Horse grooming 101: A guide for beginners
When you’re getting into riding, whether casually or training for shows, you will be introduced to the task of grooming a horse. This is the care routine that all riders should carry out to inspect and clean their horse on a regular basis, ensuring they’re happy and healthy.
Grooming is somewhat of a rite of passage for new riders, as you learn why it’s important to care for your horse’s wellbeing and hygiene. It also plays a big role when getting them ready for events, as you want them to feel relaxed and look their best.
However, when you’re a beginner, it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to horse grooming. In this guide, we’ll investigate the benefits of grooming before helping you to put together your grooming kit and taking you through how to groom a horse step by step. We’ll also provide tips for washing and grooming a horse for a show.
Why groom a horse?
Regularly grooming your horse is an essential part of equestrian care. It’s a chance for you to connect with your horse and make sure that they are healthy, happy, and ready to go for a riding session. The reasons for grooming a horse don’t end there, however, as you’ll see from the benefits that we’ve listed below.
Reasons for grooming a horse
- Grooming is natural for horses: When horses are living outside in a herd situation, they groom one another naturally, but stabled animals don’t see this benefit. Therefore, you will be replicating an essential process for your horse and probably doing an even better job.
- Improves skin and coat health: By brushing your horse during grooming, you are stimulating blood flow to the skin, which helps to keep the skin in good condition. You are also promoting the release of essential oils that result in a lustrous coat. In addition, you will be massaging large muscle groups to keep them relaxed and supple.
- Decreases the chances of skin issues: By regularly cleaning your horse’s coat and hoofs, you will be helping them to avoid health issues like thrush, rain rot, and scratches.
- Ensures chafing does not occur beneath tack: When you groom your horse before riding, it ensures that their coat is clean, which, in turn, reduces the chances of chafing once you put on their tack and head out. This means that their riding session will be nice and comfortable.
- Allows the rider to spot the first signs of serious health issues: Spending time grooming your horse on a regular basis means that you will be much more likely to spot potentially serious health issues or injuries before they become a major problem. You can then seek veterinary care while the condition is easily treatable.
- Increases the bond between horse and rider: For a herd, grooming is a social action that sees the horses caring for each another. By performing it yourself, you will begin to develop a real sense of trust between you and your horse as they become comfortable being in your presence. This will have benefits for your riding, too, as your horse will gradually become more responsive to your instructions.
- Improves their mood and wellbeing: Like humans, horses are emotional animals, and a grooming session can help them to relax and feel happier. A horse that is in a good mood is always going to be a better ride than one that’s feeling scared or stressed.
- It’s an opportunity to run through some exercises: Depending on your schedule, you may not have time to ride every day. However, a time-efficient grooming session can give you an opportunity to practise standing ground exercises with your horse, such as neck flexions, carrot stretches, or leg extensions, which can boost flexibility and balance.
- It’s good exercise for you: While grooming has many benefits for your horse, it will also deliver a healthy workout for you. Brushing every inch of a horse’s coat can take a bit of effort, so you’ll also experience a nice health and fitness boost.
How often should you groom a horse?
Many people aim to groom their horse at least once per week, which is usually enough to keep them happy and healthy, or before each ride, which ensures that their horse is relaxed and comfortable before heading out. However, there is no precise answer to how often you need to groom, and you may get different answers depending on who you ask. How often you groom your horse may also affected by considerations like your own schedule and how your horse is stabled.
On the other hand, if your horse lives outside in a herd environment, where they will be able to roll on the ground, brush up against trees, and benefit from mutual grooming from other horses, you may find that you only need to tend to them before a ride. In this scenario, you may only need to pay most attention to areas where the tack will sit on the horse to ensure they are comfortable.
It’s also vital that you don’t overgroom your horse, especially in the winter if they aren’t clipped and spend a lot of time outside, as this can strip their coat of natural oils and reduce its waterproofing abilities. This can put them more at risk when they aren’t rugged and spending time outdoors.
You will need to make sure you have the right horse grooming kit to ensure your horse is well looked after. Each tool is designed for a specific purpose, so it’s important to know what they are so that you can use them correctly. The result will be a well-groomed horse that’s healthy, relaxed, and ready for a good riding session.
