You Scratch My Back, I’ll Scratch Yours: The Purpose Behind Mutual Grooming In Horses

Mutual grooming, where two horses groom each other’s back and withers with their teeth, is usually done by horses that are familiar with one another. Drs. Masaki Shimada and Nae Suzuki of Teikyo University of Science studied a group of nine horses that lived in a protected area of Cape Toi. They wanted to determine if mutual grooming was used as a parasite removal tool, a way to strengthen friendly relationships or as a way to restore troubled relationships.

The duo monitored the nine horses for 33.5 hours over 15 days, applying models to learn about the roles of aggression, kinship, proximity, social rank and social networking during mutual grooming.

All nine horses groomed themselves during the study period for nearly 36 minutes. Six of the horses engaged in mutual grooming: two stallions, one colt and three adult mares.

There were 84 recorded mutual grooming sessions, with the average session lasted about 85 seconds and always comprised only two individuals. The grooming was almost completely symmetrical: When one horse started grooming, they almost immediately began receiving grooming as well, on the same part of the body. When one horse stopped grooming, the other did as well. Additionally, horses that spent less time self-grooming spent more time being groomed by another horse.

The scientists concluded that mutual grooming assisted in strengthening familiar relationships and helped with parasite removal. Their findings did not support that mutual grooming assisted with relationship repair. For example, the top-ranked horse never groomed the second-ranked horse, but he did direct aggression toward him.

Read the entire article here.

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