Horse Behaviour

What does it mean when horses groom each other?

Mutual grooming, or allogrooming as it’s also known, is when two horses scratch each others’ backs by nibbling. This is a super common behaviour among horses because it’s a way to form and strengthen social bonds.

Horses will stand next to each other and groom each other on the back, one horse using its teeth and lips to scratch or nibble on another horse’s body, typically in areas that the other horse cannot reach on its own (withers, neck, back).

Mutual grooming is as much about grooming as it is about pair-bonding and reinforcing the dominance structure between herd mates, as it reduces social tension within the group. To make mutual grooming possible, horses have to allow another horse into their personal space and allow them access to one of their blind spots; right on top of their back.

Horses are social animals, and they rely on their herd for protection, companionship, and support.

By grooming each other, horses are able to establish trust and familiarity with their herd mates. This is particularly important for wild horses, who rely on their herd for protection from predators. In fact, researchers have found that mutual grooming is more prevalent in wild horse herds than in domesticated horses, suggesting that this behaviour is particularly important for horses living in natural environments.

The social benefits of mutual grooming can also be seen in domesticated horses, particularly those that are kept in stables or other confined spaces. Horses that are not able to physically interact with other horses on a regular basis may become anxious or stressed, which can lead to a range of health problems, including colic and other digestive issues.

By providing horses with opportunities to engage in mutual grooming, you can help to reduce their stress levels and promote a sense of calm and relaxation.

In addition to its social benefits, allogrooming also plays an important role in maintaining hygiene in horses. Horses are naturally clean animals, and they spend a lot of time grooming themselves in order to keep their coats clean and healthy.

However, there are certain areas of the body that horses may not be able to reach on their own, such as the withers, neck, and back. By grooming each other, horses are able to remove dirt, debris, and dead skin cells from these hard-to-reach areas, which helps to prevent skin irritations and infections.

Mutual grooming has been shown to have a calming effect on horses, which may help to explain why it’s such an important behaviour for maintaining health and well-being. Researchers have found that horses that are groomed by another horse exhibit lower levels of stress hormones, such as cortisol, than those that are not groomed. This suggests that allogrooming may help to reduce anxiety and promote a sense of relaxation in horses, which in turn can have a positive impact on their overall health.

It’s worth noting that not all horses will engage in mutual grooming, and some horses may be more independent and prefer to groom themselves. However, even horses that do not engage in allogrooming themselves can still benefit from being groomed by other horses.

For example, if a horse is feeling stressed or anxious, being groomed by another horse may help to soothe and calm them, even if they are not actively participating in the grooming process.

What should you do when you see two horses grooming each other?

When two horses are grooming each other, it is generally best to leave them alone and allow them to continue their behaviour undisturbed. Interrupting or interfering with the grooming process can disrupt the social dynamics between the horses and may cause them to become agitated or stressed.

If you need to separate the horses for any reason, such as for feeding or turnout, it is important to do so in a calm and gentle manner. You may want to use a halter and lead rope to gently guide one of the horses away from the other, being careful not to startle or frighten either horse in the process.

Or call the horses away from the activity, with a greeting or even a treat.

Be aware of any potential safety issues that may arise when horses are grooming each other.

Horses that are deeply engrossed in the grooming process may not be as aware of their surroundings as they normally would be, which means that they may be more likely to step on or bump into each other if startled.

If you need to approach the horses while they are grooming, be sure to do so slowly and calmly, and avoid making sudden movements or loud noises that may startle them. A good rule of thumb is to let them know you’re coming from a distance by making sure you’re clearly visible. You can also call to your horse if visibility is an issue.

Overall, the best approach when two horses are grooming each other is to observe from a safe distance and allow them to continue their natural behaviour, since a grooming session doesn’t take that long in the grand scheme of things. This will help to ensure that the horses remain calm and relaxed, and that their social relationships are not disrupted by unnecessary interference.

Provide your horse with plenty opportunities for grooming.

