Ugh—winter. The horses in your barn are so dirty they look like sons of Swamp Thing, but baths are out of the question—it’s 20 degrees, and the washrack is outside. Who you gonna call?
We called Susan Harris, author of the classic guide Grooming to Win. Here, Harris offers grunge-busting tips that will help keep you and your clients’ horses clean and shiny during the cold months.
“The real key to a super coat is daily massage and elbow grease, applied with a short-bristled body brush,” Harris said. “However, a lot depends on how your horses are kept during the winter.” Horses that are stabled, blanketed, and clipped or short-coated need a different grooming routine than those with long winter coats.
A horse with a shaggy winter coat will have a buildup of oils and scurf in that coat. The buildup is nature’s way of weatherproofing him against the wet and cold, Harris said, and it’s a benefit, especially if he’s kept outside. You don’t want to completely remove it. Such horses should be checked daily head to toe, Harris noted, because it’s all too easy to miss small sores and slight weight loss under a winter coat or a turnout blanket if you don’t do a hands-on check. “But grooming can be limited to removing mud and dirt before the horses are ridden,” she said.
Get the mud out: Curry and then follow up with brisk brushing, adjusting your grooming technique to the horse’s sensitivity, Harris said. “Long coats require stiffer brushes, because soft, short bristles won’t penetrate the thick hair coat. Use the brush with a brisk snapping motion, so a cloud of dust flies out at each stroke.” You can break up caked mud on a long, thick coat by using a shedding blade, a metal currycomb, or a Scotch comb, she adds. (Scotch combs, which look like small rakes, have sharp teeth—so use this tool with care.)
Cool out with care: “Horses with long winter coats need special attention when they work and sweat,” Harris noted. The horse can overheat because sweat is trapped in the coat and doesn’t evaporate quickly (that evaporation helps regulate the horse’s body temperature). If a long coat gets soaked with sweat, it loses its insulating value and leaves the horse vulnerable to chills.
“A horse needs to be protected against cold and drafts until his coat is dry and has regained its loft, which keeps him warm,” Harris said. To cool out a long, wet coat, she suggests:
• Use a sweat scraper on wet spots, and then rub with a towel or a handful of straw. Or let the horse roll in dry sand or sawdust—it blots up the sweat and hastens drying.
• Next, cover the horse with an anti-sweat sheet. The loose weave provides some insulation while allowing moisture to evaporate, keeping him warm as he dries.
• Another option is the old English method called “thatching”: Put on a blanket or sheet and stuff a thick layer of straw up under it. “The straw insulates like an anti-sweat sheet and also absorbs dampness,” Harris said. “Brush it out later, when he’s dry.”
• Let the horse stay inside until he’s dry.
Consider a clip: “A partial clip, such as a strip clip or trace clip, may keep the horse drier and more comfortable when he works and make it easier to cool him out and groom him, but require minimal blanketing,” said Harris. That’s a big plus if you’re faced with cooling out several lesson horses after classes.
For convenience and appearance, show horses and lesson horses in daily work will likely spend the winter stabled, blanketed, and body clipped. Clipped horses are easier to keep clean and cool out than horses in full winter coats, but this program has its own drawbacks. The horses become “hothouse flowers,” vulnerable to chills, Harris said. “Don’t let a clipped horse stand shivering in a cold draft—keep him warm and moving or cover him up,” she advised. “He may need a quarter sheet when doing slow work in cold weather.”
If you want clipped coats to glow, there are no shortcuts. “Thorough daily grooming with a rubber curry and soft body brush is important to keep the skin and hair coat clean, healthy, and free of dirt, stains, excess scurf, and loose hair,” she said.
A deeper clean: Even with daily grooming, grime builds up over time. When a horse gets can’t-stand-it dirty and a full bath isn’t an option, what can you do? Harris suggests a waterless cleaner (she likes EZ-Groom and Miracle Groom) or a hot-towel bath. “Either procedure will remove dust, dirt, and scurf from the roots of the hair coat and is excellent for cleaning up places like the head and face,” she said.
For a hot towel job, you’ll need a big bath towel, rubber gloves, and a bucket of very hot water. Here’s Harris’s procedure:
• Add a tiny amount (less than a quarter capful) of shampoo to the water, which should be hot enough that you’ll need the rubber gloves.
• Put on the gloves, dunk half the towel in the water, and wring it out as dry as possible.
• Rub the hot towel quickly through the hair coat. It should pick up dirt and scurf, resulting in a dirty spot on the towel. When the towel gets cool or too dirty, dunk, rinse, and wring it out again.
• Don’t get the hair wet. If it gets too damp, rub it with a dry portion of the towel.
• Work all over the horse, section by section, including the head and the roots of the mane and tail.
Restore shine: A newly clipped coat may look dull if it’s been cut short, exposing the undercoat, or if there’s excess scurf and dirt in the skin and coat. (This should have been removed by bathing or hot-toweling before clipping, Harris notes, as a dirty coat is hard on clipper blades and results in a poorer clipping job.) To remove the scurf, hot towel and groom the horse to get his skin clean. You can also bathe him (if you have suitable facilities) and apply an oil treatment by adding “a capful of baby oil to the last rinse,” Harris said.
The coat will regain its natural shine as it grows, she adds, so clip at least one week ahead of an important event, and follow up with good daily grooming.
Manure and urine stains are another winter woe. Without regular baths, gray coats and white markings are quickly covered with splotches of brown and yellow. The secret to keeping whites white? Prevention and daily attention. “If the coat or tail hair is constantly saturated with urine or manure, the hair shafts may be damaged and become porous. Then the stain can penetrate the hair shafts and become permanent,” she warned. The following steps can help.
• Bathe the horse and get him really clean as late in the season as possible.
• Remove stains daily. There are several ways to do this. You can use a stain remover (Harris likes Cowboy Magic products) or spot-wash with stain-fighting shampoo (such as QuikSilver). Rubbing with a cactus cloth will often remove stains along with mud, manure, and sweat marks. Or, said Harris, “Make a paste of Bon Ami scouring powder and a little water, work it into the stain and let it dry, then brush out the dry powder. The stain will come out with it.”
• Protect areas that tend to get dirty by using a coat polish (such as ShowSheen) to seal the hair shafts. “This will repel stains for several days,” Harris said.
• Prevent stains by keeping stalls clean, dry, and deeply bedded. Pick stalls out last thing at night, so horses are more likely to bed down in a clean area.
• Protect the coat with a blanket, and a white tail with a tail bag.
“A good coat comes from good health and nutrition,” Harris said. That’s true year-round but especially important in winter, when green grass isn’t available. She adds oil or oil meal to feed to improve coats—“flaxseed oil is excellent, as it’s a good source of Omega 3 and 6 fatty acids,” she said. “A good deworming program, especially daily dewormer, can also have a noticeable effect on hair growth and quality.” In other words, the outside of a horse reflects the inside—not just your meticulous care.
Clinician and instructor Susan Harris is based in Cortland, N.Y. Find more pointers on winter care, blanketing, and cooling out in the new edition of her book, “Grooming to Win” (John Wiley & Sons).