Many of you will have spent hours watching your horse mutual groom with another but have you really thought about the reasoning behind it?
Horses will instigate mutual grooming when they are itchy, that goes without saying and it is something I have seen many times.
Horses will also mutual groom when they are getting to know each other. Bonding. It’s a way of gently (or not so gently in some cases) communicating the subtleties of a hierarchical relationship by way of who choses to start the session, who do they decide is taking part, how long does the session go on for, who dictates where on the body is going to be groomed?..
Horses who are extremely well bonded will also groom each other as an act of continuing relationship and respect.
One aspect of mutual grooming that is often overlooked though, is that of comfort and comfort seeking. This is something I observed in perfect detail with the herd at Graveney Equine this week.
We have a new horse who is finding it difficult to bond with the group as a whole after spending a large proportion of time over the last year in isolation for varying reasons before he came to us.
Also, in our herd, we have a peacekeeper. A large, rescue mare who has had many foals, been in many different situations and is a good ‘friend’ to all in the herd. She is quiet and mild and only needs to pull a face to get her point across. My point being, is that she is well liked and well respected by the rest of the group.
I allowed her to spend some time with the new horse yesterday, still directly next to the herd so they could see and touch her if they needed or wanted but they could not have her within the group. This is not a new thing for them, they are often taken out of the group to be fed or exercised but one of their herd with a new horse caused visible unease within the rest of the group. They spent a few minutes running alongside the fence line, head tossing and a bit of general bucking and squealing. Then there was a very strong shift as the lead mare started to take turns instigating mutual grooming with the other two horses who spend a lot of time with the peacekeeper. It visibly changed the energy within the group and they settled down very quickly.
It was beautiful to watch the caretaker of the group able to calm and collect them within what was literally the space of a few minutes just by mutual grooming. This calming had a ripple effect through the rest of the group. This is innate wild horse behaviour, not letting the group waste energy on a situation that does not require it. The equivalent of a parent soothing an upset child by holding it close.
It shouldn’t amaze me, it’s a totally natural behaviour, but it IS amazing to see it first hand and understand its deeper purpose. It also speaks volumes to me about how important it is to let horses live in stable herds.