The long, cold winter is finally ending and while your horse may have enjoyed it more than you did, chances are he’s looking a bit scruffy around the edges.

The first thing you’ll notice is that he’s shedding. If he isn’t yet it won’t be long; even if he’s been body-clipped and swaddled in blankets for the past few months, some shedding of winter hair will occur. While good grooming is important all year round, it’s especially crucial now. A thorough grooming removes mud, dirt and that annoying loose winter hair. It helps stimulate circulation, improves muscle tone and distributes natural oils in the skin. Lastly, it allows you to notice any injuries, parasites, or irritations that might have gone unnoticed.

The traditional way to cope with spring shedding is with a rubber or plastic curry comb or grooming mitt (there are several options on the market these days) and lots of good old elbow grease. Use the curry comb vigorously in a circular motion on your horse’s neck and body to loosen dead hair; you can also use it gently on his legs if he’s not too sensitive. Begin on one side working from the neck toward the hind end, then move around to his other side, without neglecting the underside of his belly. You might also use a flexible metal shedding blade, running it gently across your horse’s body in the direction of the hair. Don’t use blade or curry on the delicate skin of his head or legs.

After the curry comb and/or shedding blade, use a stiff-bristled dandy brush, working with short, brisk strokes with the lay of the hair, to remove the dirt, hair and dead skin cells loosened by the curry comb. Follow this with a soft-bristled body brush, paying special attention to delicate areas like the head, behind the ears and inside the hind legs. The body brush can be used in conjunction with a metal curry comb: draw the brush across the curry comb every few strokes to remove hair and dirt. (Unless your horse is a woolly mammoth, it’s not recommended you use the metal curry comb on him.)

If, for some reason, you can’t wait for your horse to shed his winter coat on his own time, you might opt to clip him. Not only will he be able to cool down and dry more quickly, preventing chills or skin conditions caused by being often or persistently damp, you will also avoid having the long hairs he’s shedding stick to your clothes and tack. Make sure your horse is dry and as clean as possible before you start. Once you’ve finished, give him a good brushing, or a bath if the weather allows it. Using appropriate electric clippers, clip his entire body, head and legs (full-body clip) or choose one of the partial clips such as:

  • Hunter clip: Remove hair from the body, but not the saddle area or legs
  • Blanket clip: Remove hair from the head (optional), neck, belly and flanks
  • Trace clip: Remove hair from the jaw (optional) and underside of the neck and belly, and from the elbows to 10 or 15 cm up the body to the hindquarters

No matter how you choose to clip your horse, consider safety (his and yours) first. Have an experienced assistant help you and work over several sessions if necessary. If your horse is nervous or contrary to clipping, talk to your veterinarian about giving him a sedative so you can clip him safely. You may need to blanket your clipped horse until the weather warms up. Finally, if you plan on showing your horse, you will probably want to use a small electric trimmer to clip the long hairs on his muzzle and under his jaw, his bridle path, ears and fetlocks. If you don’t plan on showing or if your horse spends a lot of time outside, you may prefer not to do this or, simply use scissors to cut a short bridle path in his mane behind the ears.

Once your horse’s body is taken care of, it’s time to tackle his mane and tail. If these have been somewhat neglected over the winter, start by untangling them with your fingers, removing burrs and other debris. A detangling product will help with this. Once untangled, carefully brush the hair, beginning at the bottom and working upward. Use a wet dandy brush or water brush to lay the mane flat on one side of your horse’s neck. Depending on the activity you do, you may choose to leave your horse’s mane and tail as is, or trim his tail and thin and shorten his mane by gently pulling out the longest hairs using a small metal mane comb.

Choose a warm, sunny day to bathe your horse. Start by wetting him from the hooves up, everywhere except his face. Work up a lather with a dollop of gentle shampoo (baby shampoo or one of the many commercial equine shampoos) in a bucket of warm water. Wash your horse with the soapy water and a sponge or wash glove, starting on his neck and back and working down his legs. Dunk his tail in the remaining soapy water and rub it with your hands. Use a sweat scraper following the lay of the hair to remove excess suds, then rinse your horse well with fresh water and use the sweat scraper again. If you see suds, rinse again and repeat; leaving soap in the coat can cause irritations, allergies and dandruff. Wash your horse’s face with a small sponge or towel. Use another sponge and an appropriate commerical sheath and udder cleaner to wash the genital areas and under the tail. Get some help from an experienced person if you’ve never done this before. (See page 14 for more on sheath and udder cleaning.)