How much time do you regularly spend grooming your horse? It probably varies depending on the day, how dirty your horse is, how much time you have, etc. On average though riders tend to spend around 10-20 minutes grooming their horse before and after riding. If you add that time up over the course of a month of daily grooming that equals 8+ hours of grooming time spent with your horse. Why not make that quality time with your horse more productive in order to deepen your bond and create a lasting partnership?
The primary goals of any grooming session is usually to remove dirt from your horse's coat, clean his hooves, and generally make him comfortable for riding or clean him up after riding. However, what if you took those grooming sessions one step further to make it a quality bonding experience? The time spent grooming can provide a valuable opportunity to deepen the connection between horse and rider. Grooming can be a mindless exercise of cleaning off the dirt and grime, or an opportunity to build a deep and meaningful relationship. Being present and taking extra time while you groom will benefit your horse by promoting relaxation and allowing him to gain confidence in your movements. It will benefit you by putting you in a calm mental state and allowing you to better understand your horse and what his needs may be.
Daily grooming also gives you a chance to physically check your horse on a regular basis to be aware of any health concerns. It gives you an opportunity to detect and monitor any injuries or other health problems such as cuts, skin infections, allergic reactions, thrush, etc. Finding these potential health problems early gives you a better chance of treating them successfully.
The first step to creating a positive grooming experience is to choose the right grooming tools for you and your horse. Rubber curry brushes or many of the grooming hand mitts seem to fit most horses’ needs when it comes to purposeful grooming sessions. Some horses have greater skin sensitivity than others and may require alternative grooming tools. So while some horses enjoy vigorous curry combing, others may flinch or dip away. It is important to discover what type of “touch” your horse prefers. Always observe your horse's facial expressions and body language for clues as to how much pressure is comfortable. Sometimes a lighter touch is more effective than deep pressure. It is best to start out with light touch and slowly introduce more pressure until you find what your horse prefers. Also be cognizant of how quickly you apply pressure. Sinking in slowly to the desired depth of pressure will likely be more comfortable for your horse instead of poking harshly or jabbing into the same depth. Remember there is no rush, and you are there to create a relaxed atmosphere.
When you are first starting out it is beneficial to find a quiet space where there aren’t many distractions for you or your horse. This may require you to find a time during the day when the barn is more calm. Avoiding feeding times and other times with high amounts of activity are best. This way you and your horse can create a one-on-one space for communication and relaxation. Later after this connection is established, it won’t be as necessary to provide this quiet space as your horse will understand what is happening and will more easily connect with you.
Next you can start on any area of your horse’s body. Be it the neck, withers, back, or rump. Sometimes it is easier to start up by your horse’s head or neck so he can see what you are doing. Start by running your hands gently over your horse and feel for any areas of muscle tension. When you have found one of these areas begin to lightly rub with the curry comb or mitt in a circular motion. If you maintain a small circular motion and increase the pressure to your horse’s tolerance level you can stimulate extra blood flow into these areas of tension. The additional blood flow will allow for the removal of built up metabolic waste like lactic acid. The pressure and kinetic activity of the circular motion will also allow the muscle bundle to relax. Again it is important here to observe your horse’s reactions while you work. A horse that is enjoying what you are doing will often respond by deep sighing, licking and chewing, stretching out his neck, closing his eyes, yawning, or drooping his lower lip.
An area of chronic muscle tension in many horses is the thoraco-lumbar fascia and the longissimus dorsi muscles along the back. The longissimus dorsi and other erector spinae muscles are the muscles that make up your horse’s topline and provide a great amount of support for the spine. This includes providing support for the weight of a rider, and is therefore a common area of muscle tension. Using your chosen grooming tool, rub in a slow steady circular motion moving from the wither area towards the hindquarters. As you move back to the gluteal (buttock) area, the fascia and muscle become quite dense and thick. Grooming here can often just reach the superficial layers of tissue, but can still have an effect on circulation and fascial release. In this area your motions should become larger and with a slight increase in pressure. Many horses enjoy a good scratch around the tail head as well so don’t forget that area. When back around the hindquarters just be sure your horse knows where you are, and don’t put yourself in a precarious position.
Don't forget the legs! Taking time to really look at and feel the structures of your horse's legs on a regular basis can provide early warning of overuse injuries. If you know your horse’s legs well, you can more easily detect the slightest change in heat or swelling. We all know how important legs and feet are, so don’t forget to look these areas over carefully on a regular basis.
By taking time to really connect with your horse you can elevate the level of communication between the two of you, and create a bond that can carry over into other areas of your partnership such as riding and performance. These grooming sessions can establish a deep bond as well as help both you and your horse relax. Our fast-paced lives rarely foster the attitude of slowing down to just be and enjoy the natural calm of spending time with our horses. This is quality time for you and your horse. It establishes a mental connection with your horse, and raises your awareness of him to create an atmosphere of cooperation and a sense of centeredness. Take some time to try this approach to grooming, and see what benefits it can bring to you and your horse.