One of the most satisfying and enjoyable ways to spend time with your horse is to have a nice, relaxed grooming session. Grooming your horse gives you a chance to hang out with him in a no-stress situation, allowing him to get used to your presence and your touch. It also gives you an opportunity to practice and reinforce your requests for good manners, rewarding him with horse-pleasing brushing, scratching, and massaging.
There are a few ins and outs to getting the most out of your grooming efforts-which brushes to use where and how-but that's the easy part. (Go to www.myhorse. com/perfecthorse for Perfect Horse archived articles on this topic.)
More important, and less obvious, is understanding how to move around your horse and how to handle him so that he's happy to have you there, he enjoys being groomed, and you never put yourself in a spot where you might get hurt.
Safe & Sound on the Ground
- Think slow, smooth, and steady when grooming your horse.
- While you may need to use elbow grease sometimes to get the dirt off, always choose the gentlest tool.
- Always be aware of the safety zones around your horse.
Let's consider some habits you'll want to develop so that you can move safely around your horse while enjoying a positive, pleasant grooming session.
A Safe Approach
The most fundamental thing to remember when you're working with horses is that they're prey animals-their priority is to protect themselves against anything they perceive as a possible threat.
Part of their protection scheme is extremely well-honed vision, which almost-but not quite-allows them to see in all directions. Horses have blind spots directly in front of them and directly behind them. Because you don't want to come suddenly popping out of nowhere into your horse's field of vision, walk toward him slowly at an angle so that he can see you, and announce your presence by speaking to him.
Have you ever been deep in thought or concentrating on something happening in front of you only to have someone suddenly appear next to you, perhaps tapping you on a shoulder or calling out your name? Odds are, you jumped out of your skin-and you're not nearly as sensitive as your horse. Keeping this in mind, make sure your horse sees you coming so that you don't startle him and make him leery of you, or worse, frighten him into a possibly dangerous physical response.
Slow and Easy
Imagine yourself going into a salon for a regular haircut. In fact, that shampoo and scalp massage can be downright pleasant. But now imagine that the hair stylist is nervous and rushed, zooming around from one place to another, running back to you and pushing your head from side to side, roughly combing and snipping, arms waving, juggling scissors, towels, and spray bottles-well, you get the picture. Nothing about that behavior inspires confidence or promotes relaxation.
Whenever you work with your horse, move as calmly and deliberately as possible. You don't have to be molasses, but that's not a bad role model-think slow, smooth, and steady. This easygoing movement is especially important during a grooming session, because you're in close contact, moving around a lot, and touching your horse all over with various implements with which he may or may not be comfortable.
Not only does moving slowly help reassure your horse, but it also gives you a chance to watch his reactions to what you're doing. Many horses have an aversion to being touched in certain places, such as their flanks or loins. They may be ticklish; they may be sore; they may have an injury of which you're unaware. So it's important to move to each new spot gently and gradually, keeping an eye out for signs that you need to lighten up or stop altogether.
Reading your horse's body language is essential no matter what you're doing with him, and grooming him gives you a perfect opportunity to develop that skill. He might flinch or move away from you, tense his neck or back muscles, or raise his head; he might flatten his ears, raise a hind foot, or swish his tail. If he really feels threatened, that body language could escalate into more aggressive action, so don't dismiss these warning signs as mere crankiness.
Of course, your horse's body language might give you positive feedback, as well. Soft eyes, a relaxed neck, and a lowered head will let you know that he's comfortable with what you're doing.
A Gentle Touch
Along with moving slowly comes touching your horse gently. Some horse owners tackle the grooming process with harsh tools and excessive force, poking touchy areas and raking over sensitive spots. Horses may put up with this treatment, but they're not likely to look forward to it or trust the person who takes such a rough approach.
Your horse is sensitive enough to feel a fly land on him, so imagine how a metal shedding blade might feel scraping mud off his tender tendons.
