Ask Julie Goodnight: Does the Lead Horse Participate in Mutual Grooming?
First of all, I would like to thank you for your website and the information you share on it. Your Training Library is quite extensive and I am learning so much by reading through your responses. I am new to horsemanship and the background and experience you provide are invaluable to me. The other thing I appreciate is how clearly and systematically you explain/describe things. Your step-by-step directions are exactly what I need! I don’t feel so overwhelmed when you break things down into smaller pieces like you do. Thank you.
My question is regarding grooming. I love to groom my horse and frequently go into the pasture to do so. However, I am now wondering if a “lead” horse grooms other horses. In other words, am I losing ground with my horse, from a leadership perspective, by grooming her (especially at times when she isn’t being saddled or unsaddled)? I am trying very hard to make sure I am being the leader my horse deserves. With the information on your website I have really begun to look at everything I do, and I want to make sure that I am not inadvertently giving her mixed signals.
Thank you for everything,
It’s a good question you propose, regarding both the horse’s natural herd behavior and the practicality of what you are doing. Armed with the right information, you’ll be able to evaluate what you are doing and possibly make some positive changes.
Mutual grooming (technically referred to as allo-grooming) is the only known affectionate behavior of horses that is not reproductive related. It occurs only between bonded horses within the herd and they stand facing each other and groom each other using their teeth and lips, mostly in the wither area and down the back.
Yes, lead horses mutual groom with other subordinate horses, BUT the lead horse always begins and ends the grooming session. And she ends it by biting the subordinate horse as a little reminder of who is indeed the boss. It’s okay for you to rub on your horse and scratch him where it feels good, but make sure you are the one initiating and ending the grooming session and never let your horse put its mouth on you and “groom” you back. If at any time the horse gets rude or is demanding to be groomed, you should hiss and spit at him and shoo him away.
I do have a practical concern about grooming your horse in the pasture. If you are working on your horse while she is loose out in the field and she can walk away from you or move around whenever she wants, you may be instilling some bad manners in your horse. I want my horses to stand perfectly still any time I am working on them and, like most rules, this one has to be strictly reinforced. I would prefer to put a halter and lead on my horse and either ground tie or hard tie her so that I can take control of her if needed, to remind her of her ground manners.
As an example, a friend of mine liked to go in his colt’s pen and rub on him and play with him. Of course the colt loved it too and then my friend started grooming the colt and picking up his feet—all without a halter on. He was very proud of being able to pick up the colt’s feet, but paid no attention to the fact that the colt would just pull his foot away and walk off any time he wanted. All this time, my friend had been teaching this horse that he could walk off and move away while he was being groomed and pull his feet out of your hands anytime he wanted and that the human had no control over him. He was not learning to respect authority, hold his feet up, stand patiently or have any restraint put on him. Additionally, foals are so tactile and love being rubbed on so much that when over-handled they start leaning into you demanding to be scratched. When you comply, not only are you letting the horse control your actions (in other words, be dominate over you) but you are also teaching him to lean into pressure—a VERY bad habit since normally we train horses to move off of pressure not lean into it.
It’s excellent that you are taking the time to understand the horse’s natural behavior and reflecting on how that impacts the way you handle your horses. What you are doing with your horse might be okay, as long as you keep these concepts in mind. But with a better glimpse at the big picture, you may find you want to modify what you are doing just a little to make sure you maintain authority with the horse.
Enjoy the ride,
–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician