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Basics of Good Horse Grooming

By: Ann Compton

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One of the most important parts of your relationship with your horse is grooming. Perhaps even more than riding, grooming allows you to bond with your equine.

"The biggest benefit of grooming," says equestrian Ilona Monahan of Ottawa, Canada, "is the quality time it gives you with your animals. Elbow grease and a bit of love are generally all that's required for a shiny coat."

Grooming benefits not only your horse's physical health, but his emotional needs as well. During times when you can't ride, there is nothing like an extended grooming session to bring you closer to your equine partner – while making him look good to boot.

Of course, keeping your horse healthy inside and out starts with a proper nutrition program, regular worming, veterinary care and exercise. Once those needs are met, your daily grooming session will serve as a time when you can evaluate your horse's overall condition. Is he sore anywhere? Stiff? Is his skin dry or rubbed? Are there lumps and bumps, or wounds on the surface? If you follow a systematic grooming routine, you're likely to spot any problems early.

The Daily Regimen

Regardless of whether your horse is blanketed, daily grooming should be the rule and not the exception. There are some basic tenets that are important in this regimen; others must be adapted according to your horse's needs. For instance, thin-skinned horses such as thoroughbreds sometimes object to very stiff brushes. If you notice that your horse seems irritable or ticklish when you groom, use a softer brush or a soft rubber curry.

Don't Curry in a Hurry

The first rule of good grooming is that there is no substitute for elbow grease. The curry is your best friend when it comes to efficient cleaning. The small rubber curries with cone-shaped teeth, such as the Grooma, are best for bringing up dirt without irritating your horse. Most horses enjoy this process, and you also can provide a good massage while eliminating dirt, hair and dead skin. Currying is the most important part of good grooming and lays the foundation for getting the coat and skin really clean.

Begin currying at your horse's head. Most horses love having their faces curried or brushed, and it's an area that is frequently ignored. Work gently and let your horse tell you how much pressure to apply. Del Ring of Dayton, Ohio, stresses that it's important to do more than just wipe the horse's face with a cloth. Horses usually "lean into the brush, especially after they've sweated a bit," says Ring.

After you've finished the face, move behind the horse's ears to his neck. Use a circular motion and work against the direction of the hair. Now use firm strokes, overlapping the circles as you go. Work from topline to underside, from withers to hindquarters, frequently cleaning the curry. Make sure you get down to the skin where dirt lodges. The girth area is especially important, as is the area underneath the tail. Hold the tail to one side to scrub the dirt and sweat buildup there.

Susan Grocott of Ontario, Canada, credits her horses' shiny coats to her rigorous grooming regimen. Susan considers the grooming process part of her riding warm-up, and recommends using a harder curry for the large muscles in the neck, shoulders and hindquarters, and a softer one for the face, stomach, legs and spine.

Use a rubber grooming mitt or a small, soft curry on your horse's legs. Rub up-and-down around the front of the cannon bone to remove the sweat and dirt that accumulates there, especially if your horse wears protective boots.

Don't Brush in a Rush

Once you've finished currying, it's time to brush. Let your horse tell you how stiff a brush he will tolerate. A good, stiff brush will remove the dust and dirt that currying has brought up, but if your horse is sensitive, use one with soft bristles. Grocott cleans her brush every few strokes with a soft plastic curry. She also suggests washing brushes regularly. "I think clean brushes are the key to a clean horse," she stresses.

Follow the same pattern as you did while currying, brushing in the direction the hair grows this time. Finally, take a dish-towel-sized cloth and go over his entire body in long, firm strokes to bring up the shine. "This takes only seconds and the results are well worth it," observes Grocott. She finds that spraying her brush with Miracle Groom helps reduce static during the winter months.

Eventer Stella Maher of Greensboro, N.C., uses a combination of Listerine Mouthwash and alcohol in a spray bottle to remove lingering dust and dirt. Maher sprays the mixture onto her cloth before wiping down the horse.

Another option, if your horse will tolerate it, is a vacuum, especially on winter coats and when you can't bathe the horse. It removes dirt and dander and pulls the oil through the horse's coat to make it shiny. A good one is expensive – the Electro-Groom, for instance, sells for roughly $475. If you groom several horses, however, it's worth the investment.

Don't Overdo the Shampoo

In warmer climates, or when you can bathe your horse, don't use too much shampoo. Frequent shampooing strips the horse's coat of oils. If the weather is warm, hose your horse daily after turnout and riding, but only shampoo before shows or occasionally.

For spot cleaning, products such as Miracle Groom or Cowboy Magic work well to remove stains. If you can shampoo, Sarah Walsh of Tyngsboro, Mass., recommends Orvus Paste, which, she says, gets the marks out of gray and white coats. In a pinch, sprinkle some baby powder on your hands and rub it in to camouflage spots on white or gray horses. "The most important thing is to remove stains daily with a stiff brush and waterless shampoo, if necessary, to avoid problems," notes Walsh.

Don't Neglect Mane and Tail

Dirt tends to collect on the dock of the tail and the base of the mane. Spray first with a silicone-based detangler that will keep those precious hairs from catching on your brush. Rub it through with your hands, paying special attention to the dock and mane crest. Keeping these areas clean helps prevent rubbing, too. If your horse's tail is dry and tends to break easily, try Cowboy Magic's oil detangler, which adds moisture and helps condition. One word of caution, though: Don't use detanglers just before braiding, they'll make the hair too slippery.

Don't Forget the Daily Pick

Finally, pay special attention to hooves when you groom. Feet should be picked daily when the horse comes in from turnout, as well as before and after riding. If your horse doesn't wear snowball pads, it's especially important in snowy climates to chop out the ice that collects in feet that are shod. Consult your farrier to determine whether the use of hoof dressing is appropriate for your horse.

Review of Equipment You'll Need

  • Brush box. You will need a good strong brush box that will take a great deal of abuse. There are many options. A box with more than one use that has a lid is best.

  • Crud remover and massager. This is not what these are called (actually, they're called rubber curry combs or "cactus tooth"), but removing crud is what they do. Dirt and winter hair can be removed with these or similar brushes.

  • Body brush. These come in several materials. Stiffer versions often have plastic bristles; softer versions are often made of horsehair. It's a good idea to have both.

  • Combs. Metal combs are useful in managing forelocks, manes, tails and long leg hair. Don't tug or pull on your horse's hair unless you intend to remove it. You'll damage the hair by pulling on it.

  • Hoof pick. A good hoof pick is essential. Pick your horse's feet before and after riding to remove packed mud, which can cause thrush. Gravel should also be removed since this can lead to sole bruises.

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