Horse grooming brushes and equipment checklist
To help you out, we’ve put together a list of horse grooming brushes and equipment and their uses. We’ve broken this list into essential items, which you’ll need on a regular basis and should be the first tools you purchase, and occasional items, which you will need less frequently or seasonally. You’ll also find helpful pictures of horse grooming tools to help you identify them properly.
The essential kit
- Curry comb
- Dandy brush
- Body brush
- Metal curry comb
- Mane brush or comb
- Stable rubber
- Hoof pick
What is it? A curry comb is a short-toothed horse grooming comb made with rubber or plastic that is used to rub or “curry” the horse to loosen hair, dirt, and other particles, as well as stimulating the skin for healthy blood flow and the production of natural oils. There are also metal curry combs used for tougher tasks and brush cleaning purposes.
How is it used? The curry comb typically has a handle on its reverse that the rider’s hand can slip into in order to perform the circular motion needed to dislodge debris. It can also be used in quick, short motions following the direction of the hairs.
What is it? A dandy brush is a horse grooming brush that has long, stiff bristles in order to remove the dirt, hair, and other debris that has been brought up by the curry comb. These brushes are most commonly made with plastic bristles, though more expensive versions can have natural bristles, such as rice stems.
How is it used? The dandy brush is used in short strokes in the direction of the horse’s hair growth except for the flanks, where the hair grows in a different pattern. Some dandy brushes can have water applied to them and be used as water brushes to wet down hair.
What is it? A body brush is a soft-bristled horse grooming brush used to remove particles and grease from the coat, as well as to provide a soothing sensation to the horse. These brushes are made with either natural fibres, like horsehair, goat hair, or boar bristles, or from soft, synthetic fibres. There are also versions that are smaller and designed for use on the face.
How is it used? The body brush is used with long, sweeping strokes to smooth the coat and bring natural oils to the surface. Usually, these brushes need to be rubbed against a metal curry comb regularly to remove dust, so it doesn’t find its way back into the horse’s coat.
Metal curry comb
What is it? Metal curry combs are similar in design to plastic curry combs but are made with metal for a tougher finish. They still have rows of serrated teeth and a handle.
How is it used? The main reason they are essential is because they are used to clean other grooming brushes due to the effectiveness of their blades at removing debris from fibres. It’s chiefly for this purpose you’ll need one in your kit.
Mane brush or comb
What is it? A mane brush and comb are two horse grooming tools used to groom a horse’s mane so that it doesn’t get tangled or matted, or even to style it. Horses with shorter pulled manes will typically require a mane comb, which is wide toothed and made with metal or plastic. Longer lengths will need a mane brush that is quite similar to a human hairbrush in its design.
How is it used? Mane brushes are quicker to use as they can be utilised in a sweeping motion that quickly flattens the hair. A mane comb, on the other hand, needs to be gently dragged through the hair and can be used to thin the mane, by using a technique called mane pulling, in preparation for plaiting.
What is it? A soft sponge used to clean in and around the more delicate areas of a horse and to wet down and wash large areas of the body and the legs. It can also be used to clean wounds.
How is it used? The sponge is dampened and then applied to the horse. Delicate areas will require a small sponger and gentle motions, while washing down bigger areas can be done with a large sponge and broader actions.
Where is it used? A small, soft sponge should be used to clean the face, especially around the eyes, nose, ears, and lips. A separate small sponge should be used to wipe down the dock and groin. The body and legs can be tackled with a larger sponge.
What is it? A linen or terrycloth (or similar) grooming towel or sheepskin mitt.
How is it used? A stable rubber is typically dampened and used to give the horse’s coat a final polish after grooming. One can also be used to absorb moisture when drying or after a ride to remove any sweat, although the latter can also be performed with a sweat scraper.
What is it? A hoof pick is a hooked tool with a handle, usually made of metal or plastic, used to remove dirt, mud and stones that get packed into the sole of a horse’s hoof. They can also be used to remove hard-packed snow during the winter.
How is it used? The horse’s foot is lifted so that the bottom of the hoof is reachable, then the rider picks out the trapped debris from heel to toe. All four hoofs are cleaned before and after riding.
The occasional kit
What is it? A water brush is a soft-bristled horse grooming brush used to apply water to the horse. As it isn’t always necessary to apply water to the coat, you’ll likely need these occasionally.
