Monday, June 18, 2018

Mutual grooming - any Haflinger will do!

Taran LOVES to be groomed. He always seems to be super itchy, especially under his mane. It's not from bug bites (don't hate me, but we have hardly any bugs here), and it doesn't seem to be from dry skin (flax and flax oil don't help) or allergies (he's itchy year-round and anti-allergy/microbial shampoos don't help), he's just ITCHY. And if there's not a handy human with a curry around, or a nice scratchy tree to be found, Taran recruits a Haflinger.

Paddy is generally his favorite groomer, I think because they've known each other the longest. They'll stand shoulder-to-shoulder and go after all sorts of spots, generally for 15-20 minutes (unless I disturb them with my annoying picture-taking).

Geez, lady, we're busy here.

Griffy will also do if Paddy's busy. I've watched T push Griffy off the hay and then shove himself in front of Griffy's face, pretty much demanding to be groomed. T will sometimes nip Griffy on the leg - apparently he doesn't always do it right? - and then they'll switch sides or Griffy will groom a new spot. T is very clearly in charge of those interactions.

You must groom me now.

Right there is good.

Recently, we've been horse-sitting a spare Haffie, named Art. T and Art literally gave each other one "Hi My Name Is" sniff over a gate, and then started grooming. Geez, T, way to make an impression. Since then, they'll go at it any chance they get.

No T, we cannot keep this one even if he's an excellent grooming buddy.

I did a little digging about mutual grooming, but there doesn't seem to be a lot of scientific research out there. Apparently horses that groom each other are generally close in herd status, and do it to cement herd bonds. According to Kimura's (1998) study of free-ranging horses, aggressive-submissive behavior (i.e. T nipping Griffy) can sometimes be seen and used to determine herd status. However, mutual grooming is based on the bonds between individuals, not social rank. This is interesting because I've never EVER seen Reddums engage in grooming with anyone, even T, and Reddums has always been kind of a loner.

Sigurjonsdottir et al (2003) found that in a mixed herd without a stallion, rank was significantly correlated with age, which is true in our herd (but hasn't always been). Christensen et al (2002) found that young stallions who were boxed alone for 9 months tended to significantly increase the level of mutual grooming and play behavior when returned to a herd. The authors suggested this was a "rebound effect", and may be what I'm seeing with Taran since he was not turned out with other horses when at the trainer's.

I'll scratch your butt, you scratch mine.

What amazes me most about these grooming sessions is that somehow each horse knows where the other one wants to be groomed. There has apparently been some study of facial expressions to see if it's possible to determine how they communicate this, but so far nothing conclusive.

Has anyone studied why horses lick other horses? Because someone probably should, and I volunteer T as the number one subject of study.

Does your horse have a grooming buddy, or more than one? Do they try to groom you, or ask you to spend extra time on certain itchy spots when you're grooming?


  1. I have never seen Lilly grooming other horses or letting other horses groom her, but she is not afraid of asking for belly scratches from me if I'm in the pasture. She'll just walk up and kind of bump me with her (giant) belly. If that doesn't work to get my attention, she'll sidestep and bump into me again to make sure her request is clear. Girl loves getting belly scratches.

  2. I've seen Cisco with his buddy Tsunami grooming each other quite a bit. Cisco is 6, Tsunami is something like 18, but they are the only 2 geldings in their field. Cisco loves to have his withers scratched by me - instant giraffe. I think they groom each other a lot because Cisco's mane and top of his tail always look very ruffled. Note that Tsunamis owner said that he's never really had a bestie so this behaviour is not common for him.

  3. That's so interesting! In our herd, the ones most often grooming each other are Cinna (youngest, 6) and Jack (oldest, 23). Cinna and Ruby both love it when I get their itchy spots, particularly their udders (mares 🙄). My husband's horse is the odd man out there, I don't think I've ever seen him participate in grooming with the other horses, and he's not one that's particularly expressive when you groom him either.

  4. That is really interesting! I don't usually see Niko during turnout, so I don't know if he really grooms or not.

  5. Hmm the rebound thing makes me think of Bast. Like, a lot. He was crazy about grooming everyone at the old barn, but isn't as into it at the new one. He has a couple buddies who scratch backs. But it's not as obsessively intense as it was.

    Pig, meanwhile, I've only caught grooming another horse a few times. He would groom with one of the younger geldings at the old barn, and a mare at the barn in Indiana. That's about it. He's a total loner, though. Much prefers to be left alone or to play some halter tag and move on with his life. Haha

  6. Sadly Val hasn't had a grooming buddy in ages, except for me that is...

    He totally shows me where he wants groomed or scratched. Sometimes I scrunch my fingers like a set of teeth up around his withers, which is a very popular maneuver. If I do an acceptable job (and stay still long enough) he usually reciprocates - but the line between grooming and biting is a fine one lol...:D

  7. Eugene and Levi groom each other quite a bit. I do wonder if they still do with Levi having his sheet on all the time :( Levi was happy to mutually groom Murray when they met this weekend (no sheet at shows), but Eugene and Murray didn't. I've caught both Eugene and Levi grooming the neighbor horses over the fence on occasion. Meanwhile I don't think I've ever seen Nilla mutually grooming with anyone though it's possible I just don't remember it. It's also possible if the herd dominance thing plays a factor that she wouldn't because she's intensely submissive.

  8. Aw I kinda love herd dynamics stuff - it’s one of the things I miss most about not working at my farm is that I don’t get to see as much of it. So idk if my horse grooms, but he does have a best friend that he’s always with despite being part of quite a large herd. Always. They’re inseparable and it’s adorable, esp bc the horse is his twin in coloration and markings (only difference is he’s horse sized instead of bronto sized lol)

  9. No matter how old I get, mutual grooming always makes me so happy <3 I love this post.