A Grooming Guide to Cleaning Your Horse

Here, you'll find what you need to know about head-to-hoof grooming and maintenance for your new horse.

Your dreams have come true, and you’re finally the owner of your very own horse. But, the realization hits as you’re staring down the lead rope at your new horse: You have no idea what comes next. Don’t worry, Perfect Horse is here to help! Here, you’ll find what you need to know about head-to-hoof grooming and maintenance for your new horse.

General Grooming
Frequency: Daily is ideal, but not practical for every horse owner. Groom at least each time you ride, especially under the saddle. Shedding season in the spring and fall will require extra time and elbow grease.

Grooming is a great opportunity to bond with your horse and check him over for any injuries or abnormalities. It also helps massage your horse’s muscles and can help with blood flow throughout his body.

As you flip through tack catalogs or browse through your nearest feed store, you might find the selection of grooming brushes and potions overwhelming. But when it comes down to it, there are just three tools you absolutely need for your new horse: a rubber curry comb, a dandy brush, and a hoof pick.

Starting with the rubber curry, lift dirt and grime out of your horse’s coat by brushing in a circular motion. The curry comb is used only on the soft parts of the horse’s body, such as the chest, neck, belly, and hindquarters. Avoid using the curry on the horse’s sensitive boney structures, including the spine, points of the shoulder, face, and legs.

Start from the front of your horse and move toward the tail, using a circular motion in the direction of the horse’s natural hair growth.

Next, you want to sweep off the loose hair and dirt that currying has brought to the surface. Your two choices for this job include a dandy brush or a body brush. A body brush is oval-shaped and has a strap handle, while a dandy brush is more ergonomically designed for your hand and has longer bristles.

A medium-to-soft dandy brush is a versatile tool and will cover most of your basic needs for whisking away dirt, although, as your grooming box grows, you’ll probably want to add an extra-soft dandy brush for grooming your horse’s face and legs, and an extra-stiff body brush for days when your horse is caked in dried mud.

Hoof Picking
Frequency: Daily, and also before and after every ride. You’ll want to check for rocks or sticks stuck in the bottom of the hoof or wedged in the crevices. If you do nothing else grooming-wise, make hoof picking a part of your horse care routine.

While cradling your horse’s foot, use a hoof pick to dig out dirt, manure, rocks, and sticks. The cavities between the frog and bar of the hoof are especially prone to collecting debris. Start cleaning from the heel and move forward. Don’t feel afraid to use a little muscle to make sure the hoof comes clean. This is a great time to check the health of your horse’s hooves-check for tender spots and possible puncture wounds. If you spot trouble, call your veterinarian or farrier. Cleaning out mud and manure can help prevent infections, such as thrush, a foul-smelling condition believed to be caused by anaerobic bacteria that produce a slimy black discharge. You may need to apply a topical dressing to eliminate thrush.

Hoof Dressing
Frequency: Whenever you notice your horse’s hooves getting a little dry or brittle, usually during the summer months.

Good nutrition and plenty of exercise are the best ways to keep your horse’s hooves healthy from the inside out. However, if you notice his toes getting a little dry, you can apply a hoof dressing or oil for some exterior moisture. Use a paint brush to slather the dressing on your horse’s hooves.

Dealing with Dandruff
: Depends on your climate, but any time of the year you’re prone to dry skin, your horse might also suffer from itchy flakes.

Good nutrition is the key ingredient to horse skin health. “Dandruff is often caused by essential fatty acids, zinc, B vitamins, and vitamin A deficiencies,” says Dr. Eleanor Kellon, veterinary editor for Perfect Horse. “Flax is the only fat source that actually matches what a horse would take in naturally in fresh grass.” Other causes include inadequate exercise or grooming, or chemical irritation, she adds.

You can treat small patches with a spray-on coat conditioner to moisturize dry skin. A bath with tea-tree shampoo and conditioner can also help to soothe dry, itchy spots. Dr. Kellon also recommends using a dandruff shampoo formulated for humans.

Sheath Cleaning
: At least once a year; twice a year is better; more often if your gelding is extra messy.

Geldings and stallions build up a grime called smegma inside the sheath, which can cause discomfort and infection. Good horse ownership includes making sure a gelding’s sheath is cleaned regularly. A mild sheath-cleaning product and warm water can help break up the smegma. (The procedure is described in “Sheath Cleaning Simplified” in the August 2007 issue of Perfect Horse.) If it’s not something you’re comfortable doing yourself, enlist your veterinarian to clean your horse’s sheath during his or her annual visit.

