Grooming the horse is, ideally, not just a way to get them clean but also an opportunity to develop connection and relationship through positive experiences. Horses that love to be groomed enjoy being in close contact with their person, it is a source of pleasure and comfort. But what if the horse doesn’t want to be groomed? What if they respond to touch with pinning ears, nipping, kicking, or avoiding? Clearly grooming then is not a positive experience. Fortunately, there are ways to help these horses transform their response to touch and learn to enjoy the grooming process.
We all respond to touch differently based on both the intention behind the touch and our own mental, emotional and physical state when we are being touched. When tense, anxious or anticipating a painful sensation it is natural to avoid being touched by either moving away or moving the one doing the touching away. In a state of relaxation, being touched gently with positive intention can feel extremely good and help to further release tension and facilitate a deeper state of relaxation. If a horse does not like being groomed, touching them in a way that will help them relax and “melt” into contact can put them in a state that makes grooming more pleasurable.
Transforming behavior requires meeting the horse where they are without expectation or judgement, responding in the moment to what they are communicating, and prioritizing relaxation over an agenda. The most important thing we can do to have a calming influence on the horse is to stay centered and grounded ourselves, mindful of breath, setting clear boundaries, providing a space for the horse to find comfort. Discovering what the horse enjoys, what kind of touch feels good and is welcome, is a good place to start. If no touch feels good then simply giving time for the horse to be relaxed in your presence is the best place to start. Taking deep breaths, calming the mind, and having no agenda, simply responding in the present moment. Sometimes simply approaching the horse can create a response of fight or flight. If we can learn to notice the horse’s reaction and wait for them to soften before proceeding, we can create a more relaxed response.
There are many ways to use touch to encourage relaxation in the horse. Yin Horsemanship Clinics focus on tension-release techniques based on massage, Masterson Method, DeBono Moves (an adaptation of Feldenkrais method for horses), TTouch, Yoga, and other modalities. Simply laying the hands on and feeling the tissues soften and “melt” under your touch can help the horse relax and release tension. As the horse becomes relaxed, being rubbed by the curry comb and brush can start to feel good!