Grooming is about much more than presentation - it can be a great way to enrich your relationship, writes Linda Parelli.
Some horses hate grooming. They can't stand still; they try to nip, bite, kick, flinch, swish their tails and toss their heads. Others tolerate it, just tuning out and resigning themselves to the process. Then there are the horses that absolutely love it. Having your horse look forward to grooming time is often a true testament to the quality of your relationship, and it's a great place to build it.
In this article, we're going to look at how you can have a nicely groomed horse with a neat mane and tail, shiny coat and clean edges (ears, chin and fetlocks) and how to achieve that goal as naturally as possible with your horse's best interests in mind. We'll also look at how you can have your horse looking great while enhancing your relationship and solving behavioural problems simultaneously.
Every day we brush our horses, so do it with love. Put your heart into every stroke and try not just mechanically to take the dirt off. Horses can feel the difference, and sometimes horses who dislike being groomed will respond much better when you adopt some feel, softening your touch, speeding up or finding their favourite itchy spot.
Horses hate to be groomed for one of three reasons - fear, dominance or because you're doing it all wrong!
Some horses are afraid to be touched; they find it invasive and uncomfortable. If you are trying to be gentle but still have trouble, this can indicate that your horse doesn't fully trust you. Watch facial expressions for positive signs of enjoyment, such as soft eyes, head tilting and lips stretching when you find that itchy spot. Some horses will even manoeuvre themselves into position to give you better access to that spot! Watch for negative signs such as twitching skin, lifting the head, pinning the ears or a swishing tail, which means ‘back off or else!' Use the principle of approach and retreat to gain acceptance and figure out how to make this something your horse enjoys.
When it comes to fear of things like clippers, this will take some serious attention and preparation to build your horse's confidence.
In a herd of horses, it's the dominant horse that initiates grooming; it's all about who touches who. If you have a reactive horse that objects to grooming, it's most likely because he thinks he is the boss. Rather than resorting to cross-ties, this is your chance to figure out how to improve the relationship and gain the alpha position. It might mean you have to work with your horse first to get him in the mood to be groomed or that you need to find that itchy spot under his belly, his thigh, tail, or on top of his mane near his withers - the parts that he cannot reach to scratch himself.
Some horses hate grooming because it is too scary, soft, hard, boring or annoying. Knowing what 'Horsenality’ your horse is will give you significant clues about how your grooming sessions can be less stressful and build the relationship.
Shine comes from the inside. It reflects good health and is attained mainly through good nutrition. Grooming massages the skin and improves circulation, but if your horse's coat is dull, dry and frizzy, he may be missing something in his diet or is emotionally stressed.
Apart from making sure that our horses enjoy a happy life, we at Parelli take care of nutritional needs with flaxseed oil, minerals and supplements for optimum digestive health. Access to good grass and alfalfa hay also ensures that horses shine from the inside.
Mane and Tail
Some horses have big, full manes and tails while others don't, a lot like people really! But keeping the hair soft and supple is part of taking good care of your horse. Once again, good hair health depends on the same elements as a good coat, so first, make sure your horse is getting the nutrition he needs and then use natural shampoos, conditioners and detanglers to avoid breakage. Always brush carefully, just like girls do with long hair!
Length of mane and tail is usually a personal preference or a breed/sport style. Some people like long, natural manes and tails no matter what, while others prefer a particular grooming style, not too short, not too long.
The long hairs around a horse's muzzle are essential for sensing proximity and preventing a horse from bumping into things. These hairs give a horse the sensitivity and discriminating feel he needs when grazing, nuzzling, and exploring. For this reason, we do not believe in shaving the muzzle or trimming it in any way. We leave our horses fully whiskered.
Fuzzy ears can be adorable, and on some horses we leave them exactly as they are. Our miniature horses, Barnum and Bailey, always sported this look. When wanting a sleeker look, we trim off just the fuzzy bits and leave the protective hairs inside the ear.
These hairs help protect against dirt and insects getting into the delicate inner ear area, so we never shave them. To trim excess hairs, we gently close the ear in half (like a taco) and sweep the outer edges with the clippers to produce a clear outline and finish.
Some horses have beautiful, long hairs around their fetlocks called feathers. They are a distinctive part of many breeds, such as Drafts and Friesians. Many crossbreeds have feathers too, and many people love this look and want to keep it. But if you want your horse to have a more defined leg and ankle, here is how we do it.
Hold the foot up by the fetlock, allowing the hoof to relax so you can trim off those extra bits of fluff. We make sure some protective hair remains, so we don't go too short. Trim delicately and conservatively and leave a little hair around the ergot if your horse is turned out in winter, as this helps water drain off the leg. If your horse lives in snowy or very wet conditions, don't trim the leg hair. It's his natural protection.
Shiny hooves reflect good health, just like the mane and coat, or our fingernails for that matter. If you see dryness, flakes, cracks and ridges, you need to look at how to help your horse's health and nutrition. We only use hoof dressing in particularly dry weather; otherwise, we leave hooves alone. Putting too much moisture on the hoof can make it soft when it needs to stay tough and strong. We rub them into the coronet band rather than the hoof itself when we use nutritive oils.
The Final Touch
Groom with love. I've seen so many people brush, comb, trim, wash and scrub as if they were working on a dirty wall. Grooming your horse is intimate; this is a living, feeling, breathing, and sensitive being. Approach as if brushing a child's hair. Use feel and do it with care and love, even if you are in a hurry.
Your grooming sessions can either enhance or damage your relationship with your horse. Think of this as a way to improve your relationship and spend undemanding time together instead of just getting your horse ready for what you want to do. Think of it this way, what would make your horse look forward to grooming time?
A Thought on washing
We rarely use more than water to wash the sweat off our horses since keeping the natural oils intact is essential protection against the elements and insects. In fact, many horses roll in the dirt right after bathing to restore some skin protection, and light coloured horses seem to need dark dirt! When we use shampoos, we select those that are moisturising and feature natural ingredients, and even then, we only shampoo when filming or for a show. We mostly rinse with water or wipe over the coat with a damp rag and sometimes a little oil.
When the climate is especially dry, we gently rub a little oil around the eyes and muzzle to lubricate and soften the skin in these delicate areas. Natural oils like flaxseed, coconut or olive oil are best. First, rub it on your hands and then smooth it on, or add it to a damp cloth. Not too much, though; you don't want your horse greasy.
Beware of shine sprays because they can make the hair slippery and transfer to your reins and ropes; this can affect control, saddle stability or safety when riding bareback. Test first!