Mutual grooming is a natural and important behaviour for horses. It plays a key role in strengthening social relationships, maintaining hygiene, and reducing stress and anxiety.

As horse owners, it is important for us to provide our horses with opportunities to engage in mutual grooming, whether that means allowing them to interact with other horses on a regular basis or providing them with grooming tools and supplies that they can use on their own.

Scratching posts, large trees, fallen trunks that are too heavy to move around, or cow brushes are all great options to offer your horse. Just make sure you’re protecting any delicate or young trees that are at risk of getting used as a scratching stick and not encouraging your horse to use fence posts for scratching.

You can also engage in allogrooming and show your horse some love (if your horse likes it) by scratching or brushing those hard-to-reach areas where horses tend to groom each other. You might even get a funny face as a reward for your efforts.

By promoting allogrooming and other natural behaviours in our horses, we can help to ensure that they lead healthy, happy, horsey lives.

What is a cow scratcher and why would you use one for horses?

A cow scratcher is something that I’ve mostly seen in dairy farms or other large animal operations, but having some kind of scratching posts works great for horses as well (at least it aims to keep them off the things they can destroy).

Cow brushes come in non-electric and electric models. The non-electric kind just provides a nice scratching post, while the electric ones rotate when the animal presses into the brush.

You can also buy silicone pads that can be nailed onto any surface your horse can reach. You can put the pads in the paddock or even in the stable.

Keep in mind that scratchers need regular cleaning and replacing when they wear out. Cow scratchers are usually installed in rings so that you can replace the ring that is worn out without having to change the rest.

My horse is rubbing his butt a lot. What do I do?

Itching, rubbing, or scratching around the tail head area in horses can be caused by a variety of factors, and it’s important to identify the underlying cause to provide appropriate care and treatment.

Here are some common reasons for itching, rubbing, or scratching around the tail head:

  1. Skin Irritations: Skin irritations, such as allergies, contact dermatitis, or fungal infections, can cause itching and discomfort around the tail head area. These conditions may result from exposure to allergens, irritating substances, or environmental factors.
  2. Insect Bites: Insects, particularly flies and gnats, are known to target the tail head and perianal area of horses. The bites can be painful and itchy, prompting the horse to rub or scratch to alleviate the discomfort.
  3. Tail Itch: Sometimes, horses experience a specific condition known as “tail itch” or “sweet itch,” which is an allergic reaction to the bites of certain insects, like Culicoides midges. Horses with this condition may vigorously rub their tail head, causing hair loss and skin inflammation.
  4. Pinworms: Pinworms can infest the rectal area of horses and cause itching and irritation. Horses may rub their tail head against objects in an attempt to alleviate the itching caused by pinworms.
  5. Tail Docking: In some cases, horses that have undergone tail docking (the removal of part or all of the tail) may experience discomfort or itching around the tail stump. This can lead to rubbing or scratching.
  6. Hygiene Issues: Poor hygiene in the tail head area can lead to skin irritation and itching. Accumulated dirt, sweat, or fecal material can cause discomfort and prompt the horse to scratch or rub.
  7. Behavioural Issues: While less common, some horses may develop behavioural habits of rubbing their tail head as a form of self-soothing or due to boredom or anxiety.

If your horse is frequently itching, rubbing, or scratching around the tail head area, consult your veterinarian. The vet can perform a thorough examination to determine the underlying cause and recommend appropriate treatment, which may include medications, changes in management practices, or addressing environmental factors. Treating the root cause is crucial to ensure your horse’s comfort and well-being.

Assess your horse’s general health, paying particular attention to the area around the anus and tail base. If your horse is a mare, check the vulva and udder areas for accumulation of debris. If you have a gelding, assess and possibly clean the sheath.

Your vet may recommend that you give the horse a bath using a mild shampoo and concentrate on the tail head and anal area. Be sure to rinse all the soap away as this can cause irritation in itself. Try to reduce fly irritation.

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