A clean, shiny, well-groomed horse is a pleasure to look at. But though it takes hard work to achieve that healthy glow, there are additional benefits beyond just appearance.
A thorough daily grooming loosens up, and then removes, dead hairs and dandruff/dead skin from your horse's coat. It spreads the oil from the sebaceous glands (in the skin) evenly along the shafts of the hairs. This natural oil is what gives your horse's coat its shine. Skin diseases and infections are rare in horses that get daily groom time. This is also a good time to give your horse a check-up for any new injuries that he may have gotten in the pasture or on your trail ride – cuts or scrapes, swellings, painful areas, bumps, etc. A true horseman should be able to identify his horse blindfolded just by palpating the horse's legs. That's how well you should know what is "normal" for him, and it makes it easy to spot a new problem. Prompt attention will then hopefully keep it from turning into a bigger problem.
Set Up Your Supplies. Have your grooming supplies in a convenient set up. For a small private barn, shelves next to the cross-tie area are easy to build. In a large boarding stable, you will probably find that a plastic tote box or bucket is the easiest way to transport your horse's "stuff" to the grooming area. Each horse should have his own brushes to prevent the spread of disease and prevent getting white hairs all over a bay horse.
Pick a Good Spot. Grooming can be done in your horse's stall, although it is hard to do the lower legs well if there is a nice deep bed of shavings. Cross-ties are a lot easier set-up to work with. They should be in an aisle that is free from traffic and have quick-release snaps for safety. Please be sure to use a leather halter instead of a nylon one. It will break in case the horse spooks/panics and pulls back. Better a broken halter than a broken horse!
Start with the Feet. Go around your horse's legs and pick up each foot. Use a hoof pick to clean the foot, then give both the sole and the wall a good brushing with a stiff, short-bristled brush.
Curry. Currying comes first on the body. Use an oval black rubber curry comb and scrub all over, in all directions. This loosens up the dirt, dandruff and dead hair and brings it to the surface. It is also what spreads out the natural oils. In your other hand, carry an old brush that your can periodically bang the curry comb on to empty out the accumulated dirt.
The lower legs are more sensitive and have more nooks and crannies than the body. Scrubbing here requires a red rubber mitten with nubs or a circular tool with flexible rubber fingers.
Brush. Next comes the stiff-bristled brush, used everywhere except on your horse's face. Brush with short, flicking strokes with the direction of the hair to remove all the crud that you loosened up by currying.
Follow this with a soft-bristled brush, used in the same manner to remove the finer bits of dust. Now you should really see some progress!
Slip your horse's halter back around his neck so that you can do a complete and comfortable job on his face. Scrub gently all over with the red mitten. If your horse has an itchy, sweaty head and ears from your ride, he'll probably love this. Then brush with the soft brush. Wipe over his whole head with a clean terry cloth towel to give it a final polish. (Hand towels or dish towels from your house can have a second career in the barn).
Replace the halter on his face and rub the towel over his neck, body and legs. Now you should really see a shine.
Mane and Tail. Comb out his mane and tail. Putting a silicone detangle spray, such as ShowSheen, on the tail twice a week makes it easy to comb without pulling hairs. Don't ever put ShowSheen on your horse's mane if you will need to braid it for shows!
Hoof Care. Consult with your farrier about various types of hoof dressing that might benefit your horse. Good hoof health and growth come primarily from within – quality hay and grain, biotin supplements and exercise to stimulate blood flow. But moisturizers spread on the coronary band area and/or sealants on the lower hoof wall can help out with various hoof problems.
Even if you never plan to enter a horse show, your horse must learn about electric clippers. If he gets a wound in the pasture, the veterinarian will need to clip all the hair away from the injury before she can clean it up and assess the damage. And trimming a 1-1/2 inch bridle path just behind the ears makes haltering and tacking up a little easier.
Leaning what to clip. How you pull your horse's mane and how you clip the rest of him is personal preference if he does not compete. But if you are going to show, find out what the style is for your particular breed or type of competition. Most of the braiding and clipping rules are unwritten, but you stick out like a sore thumb if you do not follow them. If you spectate a few times, you'll quickly learn the fashion.
Body-clipping. This requires more powerful clippers than those needed to trim faces and legs. Horses with thick winter coats will get sweaty when worked and then have a very hard time cooling out and drying off in the chilly air. Neck, body, legs – you can clip just some parts or everything. Just remember that the more area you clip, the more layers of blankets you'll have to add to keep him warm.
Older horses and ponies that get Cushing's disease will often grow an overly long, thick hair coat and then fail to shed it out in the spring as the days get longer and warmer. For comfort (not to mention cleanliness and grooming), these horses will need to be body clipped one to three times a year.
Start with Water. And now for the water treatments Sponging your horse off after a hot ride cools him down and removes all the sticky, salty sweat. Extensive veterinary research prior to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta proved that cold water applied to hot, tired muscles does not cause cramping. Some horses really like a shower – use a hose with a trigger-sprayer to power rinse everywhere except his face. Always use just a sponge on the head – spraying a hose in anyone's eyes just isn't nice. Some horses, however, do like to have a cold drink from the hose or have the sprayer gently squirted in the corners of their mouth like a water pik.
Shampoo. A real bath using shampoo should be a rare event. Just as in people, shampoo takes away the natural oils from the skin and haircoat. Oil is what gives your horse his show-ring shine and too frequent shampooing will give you a clean horse with a dull, dry coat. So try to confine the shampoo to just white stocks, tails or horrible manure stains. You don't need to waste your money buying "horse shampoo" from the tack shop. Generic human shampoo from the supermarket works just fine and costs a lot less. So pick one with a fun fragrance like Strawberry Essence for your old white pony when she takes a worse-than-usual dust bath in the paddock.
Grooming is a lot of work, but it is also a lot of fun. It is a great physical fitness activity for you at the same time that it is giving your horse's muscles a good massage.
Spending non-riding time with your horse also gives you a chance to better get to know each other. He is your partner and hopefully your best friend. If you know his favorite itch spot, you can give him a good rub there when he jumps a clean cross-country course for you. And when some little thing starts to go wrong, you'll notice it right away and be able to take prompt, appropriate action.
So as long as you are as well-turned-out as your horse, the two of you will give the judge a great first impression when you trot into the show ring!