Here are four crucial areas to include in your horse grooming routine.
by Katie Navarra
Basic grooming skills are a key component of horse care. Most horse owners appreciate the value of a thorough grooming session: A curry comb loosens deep dirt and dander and encourages circulation; a dandy brush whisks away loosened crud; a soft finishing brush brings the coat’s natural oils to the surface for an eye-catching shine.
Grooming’s benefits extend beyond a sharp appearance and an invigorating massage. A daily pre-ride grooming provides competitive riders an opportunity to check for cuts, bumps, and even ticks. For recreational horse owners who might ride less frequently, grooming a few days a week is recommended for the same reasons.
“You can see if there is muscle soreness or heat,” says Max Corcoran, a freelance professional groom. She has worked for Olympians Karen and David O’Connor for 11 years and is on staff at the Equine Management Training Center, in Axton, Virginia.
Daily grooming sessions afford Corcoran the opportunity to get her hands on horses and catch issues early. “I might not realize a horse is sore until I curry his back,” she says. “If he scrunches down, I’ll run my hand along the area to see if he is sensitive to the curry comb or truly sore.”
The back and girth area are spots we’re used to checking, as we ensure we have a clean, injury-free canvas for placing tack. Some parts of the horse, however, might get overlooked, say our sources. Here are four crucial areas to include in your grooming routine.
Clear Eyes and Nostrils
As prey animals, horses rely on sight and smell to sense danger. While the eyes and nose are critical to horses’ survival in the wild, we often don’t consider their importance as we groom our domestic horses. In America it’s customary in many disciplines to shave eye and muzzle whiskers closely, a practice Corcoran says is not allowed in Europe.
Virginia-based practitioner Eleanor Lenher, DVM, encourages riders to only trim and not shave the eye or muzzle whiskers. Removing these wispy hairs—especially around the eyes—interferes with the horse’s ability to ‘feel’ his environment.
“I used to do this, and most show people do this,” she says. “Trimming these too short can increase the horse’s chance of eye injuries. If your horse is kept exclusively in a stall (and that is not a good thing, either), then you can get away with shaving these areas, but be cautious.”
Trimming is often the most thought people give to “grooming” around the eyes and muzzle on a regular basis. But Corcoran says these two areas deserve regular attention.
Weepy, runny eyes become crusty when they dry. “Think about the crust that can form in your own eye. It’s uncomfortable,” she says. “It’s important to clean these areas, and they are often overlooked.”
Use a warm, clean sponge or rag to loosen and gently remove the discharge. If your horse exhibits chronic eye tearing or oozing, Lenher suggests having a conversation about it with your veterinarian. Even if an eye doesn’t seem painful, there might be underlying issues.
“Blocked tear ducts can cause a lot of discharge,” she says. “The discharge might cause the horse to rub his eyes, which can lead to injury.”
Corcoran uses the same approach when cleaning nostrils as she does with eyes. “I always keep a damp rag around and wipe the dirt out,” she says. “Dirt in the nostrils can be inhaled while the horse is working (and inhaled dirt can create or aggravate respiratory issues), so wiping it out reduces that risk.”
When it comes to the lower leg and hoof, Corcoran is a stickler for trimming the hairs around the coronet band. She keeps them trimmed neatly year-round.
“Longer hairs soak up hoof oil, and dirt sticks to the hair as soon as (the horse) steps into arena footing,” she says.
This becomes particularly messy for competitive horses or horses in training that work in arenas regularly. It can also be problematic for horses on turnout. When the hair soaks up a hoof moisturizer, for instance, dirt attracted to the conditioner creates a gummy, gooey residue in the hair that’s not only difficult to clean but also can cause skin problems.
Corcoran says using a pair of scissors or clippers to keep the coronet band hair trimmed is worth the effort and time saved in daily grooming. In addition to keeping this area tidy, she removes the long hair, or “feathers,” from the pastern area regularly to reduce the risk of pastern dermatitis (aka scratches), which trapped dirt and moisture can cause.
“I use No. 10 blades and go with the grain of the hair,” she says. “You don’t want a clip that is too close. It’s more tapering than shaving.”
And, of course, picking hooves is a daily must-do, says Lenher. “When you pick feet, you are running your hand down the leg and catch cuts, scratches, and ‘stuff’ on the legs,” she says. “You cover a multitude of areas by picking the feet. It lets me know if the feet smell, if there is any swelling on the legs, etc. There is a lot covered just picking the feet every day.”
The Nether Regions
Cleaning a male horse’s sheath (the pocket of skin that protects the penis) elicits mixed responses. “Cleaning sheaths makes me want to gag,” Corcoran says. Some people, however, become obsessed with the idea of needing to keep the area clean. Lenher has observed some horse owners cleaning their geldings’ sheaths every week.
“That is too often,” she says. “Once a month at the very most. But three to four times a year is fine.”
The most important reason to clean a sheath is to check for a “bean,” which is a collection of smegma, or accumulations of dirt and secretions, in the space at the tip of the urethra called the urethral fossa. A bean can cause pain and even infection.
