Good grooming is about more than just shampoo and making your horse pretty. It can help with bonding and improve your relationship and you can even do a little groundwork, asking your horse to step to one side or offer a hoof for picking. It is also an opportunity to do a thorough check of your horse’s entire body, to keep an eye out for injuries such as girth rubs, any mysterious lumps, bumps or incipient skin conditions that are best dealt with before they take over.

Standing Start

It won’t really be a relaxing experience unless your horse can stand comfortably and calmly in a wash stall or cross-ties, or tied to a fence outside. See the trainer tips on page 18 for advice on teaching a horse to stand. Tie your horse up with a quick-release knot or use quick-release clips on the ties in case something startles him and he panics.

Get Organized

Collect your supplies before tying up your horse. Not only should he not be left tied unattended, but if you have everything on hand, you will be more efficient. Depending on the time of year and your process, you will need buckets of warm water, shampoo, brushes, scraper, sponges (one for the body, one for the face and one for the dock), conditioner, detangler and towels (enough for your horse and you!).

Currying Favour

Before bathing your horse, give him a really thorough currying. A rubber or metal curry will bring ground in dirt and dead skin cells to the surface and give the horse a good massage to improve circulation. Some horses are thin-skinned and may find a metal curry in particular too harsh. You can start those horses with a grooming mitt instead. Regularly knock the hair and scurf out of the curry so you aren’t just moving dirt around.

Tool Care

Clean your brushes! Pro groom Denielle Gallagher-LeGriffon says her number one grooming tip is to regularly clean your brushes if you want to have a clean horse. She recommends putting them in the washing machine on the delicate cycle and let them air dry. For wooden-handled brushes, a hot water and soap rinse of the bristles only might have to suffice. Use antibacterial dish soap for super clean brushes.

Just Add Water

If you are using a hose to wash your horse, apply it starting from the hooves up. Work your way gradually up the body with plenty of breaks in between. Be extra careful not to entangle the horse’s legs in the hose. Avoid spraying your horse in the face. Not only can it be frightening, but you can injure his eyes. Use a damp sponge followed by a dry towel on the face and ears. If you have a light-coloured horse with a stain on its face, use two sponges – one with a mild shampoo on it and one to rinse. The best way to get your horse squeaky clean is to use warm water. It not only lifts dirt more effectively, but also rinses shampoo out of the coat more thoroughly. Soap residue left on the horse is irritating and can dull the coat and attract dirt.

Winter Bathing

It’s Canada and, let’s face it, the weather isn’t always conducive to a full shampoo and rinse. There are several dry grooming shampoos available such as Miracle Groom by Absorbine or Radience Dry Shampoo, which are said to even work on manure stains. However, many pro grooms also use multiple damp towels, rubbing the coat against the hair growth then smoothing down with a clean towel, to avoid detergent build-up on the coat. Gallagher-LeGriffon recommends spraying a bit of conditioner on the towel as well to help lift off dirt. Another common option is to use a spray bottle with water (if your horse tolerates spraying) and a clean dandy brush and dry towels. This method works very well on sweat marks after roughing them up with the curry comb.

Great Tails

Beautiful tails are hard work. Gallagher-LeGriffon recommends brushing tails very rarely. Brushing, especially when the tail hairs are dirty, will result in breakage, split ends and thin tails. Instead, finger-pick out any shavings, burrs or straw. Wash tails no more than twice a week and use plenty of conditioner. If you are bathing the whole horse, start with the tail, shampooing a couple of times then applying conditioner heavily and tying the tail in a knot while you bathe the rest of the body. Then take out the knot and rinse extremely well. Use a detangler or shine product such as Farnam’s Vetrolin Detangler while the tail is still wet. Once it is dry, comb gently from the bottom up. A shine product such as Absorbine’s Show Sheen applied between washings can help repel dirt and tangles.

Out Damned Spot!

Coat brighteners can be used as stain-removing shampoos, but a better option is a shampoo specifically formulated for stain removal. Waterless shampoos, also called dry or no-rinse shampoos, such as Cowboy Magic Green Spot Remover are popular for dealing with stains. These products are sprayed on the target area and rubbed out with a towel or rag. Any remaining residue is then brushed away. Products of this type contain surfactants (detergents) to break up oil and dirt. Some include antibacterial ingredients and most have conditioners to counteract the drying effect of the detergents. A home remedy used by some horse owners is to add acetic acid (white vinegar) to the wash water. The vinegar acts as a clarifying or stripping agent that facilitates the opening of the hair cuticle and, as a result, the stains can be more easily removed. The PH level of vinegar can be harsh on the coat, so condition very well after using it.

Using a shine product such as Straight Arrow’s Mane ‘n Tail Shine On after cleaning can help repel future stains, which can be particularly useful the day before a show.

Soothing Relief

Horses have notoriously sensitive skin, and some are more susceptible to irritation than others. If your horse has ever broken out in hives, you’ll want to be particularly careful when choosing his shampoo. An aloe-based product can be a good choice, as can a shampoo that produces little or no lather, which will be easier to rinse away. Lather is created by the foaming action of surfactants which, while increasing the ability of a shampoo to bind with and remove dirt, also strip away natural coat oils and have a drying effect.

Several products, such as Manna Pro’s CalmCoat and Eqyss’ Micro-Tek, specialize in superior rinsing, removing products such as silicone, medications and detergents. They also help soothe the skin with herbal ingredients including aloe, which moisturizes and conditions, and lavender or tea tree oil, which offer a mild disinfectant action and itch-relief for conditions such as insect bites, sweet itch or tail rubbing.

Finally, for a horse that has ringworm, rain rot or other serious skin conditions, a medicated shampoo is your best option. A variety of therapeutic shampoos, incorporating antifungal and/or antibacterial agents, are available. For example, Absorbine’s Medicated Shampoo & Spray is fortified with PCMX (chloroxylenol) and tea tree oil, which kill bacteria on contact, guard against infection and relieve itching. PCMX is a rapid-acting antibacterial and antifungal with very low toxicity. It is common in antibacterial soaps. Other modern disinfectants that have replaced more irritating and drying ingredients such as iodine, include benzalkonium chloride, which is the active ingredient in hand sanitizers, diaper wipes and some dandruff shampoos, and Triclosan, also a widely used antibacterial with antifungal activity as well.

Bright Whites

Use colour brightening shampoos to get those white markings and tails super bright. Bluing shampoos do not actually remove stains in most cases, even though they do tend to be great cleansing shampoos. Blue or purple shampoos add a colour enhancer to the coat that the human eye perceives as white, making a dull coat appear more vibrant. The blue colour also tends to hide mild yellowing that can occur from urine or licking stains, as well as from sun damage. Bluing shampoos, because of the sparkling colour enhancers they contain, also make black coats shine and brighten other colours. For coats that are not stained heavily, but need some enhancement to appear more vibrant, bluing shampoos are the best choice. Other shampoos contain optical brighteners; they are absorbed by the hair and increase the coat’s ability to reflect light, making it appear brighter or shinier.

Farnam’s Vetrolin White ‘n Brite and Exhibitor Lab’s QuicSilver shampoos, for example, have “optical enhancers” for a brilliant glow to white and light coloured coats.