A report on a new study was doing the rounds on Social Media this week, and got me thinking. Here is the full text:
The horses also moved far more when their manes were pulled compared to mane touching e.g. ears back, standing alert, licking and chewing, a high neck position, head tossing, mouth tight and tail swishing and clamping – indicating they experienced discomfort or pain at the process being performed.
While the horse’s stress and discomfort may seem obvious to many horse owners, this appears to be the first time the effects of mane pulling has been studied – so a huge well done to Louise for raising awareness on this subject. I wouldn’t like to have my hair pulled out forcibly either! Time to find another way to keep manes tidy – or just leave them as nature intended.
In the comments on the post, the brain behind the study, Louise, clarifies that the same person did the pulling every time, and that every horse was done 8 times and data gathered every time, so variables were greatly reduced. She said:
“Hi everyone, would just like to say that any licking and chewing that was observed during data collection WAS combined with a high heart rate. It can only be assumed that licking and chewing was a sign of discomfort in this situation. I would definitely advise horse owners to measure their horse’s heart rate during mane pulling- even if they are not showing obvious physical behavioral signs of stress. As horses are prey animals and may be passive copers they will not always try to flee away from a painful or stressful situations and could go into a state of learnt helplessness and not show any behavioural signs of stress but have a sky high heart rate.”
“Just wanted to clarify that the increased heart rate during mane pulling WAS combined with behavioural indicators of stress such as rearing, pulling back, a tight mouth etc. Therefore the increased heart rate was not on it’s own. The horses used in the study were privately owned horses that were not naive and were habituate to mane pulling. Each horse was observed during mane pulling 8 times over many weeks. Finally one standard person pulled each of the horses manes during the study.“
Personally, I wasn’t at all surprised by the results of the survey… anyone who knows horses will admit that some really feel their manes and tails being pulled, although admittedly some seem to ignore (or be totally resigned to) the pain – these are the ‘passive copers’. I had a big TB gelding who obviously really felt it, he would invariably try determinedly to squash me against the wall the moment I started pulling his mane, even if it was just after strenuous exercise when it is supposed to hurt less, and even if I only took a couple of strands of hair at a time. He HATED it being done, it obviously really hurt him.
I stopped pulling tails ages ago, preferring to use a tail rake and a pair of sharp scissors. If the scissors are held vertical, parallel with the tail with the point at the top, you can get a very good finish without any lines at all. And tail rakes are things of wonder, you can get a really tidy result.
I use scissors to shorten manes, with a sort of ‘freehand slide’ technique, holding a section taut and sliding the scissors down the strands and cutting fairly randomly. It takes a while to get a good finish on the ends, one which does not look scissored, but it’s worth it. Or, the Solocomb is very good too, it just takes a bit of practice to get a good finish.
Many years ago when I was a teenager I was helping out on an event yard in exchange for lessons. In the afternoon I went down the row of boxes, skipping out. One box contained a black mare who I had never gone near before. As I bent down behind her, filling up the skip, I heard something whistle past my head. As I leapt back in alarm, her next double-barrel filled my mouth with shavings out of her hind feet, although she didn’t touch me (by a millimetre, obviously). I had to keep her off me with the shavings fork as I got out of the box, she was almost savage, the angriest horse I have ever seen.
The reason I am telling this story is that it turned out that her owner had gone there that morning and pulled her entire mane, with the mare cold. She did this routinely, with the mare tied and twitched. The next person in the stable (that day, me) would bear the brunt of the mare’s bitter resentment. Nobody had thought to warn me, I was just the kid helping out, who didn’t realise. I was very lucky, she missed… just.
It was a big lesson, I’ve always been careful about mane-pulling since, usually doing it over a few days, and from the bottom up (although it’s slightly harder to judge the finished length that way). After reading this study, I’m going to use thinning scissors if necessary, and never pull again. I’m sure my horses will appreciate it!