Like they say in the kitchen, it’s best to clean as you go. Rather than allowing grime to build up on your horse’s brushes, take a few moments to remove the dirt, hair and dander each time you use them.
Most grooming regimes start with a good once-over with a rubber curry comb to loosen dirt and hair, followed by a hard or medium-hard dandy brush to remove it. The dandy brush can get clogged up quickly, so grab a metal curry comb and swipe it over the bristles every few strokes. This will help keep the brush clean and get the job done faster and more efficiently. Also do this with the body brush, which usually follows the dandy. These brushes have short hard-to-medium or soft bristles meant to catch the smaller particles of dust and stray hairs. It doesn’t take long for dirt to work its way down between the tightly-compressed bristles, so attending to it right away makes looking after these brushes easier. The same goes for softbristled face brushes.
But let’s face it, finding time to squeeze in a ride can be hard enough, let alone trying to stay on top of keeping your brushes clean. That said, you should make time at least once a month to thoroughly clean and disinfect your grooming tools. Not only will this help preserve them, but it can help prevent skin irritation and even the spread of infection. While the best prevention is making sure that every horse has its own set of grooming supplies, this is not always possible.
Before you toss your brushes into a bucket of anti-bacterial suds, it’s important to note whether they are made from synthetic (plastic) or natural (various plant fibres or types of hair) materials. Most synthetic dandy and body brushes have plastic bristles and backs (handles) with plastic or nylon hand straps. These, along with rubber curry combs and plastic or metal combs are safe to submerge into water and let soak. I’ve even heard of people putting them through the dishwasher! Natural-fibre brushes, on the other hand, must be cared for differently.
With either type of bristled brush, start by loosening dirt and hair with a metal curry comb as noted above. If you’ve got a vacuum handy, use the hose to suck up any leftover dust and hair. Be gentler with natural fibre bristles, as they tend to dislodge more easily than plastic ones.
Next, for synthetic brushes, you can use a garden hose sprayer to really blast the dirt out, then drop them in a bucket of hot water. You can add anything from a squirt of dish soap to anti-bacterial scrub or even a capful of bleach if you are concerned about infection. Let soak for up to an hour, rinse, then leave out in the sun to dry, bristles up. Natural-fibre brushes are most often wood or leather backed, with leather hand straps. These can’t be submerged in water or they will warp or crack. Instead, use a shallow pail of lukewarm water (hot water can damage the bristles and even cause them to fall out) and dip the ends of the brush in. You should avoid using bleach on natural fibres as well. You can carefully work the soap/water solution up the bristles (a toothbrush is good for this), but, again, avoid contact with the backing. After you carefully rinse the bristles, leave the brush in the sun to dry. For brushes with leather backs, you can finish the job by applying a leather conditioner. You may wish to skip this step if your horse has sensitive skin, however.
Also remember to clean out your grooming kit on a regular basis, and don’t return the brushes until the kit and brushes are completely dry.