A Guide to Proper Horse Grooming

Brown horse on green grass hill

Step One: Get Your Stuff Together

Artistic license is allowed in fleshing out your grooming kit, but the above list includes the bare bones essentials. I learned some time ago that good grooming tools are worth the extra cost. Not only will they last much longer but chances are that they will be better designed to suit the purpose. Buy brushes that fit your hand! As a woman, I can’t possibly wrap my hand comfortably around a man-sized brush. Likewise men must be frustrated if made to use tools that are too small for them. If your brushes don’t fit your hand you’ll most likely find yourself chasing them across the aisle during your grooming sessions.

Give some thought to the horse in choosing your brushes. If you have several horses you’ll probably need several different combinations of brushes. In order for the process of grooming to be pleasant to the horse, his level of sensitivity must be taken into account. If your horse has a thin, short coat, a very stiff brush will go straight to his skin and feel like a rasp! On the other hand, if he has a slightly longer and very thick coat, a soft brush will just bounce off his natural thatching and do nothing to remove the dirt lurking beneath. A bit of thoughtfulness and courtesy on your part will go a long way to making your daily grooming sessions a pleasure for both you and your horse.

Step Two: The Grooming Process

Develop a routine and stick to it. A routine insures you won’t forget any important aspect (like picking out the feet) and your horse will be soothed and relaxed by the consistency of your pattern. Following in my preference for the grooming routine.

To make detangling the tail easier, I begin my grooming routine by applying a dab of Cowboy Magic (similar products probably work just as well) If the tail has been groomed daily, just a light spray will be necessary to insure that your brush slips right through any tangles without pulling out the hairs (tail hairs take 3-5 years to reach their full length so it’s important not to remove any healthy ones in your daily grooming routine).

A word of caution: Show Sheen leaves the hairs very slippery and I don’t recommend using it on the mane or body if you want to be able to hold onto your reins or keep your saddle in place! At this time I’ll also use my secret weapon, Showtime on any manure and dirt stains. While my sprays are drying I go on to step 2. Pick out the feet – and don’t be shy. Make your you get into every nook and cranny if you don’t want to deal with thrush or “gravels.”

Years ago I read a great little book called GROOMING RACE HORSES in which the author said, “No stud groom worth his salt would waste his employer’s time and money by walking all the way around the horse to pick out the feet.” Since I considered myself “worth my salt,” I have ever since taught all of my horses to allow me to pick all four feet from the same side. I must admit that they initially think I’m a little odd when I pull the off foot toward me while standing on the near side of their body, but they quickly catch on and it really does save time!

Top show stables with hot and cold running grooms wouldn’t think of using any implement other than human fingers to separate and detangle the tail. If your budget doesn’t include such amenities and you’d like to groom at 5pm and ride before midnight, you’ll probably use some kind of mane/tail brush or comb. Most any kind of grooming implement, from a metal comb to a stiff brush can successfully be used without pulling out the hairs, provided the technique used is correct. This technique works well for me and my horses all have lovely tails: take the entire tail in your left hand and run your hand down toward the bottom of the tail until only a couple of inches remain below your hand. Hold the tail hairs against your thigh and gently use your brush (I prefer the plastic knob-end bristle brush that you probably use on your own hair) to separate the ends of the hair.

When you can comb easily through these few inches, move your left hand a little further up the tail so that you comb through the bottom 4-5 inches tail hair. Now you can remove it from your leg and comb through it hanging in the air. Continue to work your way up the tail – when it becomes too thick to comb through the entire mop at one time, you can let a few hairs drop and hang free and comb the tangles gently out of them, gradually adding more and more dropped sections until the whole tail is tangle free. When you encounter any resistance as you’re brushing, let the brush roll out of the tangle – do not force the brush through the tangle – and begin brushing again below the tangle, slowing working your way up to and through it. If you handle the tail in this fashion you will not remove any healthy hairs (a small amount of hairs will be shed daily, so you may find that 2 or 3 come out during your grooming) and your horse will sport a luxuriously thick, healthy tail. I do not advocate braiding and/or keeping a tail in a “tail sack.” As a matter of fact, I think that such care actually contributes to the breaking of hairs and results in a thinner tail.

If your horse has been turned out for some time and not groomed regularly, you may be greeted with a great “witch’s knot” in his tail or mane (or both, if you’re really unlucky!). Don’t get out your pocket knife and start whacking on it – instead spray it liberally (until it’s wet) with Cowboy Magic or a similar hair polish. When it has dried, take your brush and gently work through the hair as described above. With a little patience you’ll be able to work the entire snarl out and with relatively little hair loss!

Your tail brush will serve equally well for use on the mane. The first tool to use on the horse’s body is the curry comb which loosens the dirt, scurf and dandruff and massages the skin and muscle beneath the coat. Use a circular or side-to-side motion, pressing down firmly on heavily muscled areas and rubbing lightly on tender spots. Frequently knock the loose dirt out of the curry by banging it against the back of a brush, the bottom of your boot or the floor (please don’t use the wall for this purpose – at least not in my stable).

Next select your body (or dandy) brush and use vigorous, short, snapping strokes to make sure the brush penetrates the hair coat and gets down to the skin. The body brush sweeps the skin free of larger particles of loosened by the curry. A short-bristled brush with a mixture of horsehair and stiffer fibers (even interspersed with brass bristles for the more heavily-coated horse) is recommended for this step. It’s very important that this brush be selected according to your horse’s sensitivity since, in order to be effective, it must penetrate all the way down to the skin. If your horse shows discomfort at this stage of grooming, select a softer brush with more horsehair and fewer stiffer fibers. Clean the body brush frequently by brushing the bristles across your curry to dislodge the accumulated dirt and scurf. This keeps your brush clean and prevents putting the dirt right back onto the horse. The more frequently you repeat this action, the less often you’ll need to wash your grooming kit.

The skin is now clean but the hair will be filled with a fine dust and the whitish, greasy dust called scurf. The finishing brush removes this residue as well as distributing the sebum (or skin oil) uniformly throughout the horse’s coat. The finishing brush is the most important tool in grooming and produces a deep bloom and gloss to the coat. It will also likely be the most expensive brush in your grooming kit, but well-cared for, it will give you years of service. Since the finishing brush will pick up a considerable amount of dust and scurf as you work, it cannot be stressed too much that the bristles must be cleaned as you go by brushing it across your curry.

To remove the last of the dust, spread the sebum over the hair coat and bring up the shine, rub the horse thoroughly with a soft rag. I like to use our Sheepskin Grooming Mitt with a little Showtime spayed on it to leave the coat luxuriously soft. Go ride!

Step Three: Care of Your Grooming Kit

Keep your grooming kit clean if you want to keep your horse clean! If you’re meticulous about using the curry to keep the dust and dirt from building up in your brushes, you won’t need to wash them very frequently. To wash your brushes, fill a bucket with lukewarm water and add enough soap flakes to suds (I never recommend using any kind of detergent on anything that will touch your horse’s skin – use Ivory Snow or a similar soap product). Leave your brushes soaking until all the grime has come loose then rinse thoroughly and leave to dry bristle-side down. If you have leather or wooden backed brushes, keep the water level shallow enough that the backs will not be immersed in water.

Photo by David Dibert on Unsplash