MYTH: “Pulling a horse’s mane doesn’t hurt! They don’t have nerves in their hair follicles like we do.”
FACT: Horses have sensory nerves in their hair follicles. Mane pulling can cause horses discomfort or pain.
While some horses may be more tolerant of mane pulling than others – there are kinder ways to shorten and thin a horse's mane. For example, backcombing the mane and then using a safe razor comb to trim the longer hairs works just as well as mane pulling, without causing the horse pain. Here’s a clip of a mane being thinned with a razor comb:
Here is another clip (below) of humane mane shortening, showing thinning of the underside of the mane with a special tool first, before flipping the mane back over to backcomb and trim it. What's interesting to note in this clip is the behavior the pony displays once the backcombing begins: head shaking, attempts to move away while tied, head tossing, biting the leadrope, bite threats directed towards the person etc. All of these behaviors indicate that the pony finds what is happening unpleasant.
In this instance, this may indicate a 'pain memory': the pony previously may have experienced traditional, painful mane pulling, and now (despite his handler's considerate efforts to make grooming more pleasant), he anticipates pain when undergoing the procedure. In situations like this, it is helpful to use counter-conditioning to make the experience even more pleasant for the pony. Counter-conditioning is a technique that can be used to change an animal's emotional response to a trigger. In this instance, backcombing is the trigger that used to predict pain and the pony still remembers. A program of counter-conditioning could be used to change the pony's emotional response, and backcombing could instead begin to predict treats. Counter-conditioning is a useful tool to have in your training toolbox, and it can be used to help horses overcome 'pain memories' just like the one we might be seeing here.
For more information on this topic, visit my UK colleague Justine Harrison's blog here. In this blog, Justine summarizes a yet-to-be published study which discusses signs of stress in horses that are having their manes pulled.
Until next time, please help bust this myth.