Most horses appreciate a vigorous grooming, while some jump and flinch at the slightest touch. If your horse doesn't seem to like being touched, he could be just naturally ticklish or sensitive, but it might also be a sign of something more serious. Here are some questions that can help you distinguish the difference:
Is this reaction new? A horse who had been comfortable with your grooming but suddenly starts flinching may have an unseen injury that is causing him pain.
Did you take him by surprise? If a horse was dozing or directing his attention elsewhere, he may have just been startled by your touch. He may also be reacting to something new, such as an unfamiliar grooming brush.
Are there outward signs of injury? Take the horse into good lighting and closely inspect the sensitive region for subtle swelling, insect bites, redness in the skin, rubbing or other unusual signs.
Is the sensitivity widespread or limited to a certain area? A localized sensitivity suggests some sort of physical cause, such as bruising or a skin irritation, which can be difficult to detect. You may not see any outward signs of tack fit injuries, for example, but they may make a horse touchy. One simple test for soreness is to run a pencil eraser or your fingers down your horse's back along each side of his spine. When you come to a sore spot, the horse is likely to flinch, dip or otherwise react.
Another possible cause of hypersensitivity is a neurological issue. If you believe your horse's flinching may have a physical cause, ask your veterinarian to help you pinpoint the source.
On the other hand, if you conclude that your horse is just naturally ticklish, you'll need to adjust your routine to accommodate his quirky traits. Consider switching from a harder dandy brush to one with softer bristles. If he still overreacts, you may try to desensitize him with slow, careful training. Start by rubbing something very soft, like a towel, over his body, then work up to "scratchier" tools. Be sure to praise and reward him when he does not react, and take lots of breaks to avoid overtaxing him mentally.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #431.