That's not to say that you can't put some elbow grease into currying and brushing him, particularly if you're dealing with a lot of mud and scurfy hair. In fact, a vigorous brushing can feel good to your horse if you pick the right spots. Just go easy on the sensitive and bony places, such as shoulders, hips, and legs.
Also, use less pressure when brushing your horse's kidney area (on his back, behind where the saddle would sit). Be aware that his belly could be ticklish, and be careful working between his legs and in the groin area. Some mares may be extra sensitive when they're in heat, so be prepared for your mare to be touchier than usual. You may even have to watch for a kick!
Like people, horses have different levels of sensitivity in different parts of their body, so keep an eye on your horse's reactions. He'll let you know what feels good and what doesn't.
Do's and Don'ts
Specific grooming tools and techniques are a matter of personal preference, but here are a few general tips to get you started:
• When you curry your horse, use firm circular strokes over his body (though not on his face or his legs), and use a rubber curry comb rather than a metal one. Start at the top of his neck and work back to his hindquarters; then switch sides, and do the same thing.
• When you brush your horse, work in the direction of his hair growth. Use a stiff brush to flick dirt and dust off his body; a softer brush lets you smooth the hair back down.
• Don't use a curry comb or stiff brush on your horse's legs-they're too harsh. If you're dealing with a lot of dirt, a rubber mitt will do a good job removing it and give him a nice leg massage at the same time. You can use a soft brush on his legs, as well.
• Never use anything but the softest brush (or a towel) on your horse's face, and be very careful around his eyes. Your hands can sometimes be the best tool of all, since you can gently remove dried mud and dirt with your fingers in places where anything else would be risky or painful.
Guidelines for Safe Grooming
It may seem silly to discuss risks when it comes to grooming your horse. After all, you're brushing him, not running barrels or jumping big fences. But, in fact, horse owners do get hurt working around their horses, even when they're experienced and their horses are steady and well trained. Luckily, most incidents can be avoided if you're alert and careful and follow a few simple rules:
• Never approach your horse in a straight line from the front or the back-always come at an angle so he can see you. Speak to him, and make sure he knows you're approaching. He could be asleep, even though he doesn't appear to be, and your arrival could scare him silly.
• Watch your position relative to your horse. If he spooks, he could jump into you, knock you down, or accidentally step on you-and it could happen at the speed of light. Think defensively: Are you out of his flight path-not directly in front or behind, to give yourself a chance of getting out of his way? Also be careful that you don't have your head too close to his. The first time he swings his head around and lands an uppercut on your chin, you'll know why.
• Rest a hand on your horse as you work with him. This will give you an instant update if he shifts his position or starts to move abruptly. It'll also help you push away from him if he moves into you.
• Never sit or kneel around your horse's feet. You need to be mobile when you're working around your horse so that you can react quickly and get out of the way if necessary. You could easily be stepped on or kicked if your horse is alarmed or becomes aggressive and you're camped out underneath him.
• Don't wear tennis shoes, flip-flops, or sandals (or go barefoot!). Toes do get stepped on sometimes, but you'll at least minimize the damage by wearing good paddock shoes or boots.
• When you need to move to the other side of your tied horse, go around behind him. Don't try to pass in front, ducking under the rope he's tied with. If he moves suddenly, you could get tangled up or trip over the rope, and if he jumps forward, he could smash into you. There are two good ways to move around behind him: either well out of reach, in case he kicks or backs up, or close against his hindquarters, with a hand on him at all times, talking to him so he knows you're there.
• Keep all your equipment off to the side where you can reach it but your horse can't. He could step on something sharp or breakable and get hurt; he could pick up something in his mouth and smack you with it; or you could find yourself crawling around under your horse to retrieve a tool, putting yourself in a vulnerable position.
Some of the best quality time with your horse will come during quiet, undemanding moments. Grooming him gives you a perfect opportunity to bond with him, to make him feel (and look) good, and to show him that he can trust your touch and your intentions.