Touching a Tickle Spot?

Q: I own a 5-year-old Friesian cross mare that I have had since her birth; she is handled regularly, and I started riding her at 2. She has always had issues with being "touchy" on her flanks, under her belly, and near her teats. She flattens her ears when I brush her and may swing her head around if I brush under her belly. I continually touch her there to try to work on the issue and have tried everything--treating for tolerating it, reward and release (hard to do when she doesn't totally give in to it, just tolerates it), touching her lightly, or touching her harder. It just does not get better. I have to stand at her shoulder and reach under to stay out of the reach of her hind leg, which she wants to kick at me. She is not sensitive to my leg under saddle, and I ride dressage with whip and spurs and can use them without a fuss. She is a little sensitive when I girth her up but there's nothing really special about it. Overall, she is either grouchy or nonchalant. She is turned out with one other horse, a gelding that I have had for the past year, but she has been touchy for most of her life. Are there any hormonal or physical problems that could cause this, or is this purely a behavioral issue?

Gayle in Oregon, via e-mail

A: With sensitivity at the flank and udder, one thing to rule out right away is any urogenital discomfort. Something as simple as vaginitis (vaginal inflammation) or vaginal irritation from pneumovagina (aspiration of air into the vagina, or windsucking) or urovagina (urine pooling) has in some cases been associated with such sensitivity at the flank, udder, and rear underbelly. When those problems were treated and resolved, the goosiness at the flank and udder resolved as well.

There is some published evidence in horses and other species that irritating urogenital conditions can be associated with apparent discomfort or sensitivities at the abdomen and flank areas--really anywhere beyond the shoulder. This phenomenon in which the perception of pain is localized to a body part distant from the site of the pain's origin is known as referred pain. Also, some horses with gastric ulcers can have behavior similar to what you describe. In either case, it would be interesting to know how young your filly was when this started.

Ovarian hormones are often blamed for this and any type of undesirable behavior in mares, when in fact there is little evidence to support that hypothesis. In some instances a mare's response to discomfort can vary with her estrous cycle. So while it would be tempting to blame it all on the hormone changes that occur through the cycle, the real underlying problem is likely something else. You indicate that she varies from nonchalant to grouchy. To evaluate whether there may be an association between that variation and ovarian hormone level variation, it would be helpful to know at what interval and duration you observe the contrasting behavior.

Probably the best way to start figuring it out would be to send a video of you and your mare while you are performing some of the desensitization steps you describe, with the camera view showing where you are touching and how you are timing the rewards, with an entire view of the horse from the tip of her ears to her tail and hind feet. An equine behaviorist could review that to see if in fact your technique and timing are correct for eliminating the resistance. Based on that he or she could advise you on whether it looks like a normal sensitivity that should respond to systematic desensitization, or if there is likely underlying discomfort. The behaviorist could also learn a lot from evaluating some video footage of the mare for a few hours alone in her stall. The behaviorist would be watching the video for any signs of discomfort independent of human handling. With experience most behaviorists can localize the source of discomfort to some extent by watching the horse's behavior. From there the specialist could advise your veterinarian on where to look to rule out discomfort, for example.

One more comment/question: It would be good to know how early you started touching your mare on the flank, belly, and teets. We have found that nearly every filly is protective of that area, some quite dramatically so. But it takes much less time to acclimate a filly to touch in those areas than it does a mature horse. They typically maintain compliance with manipulation there lifelong.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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