Basics of Bathing Your Horse

Preparation for a Full Bath
First I gather what I’ll need: a hose with an adjustable nozzle, a big tub of water I’ve warmed if there’s no running hot water, two buckets, several big half-moon sponges, a jar of hoof sealant with applicator, a mild shampoo, a rubber mitt, a wooden scraper (gentler than plastic or metal ones), a couple of big towels, a stepstool or ladder, and talc or lotion as the horse’s legs tend toward dry skin.

Groom Sarah Dodds | ? Mandy Lorraine

I’m working solo most of the time, with horses who are used to bathing. But if your horse is at all nervous (or you are), recruit a helper who can hold the lead (attached to a halter with a breakaway top) and soothe him with pats and quiet words.

Wetting Down
1. Before I turn on the hose, I paint the walls, soles, and heels of the horse’s feet with ISP Ointment?, which contains iodine, sulfur, and petroleum. This seals them, protecting them from absorbing water and then drying out, which can turn feet brittle, especially in a hot climate.

2. Now I wet him all over (except for the head). With the hose set on “shower” and the water comfortably warm, I work up slowly from the front feet and lower legs (making sure he’s comfortable with the hose) to and over the shoulder and then the neck and mane, always point the spray away from his head. (No running hot water? I fill a bucket with warm water from the tub I’ve heated and sponge him generously, following the same sequence.)

3. From the neck I go down his back, down his flanks and hind legs, and under his body including the sheath and genital area (fortunately, most horses don’t mind a gentle stream of water here). Finally I lift the tail, spray well around the anus and down between the legs, and then hose down the tail itself. The bonus: Even a horse who’s nervous about bathing typically calms down once he’s completely wet.

1. Suds do the cleaning, so I want to create a lot of them. I drop a sponge into an empty bucket, add warm water, then pour the shampoo in on top of the sponge, adding more warm water at the same time to build suds. (I’ll resoak the sponge and add water or shampoo as needed to keep the suds coming.) 2. Using a round-and-round motion to go both with and against the hair and get soap all the way down to the skin, I start soaping the neck, then the front legs, back, flanks, under the body (including behind the elbows, between the front legs, and the sheath area), and down the hind legs.

3. Around the anus and between the hind legs, I use a different sponge, reserved for that area, with plenty of water. Then I dump the tail in my bucket to rewet it, soap it well, and…

4. …work the soap in thoroughly with my fingers (tail hair is thick, and I want to be sure the soap penetrates), all the way to the end of the tail, adding water to keep it sudsy.

5. Now I go back to the mane, make sure it’s good and wet, pour a little shampoo directly on my hands, and use my fingers (and maybe my rubber mitt) to work the suds well in, right down to the roots. Then I go over the whole body again, in the same order, with the mitt, rewetting it frequently and really scrubbing. The mitt works a lot like a rubber curry, dislodging and lifting off loose hair and grunge — and the rhythmic rubbing stimulates circulation and makes the horse feel grand.

A Thorough Rinse
1. Next comes a good rinse. With the hose (or a fresh sponge and bucket of clear warm water), I again go up the front legs to the shoulder. I keep the spray away from the head as I work down the neck and mane, then do the back and flanks and underside and legs, scraping with my free hand and applying more water until it runs off really clear. (I may use the mitt, too to make sure soap isn’t trapped under really thick hair.) I’m particularly careful about rinsing the back (where soap residue could cause irritation under the saddle) and the stomach (where soapy water collects after running down the flanks). I also check the legs carefully — hose in one hand, mitt in the other — to be dure the pasterns and heels are dirt-free.

2. After lifting the tail and hosing carefully between the hind legs, I give the tail a thorough rinsing, checking with my fingers that the thick tail hair is suds-free all the way to the roots.

3. To dry the horse, I first use my scraper, starting on the neck and scraping downward in the direction of the hair, using a little pressure but not enough to be uncomfortable. I go along the mane, down the sides and front of the neck, then the shoulder, along the back (not on the spine, but down either side of it), over the hindquarters, and down and under the barrel and flanks. In that little area of the flank where the hair goes different ways, I turn the scraper so it goes with the direction of the hair.

4. Because a scraper would be too hard on the legs, I wipe them down with a clean, wrung-out sponge, squeezing it out frequently as I go. Then I towel-dry the body, being especially careful to dry the stomach and all the way down the legs. (In a hot climate like Florida, damp legs — even if they’re clipped–seem to invite bacteria to grow.).Then I comb the mane — it’s still a little wet — and walk the horse to help him air-dry.

Washing the Face
1. Now, with the body clean and the horse used to bathing, I wash his face and head (standing on a stepstool or stepladder for his comfort and mine). I dunk my “rinse” sponge in fresh water, wring it out so it isn’t drippy, and then go all over the face and head to wet it: first from under the eyes down, then up under the forelock (being careful no water drips into his eyes), behind the ears, down the cheeks, and then under the head. (To give myself free access to the underside of the jaw but prevent the throatlatch strap from flying free and hitting an eye, I’ve clipped the strap to the top ring on the right side of the halter).

2. Next I wring out my soapy sponge enough that it isn’t drippy and wash behind the ears, down over the cheeks and under the eyes, then in front of the ears, above the eyes, and down the nose, taking care that suds don’t get too close to the eyes.

3. I don’t use a lot of soap; typically, I don’t need to. If the face is really dirty, I can follow up my soapy sponge by rubbing with my rubber mitt. I go all over the face, the cheeks, behind the ears, and under the head — using the mitt in the chin groove and the area between the jawbones, which can get very grubby. I rinse with a bucket of clean water and a fresh, wrung-out sponge, starting up high and rinsing the sponge frequently as I go. I dump that bucket, rinse the sponge and squeeze out any remaining suds, refill the bucket, and go over the head one more time to be sure the soap is gone. I rinse and wring out the sponge until it’s as dry as I can get it, go over the head once more, and then wipe out the nostril area. (I’ll wash the sponge out well in hot water afterward.)

Final Touches
1. I finish drying the head with one of my big towels, getting rid of any remaining moisture — including on and around the ears.

2. Finally, with body and face both really dry, I put ointment or lotion or talc on the horse’s legs if need be. Baby powder (I use Johnson & Johnson’s) helps sensitive skin feel more comfortable. Both aloe-vera lotion and baby lotion are soothing to dry skin. And some horses have medicated lotions prescribed to treat a skin condition. After applying ointment or lotion, I bandage legs so shavings and dirt and sand can’t stick to them.

This piece has been adapted from an article that originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For Sarah’s tips on trimming your horse’s ears without upsetting him, see the November 2003 issue.

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