Mutual Grooming

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When horses indulge in mutual grooming, it’s a case of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours”!

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 horss will bond with whoever they are sharing a paddock with, once they get to know them.

One way horses strengthen their bonds is through mutual grooming, which is when two horses stand nose to tail and nibble each others’ backs. They always do this simultaneously, ie two horses will always groom together at the same time…you rarely see one horse grooming with the other just standing there. If one horse stops grooming, then the other one does too.

Horses spend time mutual grooming mostly with a couple of close mates, although all horses in a herd/sharing a paddock will mutual groom every horse in their herd at some time. The only exception to this is a wild herd, where stallions and foals don’t indulge in any mutual grooming.

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.

The main areas nibbed are the withers and neck, followed by the back and flanks. It was once believed it was done to remove parasites such as lice from their paddock-mates, kind of similar to monkeys grooming their friends (in fact, mutual-grooming is quite common among many mammals).

Also, areas groomed are those not easily reached by the horse–how often have you had an itchy back that your arm just won’t stretch to? Horses roll to relieve some of their itches…mutual grooming is another way.

Horses don’t usually indulge in mutual grooming with members outside their herd. Ditto paddock-mates…not until they get to know one another better. You may have introduced two horses and one chases the other with flattened ears, establishing pecking order. But chances are within weeks they will be mutual-grooming…they have bonded and formed a friendship. Interestingly, horses in neighbouring yards at shows will often be seen mutual grooming, even though they’ve only recently met.

Ever notice how horses like their ‘personal space’ (as do people!) and will warn others who invade that by swishing their tail, flattening their ears and generally saying ‘nick off’ in horse-speak. Mutual grooming allows the bonds of friendship to be strengthened by permitting another horse to share his or her personal space in much the same way as people share a hug. It’s a way of saying, “I like you”.

An interesting aspect of mutual grooming was discovered when researchers studied horses’ heart rates as they were being groomed by people. They observed that the horse’s heart rate would drop by around 12 percent when groomed in and around the same areas another horse would mutually groom (the back and withers) but the heart rate remained the same when groomed outside these areas.

One theory is that there is major nerve tissue in these areas which is sensitive and just feels so darn nice when nibbled or brushed!

So mutual grooming not only feels good, it helps with relaxation, friendship and eases tension.

Maybe if you feel your horse is a bit tense before a ride, spend some time brushing his withers and back and watch closely to see if it helps relax him. If you sense he’s itchy in a particular area, give him a good scratch. If you’ve hit the spot, he’ll show his pleasure by moving his neck and wobbling his lips! Many horses have figured out if they swing their heads and nuzzle the itchy spot, their humans will scratch the itch for them. Horses can contort themselves to nibble most itchy places on their body but as with human backs, there are some annoying places they just can’t reach!

© Top Horse

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