 and along his neck or inside of his ears usually a close tie for second. Knowing this so clearly about him and thinking about how much horses seem to enjoy grooming each other brought me to more questions. Do I want to be touched or groomed by my horse? Is that ok in our relationship? Am I limiting my relationship with my horse by not allowing mutual grooming?
Researchers have connected the dots between mutual grooming and strengthening bonds between horses and we can easily see parallels to this in our own lives. There are plenty of instances where we might want to create space and boundaries between a horse and ourself. Maybe we don’t know the horse very well or have been told by others that the horse has qualities that might make us want to protect ourselves with added space. I personally don’t want anyone – horse or human too close to me if I don’t know them very well or if they have shown me they don’t care about my boundaries. I’m not advocating for putting yourself in an unsafe place but if we are in a relationship with a horse that we have built trust with over time, can we engage in mutual grooming? I think the answer to this question is dependent on each human and horse combination and the conditions surrounding that moment. I’ve heard some people hold out a hand or an object for the horse to groom while they are grooming and some who consider it a complete no-no. So I am curious has your horse ever tried to groom you? What did you do?