Mutual grooming between mamma horse and its foal
Mutual grooming in horses is a very important behavior. This caregiving behavior is also known as epileptic behavior, which includes self and mutual grooming and it’s one of the most important horse behaviors related to relationships within a herd.
In our video, this mother is grooming its foal, and in response, the foal is grooming its mother as well. This behavior is expressed by the lateral parallel body position of two horses that allows for nibbling along the back or withers of each horse.
In general, horses often start by scratching each other’s withers but will move up and down each other’s body, not only rubbing with their strong upper lip but also using their teeth to both scratches and gently nip. Many horses seem to both agree on the amount of pressure, while others will increase the pressure and nipping until offending the other horse who generally leaves. It’s always different for each horse in particular.
Most horses involved in mutual grooming are close companions during turn out, or, as in our case, they are mother and foal, and they seem to have a mutual agreement: You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours!
Mutual grooming is most common in the spring when the winter coat is being shed. The seasonal pattern indicates that the horses are reacting to the discomfort of a thick coat in warm weather or to changes in day length.
Once foals are 1 or 2 months old, they also begin to engage in play and mutual grooming with other foals, not only with their mothers. These activities teach foals their social structure, as fillies, for example, tend to bond with and groom other foals, while colts tend to do less mutual grooming.
There are many questions about complex behavioral events called maternal behavior. Which traits are heritable? Which are learned? How can we avoid behavioral disasters in foaling and mothering? Many important questions are still being investigated and new information is on the horizon.