How is it used? The water brush is used to dampen the coat, mane, or tail of a horse for a quick wash down or to flatten unkempt hair.
What is it? A sweat scraper is a horse grooming tool used for removing sweat or excess moisture from a horse’s coat. The most common types of scraper use a rubber blade either in an arc shape with a handle or in the form of a straight wand. Some models of shedding blades have a flexible sweat scraper function.
How is it used? A sweat scraper is used in a scraping motion across the horse’s coat, not unlike the action used when cleaning windows with a squeegee. This will remove the sweat or moisture trapped in the coat after exercise or washing.
What is it? A shedding blade removes loose hair from the horse’s coat during the season where their winter coat is being shed. A popular shedding blade design is a long, flexible metal blade with short, dull teeth. It has handles at either end that can be joined so the blade is looped for storage. Many shedding blades have a non-serrated side that can double up as a sweat scraper. There are now more options, without metal teeth, which should be considered if your horse has particularly sensitive skin.
How is it used? The shedding blade is designed to be dragged over the horse’s winter coat in spring, where the teeth will pull out the loose winter hair and leave the summer coat. It can also be used year round to remove encrusted mud from your horse. As the blade is metal, it should be used with the utmost care to avoid injuring the horse.
What is it? Fly spray is a specially formulated spray to repel flies from your horse through the spring and summer months when they become bothersome.
How is it used? The spray is applied to your horse’s coat after grooming to ensure they will not be annoyed, bitten, or infected by flies when outdoors.
How to groom a horse, step by step
Now that you know what you will need in a horse grooming kit, you can begin to learn the process of how to groom a horse. Here, we’ve put together a step-by-step guide horse grooming that will take you through the basics of a daily grooming routine. By following these stages, you can ensure your horse is happy and healthy, as well as looking their best.
1. Tie up your horse
Before you start your horse grooming routine, it’s best to tie them up to a post or beam to ensure that they stay in place. Even if your horse usually stays in one spot, they may shift their weight or move their feet during grooming, so it’s best to take this precaution.
Try to tie their lead rope to somewhere that’s above the height of their withers (shoulders) and only use a quick-release knot, also known as a “highwayman’s hitch” (you can find an easy tutorial here from Animated Knots). Ideally, your lead rope should attach to a piece of baling twine, attached to the beam or fence (or similar), as in an emergency, should the horse pull and get spooked, the twine can be broken.
2. Clean your horse’s hoofs
To start, you need to pick up your horse’s foot so that you can access it with your hoof pick. Stand at their side facing in the opposite direction to them and adjacent to the leg you want them to lift. Have your hoof pick ready in the hand furthest from them. Run your other hand down their foreleg until you are cupping the hoof, and slowly lean in until they shift their weight, which hopefully causes them to pick up their foot. If this doesn’t work, you can try gently squeezing the tendons above their pastern (the sloping part between hoof and fetlock).
Next, keeping the lifted hoof supported in your hand, use the hoof pick to gently remove any debris that is stuck to the bottom of their foot. Work from the back to the front, which will ensure you do not accidentally jab your horse’s leg, foot, or yourself, and clean out any dirt from around the frog (the fleshy “V”). If your horse is shoed, pick around the inside of the shoe to remove any pebbles, or, if your horse is barefooted, clean around the area where the bottom of the hoof meets the edge.
When you’ve got the hoof clear of debris, take a moment to check for any signs of injury or illness. A common problem is thrush, most obviously signified by a dark discharge from the frog area. Inspect the wall of the hoof (raised edge) for any cracks that may need attention from your farrier. Then, you can gently place your horse’s foot back on the ground and move onto the next one.
For more advice, take a look at our guide to horse hoof care.
3. Curry your horse
With all of your horse’s hooves picked and inspected, it’s time to pay attention to their body. Start by using your curry comb to loosen the dirt in their coat. As you go over their coat, you should see dirt particles rise up from the skin for easier brushing later.
Begin on their left side, working from ear to tail, avoiding the head, mane, tail, and lower legs, and taking care when going over bony sections of the shoulders, hips, and legs. Use circular motions, applying gentle pressure to dislodge any unwanted particles. Should your horse flatten their ears or swish their tail, they’re indicating their discomfort, so ease off and curry more gently. Use the opportunity to check for any skin lesions or wounds as you go.
