Wild horses survive without being bathed or groomed, but domestic horses are expected to be free from mud, stains, and dust. Horses that live outside should not be bathed excessively because the grease in the coat helps to keep them warm and dry. For these outside horses, they should have their feet picked out and mud and stains removed regularly; special consideration should be given to areas where tack lies before they are exercised or ridden. Even though horses will often groom each other with their teeth as a form of social bonding, roll in dust as a way of dry shampooing or will rub against trees which is like the equivalent of brushing, these natural habits should not take the place of grooming your horse.
As for stabled horses, a full grooming removes dirt and massages the muscles and skin, which stimulates the release of natural oils into the coat and improves circulation. This is most effective when done after exercise, when the body temperature has risen and the horse is warm. To help make the horse comfortable, a thorough grooming before exercising is recommended in order to remove any excess mud and dirt, especially where tack may be placed. Also, pick out the feet, sponge the face and dock, and assess any injuries, missing shoes, weight loss, or other changes.
Removing Dirt and Mud
Starting with the hooves, pull the hoof pick down each side of the frog from heel to toe. Always move the hoof pick away from you. You may need to make a few swipes and also run the pick along the inside of the shoe removing all of the debris. You should check for any loose shoes or infections such as thrush, and treat as necessary.
Next, move to the body. Remove any dried mud with a rubber currycomb or dandy brush. Another great tool to help remove caked on mud is a metal currycomb. Be sure to brush in a straight line, in the direction of hair growth. The bristles of these items are relatively harsh; so avoid use on tender areas such as the belly and clipped areas, or on an animal with a thin coat. After all the mud is removed, you want to go back with a rubber currycomb in a circular motion to help loosen any excess dirt that may remain. At this time, curry all parts of your horse including the legs, belly and especially the saddle area.
Once the mud and dirt have been removed, use a stiff grooming brush to help remove the excess dirt and massage the skin. When beginning, start along the crest of the neck, brushing downward with the hair in short strokes and snapping the bristles outward away from the horse to release the built-up dirt. Apply enough pressure so that the bristles reach down to the skin. Put your weight behind the strokes. After the crest has been thoroughly attended to, continue to brush all parts of the body moving towards the tail. When brushing sensitive areas, such as the inside of the legs and groin, stand close to the horse and to the side so if it attempts to kick at you, it may be less impactful and/or may not reach you. Finish one side, and then do the other. The process is not an easy task and you should feel some tiring from it. If you are not somewhat tired, you may not have been vigorous enough. When grooming the face, you want to groom gently with a currycomb and brush the excess dirt off with a soft brush or face brush. You can either move the halter or take it off if you’re in a confined area and need to groom underneath the straps. You can finish by brushing over your horse with a soft body brush or a horsehair brush to help add shine and smooth the coat.
You can keep the brushes clean with a metal or rubber currycomb. After every four or five strokes, push the bristles across the currycomb. Periodically, tap the corner of the brush on a hard surface to dislodge any dirt.
When dealing with the mane and tail, remove any knots with your fingers, and then brush it out with a body brush. Try not to pull any hairs out; it is not recommended to use a dandy brush or curry comb on either. Hold the tail in one hand and shake a small section free. Brush the small section with long, flowing strokes, starting at the bottom. Continue this gradually until you are finished. For the mane, work on it a few locks at a time. Brush the mane starting at the neck, from the roots downward. You can also use mane and tail detangler and a mane/tail brush to take care of your horse’s mane and tail.
Some areas need more attention and a sponge can be used to achieve a proper cleaning. This would be ideal for an area that has been stained by manure or sponging the face. Please note, not all horses enjoy having their face or tail sponged, please use caution if this is the first time you are doing this on your horse. The sponge should be damp, but not wet enough to release water into the eye. The idea is to remove dust and dirt that has built up on the eyelids, so don’t attempt to open the eye. Start at the outside corner and sponge inward so that you do the dirtiest part last. When finished with the eyes, move to the muzzle. Sponge around the lips, and then around the nostrils; you can put the sponge right into a nostril and clean inside it. Then, remove any discharges from the outside. Once you are finished with the front, move to the back. Use a different sponge for the dock area. Lift the tail out of the way, and gently sponge the underside of the dock and the whole area under the tail.
Dampening the mane encourages the hairs to lie flat and look neat. If you are not planning on giving your horse a bath, you can also wet a brush and shake it to remove excess water. Place the brush on the base of the mane and work from the roots downward. There are hoods available that you can put on your horse that will help train the mane to lay flat. When it comes to training the tail, dampen the top of the tail with a water brush in the same manner that the mane is done. Pay attention to short hairs that would otherwise stick up. Once you’re finished, you can put a bandage or tail wrap on it to keep it neat.
Once you have completed the basic grooming techniques you can give a quick “once-over.” Slightly dampen a grooming cloth and fold it into a flat pad. Wipe it all over the body in the direction of the hairs to remove any remaining dust. You can also use a hair polish that will help repel dust, dirt and stains, this will help to extend the grooming job and help keep your horse cleaner, longer.
You can also oil your horse’s hooves for both an eye-catching appearance and a condition. First, brush any mud off the hooves and pick the hooves out before application; in muddy conditions, it may be necessary to wash them. If you do wash them, dry them thoroughly or else the oil will not act as effectively. You shouldn’t apply oil to a dirty hoof, as it will seal in the dirt. Cover the whole hoof from the bulbs of the heel up to the coronet with a thin, even coating of oil. Oil the sole of the hoof too; this will help to prevent mud, ice, and straw from getting packed into the foot.
Also check out our article, Mane Preparation, for tips and techniques on braiding and mane care.
Please Note: These are suggestions. If you have any questions, please contact your veterinarian or local horse professional.