Some horses end up with debris and smegma coating the inner sides of their hind legs, which is often what drives horse owners to overclean sheaths. Lenher’s horse falls into this category; while she describes the messy legs as “disgusting,” she doesn’t clean his sheath regularly. Instead, she cleans his legs.
For horse owners who do clean sheaths routinely, she recommends using a mild soap such as liquid Ivory dish soap. Commercial sheath cleaners are available and designed to cut through the greasy discharge. However, she has observed that these can cause irritation in some horses, especially with zealous use.
Not all horses are amenable to this task, either, and might kick in protest. For these sensitive horses, Lenher encourages owners to save the chore for their veterinarian.
“The veterinarian can sedate him for the procedure,” she says. “Many horse owners have their horse’s teeth done once a year. When they are sedated for that procedure, it can be a good time to clean the sheath, too.”
“If all of this is making you queasy, a once-a-year cleaning with the vet is more than adequate,” Lenher says.
Mares’ nether regions are far less complicated to clean than geldings or stallions. Hosing the teats and perineal area when you rinse or bathe your mare is a good starting place. As far as soaping and cleaning these areas, you can do so as long as you’re gentle and your mare is congenial to it. Just be sure you rinse the area thoroughly after.
“Some mares are very sensitive in this area and will kick, just like the boys,” Lenher says, noting that feisty mares might even need sedation. “So go slow to see what your horse tolerates.”
These areas need to be hosed off or cleaned three to four times a year or more, depending on the individual. But recognize that you can go overboard with mares, too.
With breeding horses, mares and stallions alike, a different hygiene protocol applies, so work with a veterinarian to determine the best frequency for them.
Other easily overlooked areas on your horse’s body include his elbows, under his jowls, and the midline of the abdomen. Keep an eye out for dirt or scruff here due to dirt accumulation or insect sensitivity.
Regardless of whether you ride competitively or recreationally, a horse’s tail needs attention.
“Nothing makes me sadder than horses with tree branches and debris in their tails and manes,” Lenher says. “Even if you don’t ride, they still need TLC.”
Tail care is largely based on personal preference. Lenher once rode with a trainer that forbade clients to brush out tails.
“We had to hand-pick the tails so they didn’t break and stayed full,” she says.
This approach is especially beneficial for horses with thin tails and manes. Detanglers and hand-picking keep it clean, tangle-free, and full. Some tails are even prone to dreadlocks. Frequent brushings keep unruly locks from becoming a matted mess. And when washing the tail, pay extra attention to the roots of the hair, on the dock, to check for parasites and skin problems, says Lenher.
The “ideal” tail length is usually discipline-specific, as is any shaping or pulling at the top. Corcoran explains that event horses tend to have shorter, cropped tails, whereas show hunters rarely trim their horses’ tails to maintain a natural look. Jumpers might trim their horses’ tails to the hocks, the fetlocks, or any point between.
“I think a banged tail on the back gives a good, tidy look, but it’s all personal preference,” she says.
Before cutting a tail, Corcoran reminds riders that a horse’s tail has a natural lift. To avoid cutting it too short or crooked, she recommends placing an arm under the tail and running your hands down to the point to trim. Ask a helper to safely hold the tail up in a similar fashion so you can take a step back and make sure it’s level.
Western and gaited show horses also have very specific tail care regimes, including the use of tail bags to preserve length and thickness. “Tail bags are a great way to protect tails, but they must be managed carefully,” says Lenher. “If you use a tail bag you must check it at least weekly to air the tail out and keep it clean and dry,” as well as ward off mold.
For disciplines that prefer longer tails or recreational owners who don’t compete, it can be helpful to trim a horse with a naturally long tail just to keep him from stepping on it and breaking the hairs.
Less Is More
Arguably, there’s nothing more beautiful than a horse that glistens in the sunlight. Recreational and competitive horse owners alike can achieve that sleek, polished look. It can be tempting to bathe a horse weekly and use finishing products to add shine, but Corcoran cautions that less is more.
“I think we oversoap and sanitize horses,” Corcoran says. “Think about the way they live in the wild. Knocking the dirt off on a daily basis, especially before a ride, is all they really need.”
At a top-level show jumper barn she’s affiliated with, riders and grooms hose horses daily and bathe them every two weeks to preserve the coats’ natural oils. She also avoids applying silicone-based sprays to horses’ bodies.
“(These are) meant for manes and tails,” she says. Try not to spray them on the body, because they can cause the saddle to slip, says Lenher.
Instead, when Corcoran needs a product to help remove stains or soothe sores, she reaches for witch hazel, a mild astringent that might have anti-inflammatory properties.
“For horses that are prone to hives, I’ll use apple cider vinegar,” she adds.
Routine grooming and attention to the details contribute to a finished, polished appearance. However, your horse’s ultra-sleek look starts with good nutrition and parasite control. A healthy coat glistens naturally, while an unhealthy coat will always be dull. Work closely with your veterinarian to develop a ration that supports your horse’s digestive health and to create a deworming schedule suitable for your horse. Then, just add the finishing touches for an impeccably turned-out horse.