4. Brush away dirt and debris
Now you’ve dislodged all the dirt from your horse’s skin, it’s time to brush it off. So, grab your dandy brush and use short flicking motions to whisk away the debris from their coat. You’ll need to cover the same areas you’ve just gone over with the curry comb, still avoiding the head, mane, tail, and lower legs. Begin at the neck and work your way around the horse, following the direction of hair growth.
5. Use a body brush to add shine
The last brush you’ll be using on your horse’s coat is the body brush, which has softer bristles that are perfect for adding a luxurious shine. Thanks to this gentler touch, it’s safe to use this brush on your horse’s head and legs, though you might need to use a smaller body brush for the face.
Starting at the head, work your way along the body and then down the legs. Use long, sweeping strokes in the direction of hair growth to whisk away any particles left by the dandy brush and to smooth down the hairs. Take care to use shorter sweeping strokes on the lower legs just to make sure that your horse is nice and comfortable.
6. Pay attention to sensitive areas
After grooming your horse’s coat, you’ll need to clean the sensitive face and dock (under tail) areas. Use a dampened sponge or stable rubber cloth to gently wipe around their eyes, ears, and muzzle, taking extra care not to cause discomfort. It’s also worth checking for any signs of eye infections, like excessive tearing, swelling, or redness, as well as checking your horse’s ears for lodged dirt or seeds. Be careful when cleaning or handling the ears, as some horses are very sensitive.
Next, you’ll need to wipe your horse’s dock area beneath the tail. Be sure to use a different sponge or cloth for this area for hygiene reasons, and take care to be very gentle with this sensitive area.
7. Comb through the mane and tail
To get a flowing, shiny mane and tail, you’ll need to carefully detangle and comb them. Begin by working through the worst snags in the mane with your fingers, getting them separated as best as possible. Then, use your mane brush to straighten out the hairs, working on small sections at a time and from the bottom upwards. An effective method is to gently grasp the top of the area you’re working on with one hand and run the brush or comb through the hairs with the other. This should avoid any tugging.
When you are doing the same with the tail, you need to stand slightly off to the side, pulling the tail gently towards you. This will ensure that you’re out of kicking range should your horse get spooked. Depending on the condition of your horse’s tail, you can also consider using a stiff-bristled brush to brush through the mane and tail.
How to wash and groom a horse for a show
A regular grooming routine should keep your horse well turned out on a day-to-day basis, but if you intend to start eventing or enter dressage or showjumping competitions, you will probably want to give your horse a more thorough wash and groom before the show.
This process will probably be a bit more thorough than your regular horse grooming routine, and will likely involve bathing your horse, and maybe plaiting their mane and tail. To get you started, we’ve provided a few tips on getting your horse looking their best.
How to wash a horse
At its most basic, bathing a horse can involve wetting down their coat with a hose or sponging them down, which can often be enough to clean mud or grime. It’s also common for them to be hosed to cool them down after a heavy workout. But, as horses do not naturally seek out running water, you may have to train them to accept washing or introduce it gradually, especially if using a hose.
However, if you are going to enter them into a show, you’ll probably want to give them a thorough scrub and shampoo to ensure their coat is pristine. Before you get started, you will need to assemble a few items to make sure you can do a good job:
- A few large sponges
- A scrubbing mitt
- An equine-friendly shampoo
- An equine-friendly mane & tail conditioner
- A sweat scraper
- A few large towels
- A hose
- A large bucket
When choosing a shampoo, there are a couple of things to consider. Firstly, like humans, horses have allergies, so before applying it to all of their coat, you will want to do a patch test on their skin to see if a shampoo can be used safely. If there’s not a reaction after one day, you can go ahead.
Additionally, non-conditioning soaps have a tendency to dry out the skin, which can become an issue when tack rubs against their coat. So, try to use a conditioning shampoo if possible, and don’t leave it to sit on your horse’s skin for a long time.
