Grooming Tension

By Terry Golson

Lately, Tonka has been making faces when I groom him. He’s clearly telling me that he doesn’t want to be brushed.


I ask him questions. What about being touched? He says he’d rather I don’t touch him if I’m moving my hand the same way that I do when I brush him.


I’m not sure why he’s like this. He usually loves our grooming sessions. I worry that he might be super-sensitive because of a medical issue. (I’m in Lyme disease country, and this is a symptom.)

I groom Tonka outside where he has total freedom to move away from me.

He stays for the stiff brushing off of his shedding coat.


He walks away to poop.


But then Tonka comes back for more, and even leans into the brush. I’m relieved that he’s telling me that grooming and physical handling is okay.


I don’t know why Tonka is looking so grumpy when I groom him indoors. As the session outside shows, it’s not the touching that upsets him. I have a theory that this cold, dry winter caused a lot of static electricity and he was sparked (unbeknownst to me) one too many times when I brushed him in the cross-ties.  Or it could be something else.

What I do know is that I have to build up his trust again, in that place.

I’ve noticed that he prefers certain brushes over others. I show him each brush before I use them. Horses have blurry vision up close, so I let him touch it with his nose, too. If he looks this ticked off about it, I switch to another.


The mitt, he says, is okay.


Although he’s wary about me stroking him with it.


This expression is so unusual for Tonka! I remove my hand and wait for him to relax. Then I touch his shoulder. That’s okay with Tonka, so I stroke what had been his favorite place, right behind his ears.

Tonka remembers that in fact, it feels good!


I finish grooming and put on Tonka’s saddle.  Before bridling, Tonka asks for a thorough face scratching. I stay mostly still, and he tells me exactly where to scratch. Obviously, some touching is very, very welcome.

That’s grooming bliss.


I’ll keep asking Tonka questions, and giving him the contact that he does want. Hopefully, we’ll get back to that grooming bliss with the brushes, too.

10 thoughts on “Grooming Tension

  • Tracy

    I have a friend who has created a line of stiff bristled door mats nailed to one side of her horse’s stall at about 3-4 feet high. She found the longest bristled natural fiber door mats she could, bought about 5 of them and nailed them very securely, so her horse can run against them in late winter/spring shedding season when he’s itchy. I have to say, I think it’s a little bit of genius because her horse gets such pleasure gently leaning into them and swaying back and forth. She sees it as much as enrichment as anything else since she grooms him all the time; it helps alleviate winter stall boredom, too. I’ll add that her horse was a terrible cribber when she got him about 6 years ago, but by taking great pains to ensure he is rarely bored and has a lot of ‘at liberty’ time, he almost never cribs anymore. She has also taught him loads of silly ‘parlour tricks’ just to keep his brain occupied during inclement weather. It must be tough to be a young-ish horse, cooped up all winter. Your attention to Tonka, I’m sure, alleviates much of this. Including silly face scratches!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Floor mats on the wall are a new idea to me. Excellent! I have an old dandy brush installed in the goats’ pen. Also have rubber scratchers installed. They’d rather have me brush them – but they’ll use those things, too 🙂

  • Gin

    I kind of have to agree with the idea that static electricity might be causing some of his tension. I just hate it when I’m brushing one of them and see or feel a spark. I know they have to hate it as much as I do and they no doubt associate it with me brushing them.
    I also have a bunch of different kinds of grooming tools for different days, different horses, or whatever the mood they are in on that day.
    I love the idea of the natural fibered door mats.

    • Terry Golson Post author

      Do you blanket? I spray them with an anti-static spray, but it wears off. I also think that after a winter of wearing various coats, that he’s gotten sensitive. I have to blanket him – he’s one of those horses that just doesn’t grow a thick coat and he does shiver. He doesn’t have any rub marks, but I think there have been some pressure points.

      • Gin

        No, I only blanket when I haul them somewhere in the winter. I had one horse that loved to be brushed, except for his mane, he didn’t like his mane fooled with. Go figure. So he went around with a mostly unkempt looking mane because he was so good in absolutely every other way I was just too much of a softy to do something he didn’t like.

  • Helen

    Watching that face scratching session made me very happy! It’s good that Tonka is so expressive and communicative. I think some horses are way more stoic and you don’t realize there is a problem until discomfort turns into pain!

    • Terry Golson Post author

      It made me happy doing it! Yes, all of us have different tolerances for various physical touch and discomfort. For example, a labrador retriever happily swims in icy water, but my little chi-mix can’t even bear cold water on his paws. Beyond that, often the “stoic” horses are ones that have been trained with aversives – they’ve been taught that expressing themselves brings punishment. I’d rather Tonka communicate with me now before whatever is bothering him causes more serious behavior and physical issues.

  • Chicken Carol

    I am always amazed at the communication between the two of you but in this series of photos I can clearly see Tonker’s unhappy face compared to his happy face. I hadn’t realised how expressive horses could be.

    I hate getting a static shock and do that stupid thing of hesitating when touching the car door handle. I nearly touch it several times and that of course makes the chances of a shock worse. Maybe there is a bit of that with Toner. It’s not even as if the shock is so terrible it’s the anticipation of whether it’s going to happen or not.

  • Sara Russell

    I like the way that you and Tonka communicate!! It always make me watch for signs of communications from my horses.

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