Stocking a Great Grooming Tote

Every horse owner has an ideal, perfect grooming box. Here are some of those “right tools.”

The basics:
Dandy brush, medium bristles
Rubber curry comb
Hoof pick

Upgrade additions:
Body brush, soft (for legs/delicate areas)
Face brush
Dandy brush, stiff bristles
Metal curry comb (to clean other brushes)
Mane and tail comb or brush
Shedding blade (also works as a sweat scraper)

Lotions and potions:
Hoof conditioner
Mane and tail detangler
Daily coat conditioner
Anti-fungal spray
Gentle sheath cleanser
Shampoo, dandruff shampoo
Wash-out conditioner

Clipping & Trimming
Frequency: At least once a month; once a week if you’re particular about how your horse looks.

Clipping a short, two- to four-inch long bridle path behind your horse’s ears gives the crown piece of his bridle a place to rest. You can also use electric clippers to trim your horse’s whiskers and the hair under his chin and jaw for a slick, clean look. But remember, whiskers and eye brows and lashes serve as sensors that help a horse stay clear of trouble, so clip sparingly.

Cleaning Teats
Frequency: Whenever you bathe your mare. Grime or dirt builds up between a mare’s teats (or udder), especially when a mare is not nursing a foal. Since she can’t reach this area herself, she needs help keeping this area clean. Make it a regular part of your bathing routine, or clean between the teats more often if your mare is particularly prone to collecting dirt around her udder.

Use a mild soap or sheath-cleaning product to help break up the grime. Be gentle-your mare’s udder is sensitive, and she may not think the cleansing is a good idea. Watch to make sure she isn’t going to kick or strike in protest. Check for chapping, too. Rinse thoroughly and apply bag balm if necessary.

Combating Fungus
Frequency: Fungal infections are most prevalent during wet months. Treat skin fungus whenever it rears its scaly head.

Fighting fungus is a perennial problem for horse owners, especially in wet climates. It’s an itchy, smelly, and contagious issue that takes some tenacity to conquer. Fungus causes such skin conditions as rain rot or scald (over the back), girth itch (behind the elbows), and scratches (on the legs).

Keep an antifungal treatment cream or spray on hand so you can take care of infections as soon as they arise. There are also several medicated, antifungal shampoos on the market.

To avoid spreading infection, regularly disinfect brushes, tack, cinches, and leg wraps and boots. Also avoid sharing brushes between horses by getting each animal its own set of supplies.

Cleaning & Treating Crusty Ears
Frequency: Whenever you notice a buildup of grime in your horse’s ears. More often in the summer, when biting bugs are active.

Horse ears collect all kinds of dirt and gunk, as they should. The hair-lined, funnel-shaped outer ear is designed to protect the delicate parts of the inner ear. During warm months, tiny midges (sometimes referred to as no-see-ums) can bite and irritate ears, making the inside of the ear crusty or bloody. To clean your horse’s ears, use a soft cloth that is slightly damp and well rung out-you don’t want water to drip into the ear. Cup the ear with one hand, and gently wipe out any dirt or grime, starting from the bottom and working toward the tip. Make sure you’re wiping the gunk up and out, and not into the horse’s inner ear.

Clearing Eyes
: Whenever eye boogers present themselves. Most prevalent during allergy season, fly season, or windy weather.

Eye glop and weepy eyes are gross, but it’s your job to clean them out of your horse’s eyes. Otherwise, excess gunk could turn into conjunctivitis or an eye infection. Use a soft, damp cloth to wipe away any weepiness and goop in the corner of your horse’s eyes. To clean out the actual eye, you can flush the area with regular old saline solution.

Untangling Manes & Tails
Frequency: Get to tangles as soon as you notice them. Otherwise, they’ll just get worse.

Use a comb, your fingers, and a good detangling solution to loosen hair knots. Start at the bottom, and work your way up. If you don’t have a detangler on hand, try using a big glop of peanut butter on the knot. (FYI, peanut butter is also great for getting tree pitch out of your horse’s mane, tail, or hair coat.)

Quality Time
The list might seem long, but don’t feel intimidated. Just set aside some time several times a week to spend grooming and maintaining your horse, and take care of trouble when it arises so you can prevent issues from becoming problems. Your new horse will appreciate the extra attention, and you’ll enjoy getting to know him even better.

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