1. Rinse your horse
Before you start the wash, be sure to curry and brush any debris from your horse’s coat. Next, either start up your hose pipe or fill a bucket with moderately warm water so the wash will be comfortable. Then, you can begin to rinse the coat with the hose or apply water with a sponge for a pre-rinse. Start at the feet and work upwards and outwards, taking care to avoid the head. You can then apply water to the underside of their body, under the tail, and between the legs, before finally wetting the mane and tail.
2. Lather your horse
Now, we can create the shampoo lather. Empty your bucket if you’ve been using it for the rinse, and refill it with more warm water and drop in a sponge. Add shampoo and swirl until the water starts to foam to create suds, then apply the sponge to your horse’s coat in a circular motion from the neck backwards, then move onto the legs and underside. Soap up a second sponge and use it for the under-tail area.
Next, you can shampoo the mane and tail. You can apply some soap to your hand and use it to work through the mane, wetting it enough to work up a lather. The easiest way to wash the tail is to dunk it in the bucket of soapy water and then work through the hairs root to tip. Lastly, get a scrubbing mitten and go over the whole body, making sure the shampoo is scrubbed in.
3. Rinse again
Following the same process described in step one, start to rinse of all the suds once they have been scrubbed in. Take care to wash away any shampoo residue from the coat, particularly the stomach and back, as leftovers can be irritating to your horse. Gently rinse the mane and tail, making sure there is no residue left behind. At this point, you may wish to add some mane and tail conditioner to your horse’s mane and tail to avoid breakages and keep them soft and silky. Leave this in, whilst you finish sponging your horse’s head, to get the benefit of the conditioner soaked in.
4. Wash the head
To wash your horse’s head, apply some fresh warm water to a sponge and wring it out so it’s not too saturated, then gently wipe down the head and face, avoiding the eyes. Repeat the process with a soapy sponge, then repeat yet again with the water sponge for a rinse. You should also rinse the mane and tail out if you have used conditioner.
5. Dry your horse
Lastly, you’ll need to dry your horse. While they will of course dry out naturally, it’s important to let them feel as comfortable as possible after washing. Begin by using your sweat scraper to scrape your horse’s body, following the direction of hair growth from the neck backwards. This motion is very much like as if you were using a squeegee on a window and will remove most of the excess water. Use a dry sponge to absorb moisture from the legs and other delicate areas, as they’re too sensitive for the scraper. You can then gently pat towel-dry the head, ears, body, and legs.
After the horse is just slightly damp, you want to let him completely dry off. First, you should walk him for about ten minutes just to get his circulation going and to warm his muscles up. After that, if it’s a warm, sunny day, you can turn him out. If it’s cold outside, very windy or cloudy, then put a light, breathable blanket on him and keep him inside.
How to style a horse’s mane and tail for a show
When you’re entering an event, dressage, or showjumping competition, one of the first things the judges and audience will notice about your horse is the look of their mane and tail. That’s why many competitors put lots of effort into making sure they are conditioned and styled to perfection.
When it comes to choosing a conditioner, you can choose one that’s applied and rinsed out when the hair is damp or a leave-in product that is simply combed through. Some people use a combination of both, topping up with leave-in conditioner on the night before or morning of the event.
To apply a wash conditioner, you should do so whilst washing your horse. For most products, you will comb the conditioner in from root to tail and leave it in for around 15 minutes before rinsing it out. If your horse has particularly dry hair, you will need to apply the conditioner more often. A leave-in conditioner is typically found in a spray format and can be applied after your horse has been bathed.
Lastly, you’ll have the option of plaiting your horse’s mane and tail for competition. This is done by many dressage riders as they think it enhances their horse’s appearance, but it isn’t compulsory. It’s advisable to experiment with different plaits in advance of any show so you can work out if you like the look on your horse or not.
Traditionally, horses with plaited manes and tails receive an odd number of plaits, most commonly 11 or 13 to get a good length. However, bear in mind that the more you add, the longer your horse’s neck will appear, so it’s worth taking their body shape into account and choosing the right amount.
More questions on grooming?
Why not take a look at our recent series Alan Davies Masterclass with NAF – where super groom to the stars, Alan, takes us through some of the questions he gets asked frequently. Including mane and tail care, haynets and feeding routines.
Grooming is essential for keeping them healthy and happy and for deepening your bond. We hope this guide to horse grooming has given you a good idea about what horse grooming tools you need and how to them properly, as well as the best method.
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