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When is it ESSENTIAL to groom a horse?

grooming horse care horses Mar 08, 2021
Equiculture essential grooming article


What is ESSENTIAL grooming/clipping/trimming for a horse? - grooming means different things to different people and more importantly different things to you and your horse.

To you, grooming might be all about making your horse look as clean and tidy as possible. It also depends on what you do with your horse. Some people are happy for their horse to look like the horse in the photo below, others would be horrified. To your horse, grooming is about skincare, insect protection, bonding with herd mates etc.

This article should help you to put some things in perspective and to help you to think about the subject from the horse’s point of view as well as the human point of view.

Grooming means different things to different people and more importantly different things to you and your horse. This horse, no doubt, feels she has done a great job!

In the natural situation, horses take care of their own skin. They do this by rolling (which as well as having other benefits helps to remove dead hair and exfoliate the skin), rubbing on protrusions such as a low tree branch (for the same benefits as rolling) and by mutual grooming.

Rolling has many benefits as well as it helps to remove dead hair and exfoliate the skin.

Mutual grooming is where two horses use their front incisor teeth to rub/nip each other to reach the parts of the body that are difficult to reach themselves. This is literally a case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

Horses that live outside without rugs also benefit from the wind and the rain which helps to blow and wash out dead hair and skin.

As soon as we change the natural order of things, i.e. stable them, keep them separately (which we would not recommend for many reasons), put rugs on them etc. then we have to compensate for the fact that they can no longer take care of their own skin.

Mutual grooming is literally a case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

Grooming the unrugged horse that lives outside...

If your horse lives outside, in a herd situation, and does not wear rugs (and is therefore benefiting from mutual grooming sessions with other horses as well as being able to benefit from rolling and rubbing, wind and rain) then the only grooming you need to do is just before you ride him or her. In fact, more grooming than this, especially in winter, will not be good for them if that grooming involves brushing/washing out dust/dirt/oils etc.

Basic grooming involves brushing the whole of the body in the direction of the hair growth to remove mud and dust, picking out the feet and maybe tidying the mane and tail with a brush.

You need to make sure that the areas that the tack will sit on the horse are clean and free from any dirt/grit etc. Other than that you only have to do the minimum grooming required to make the horse look tidy enough to ride.

Unfortunately, in modern culture, a 'dirty' horse can be regarded as an uncared for horse. Lay people and other horsepeople alike can sometimes be judgemental about a 'feral' looking horse when in fact that horse is likely to be 'happier' and less stressed than their pampered cousins that wear numerous rugs and are fully stabled.

Try not to give in to peer pressure if you know you are taking good care of your horse but that does not fit in with what others think is good care.

Brushing leaves the essential oils in the coat whereas washing (hosing/sponging) does not (especially if you use detergent), so limit washing if your horse lives outside without rugs - especially in winter to the point of no washing other than maybe a quick sponge down (with no detergent) in the saddle area after riding if they are sweaty.

In summer, after exercise, any sweat can be removed with a wet sponge or a hose (no detergent or a very mild detergent). There is no need to wash the whole horse, just the sweaty areas. After scraping the water off and/or rubbing with a towel the horse can then be put back out to roll.

Grooming is also a good chance to look over your horse for any injuries or indeed anything unusual such as lumps, bumps etc. So if you do not ride your horse (and are therefore not grooming) make sure you regularly (preferably daily) run your hands over them to check for any irregularities.

Your horse might appreciate being massaged/groomed with something like this (below) from time to time. It all depends on how much mutual grooming they are able to partake in with their herd mates and how much you miss grooming your horse!

This kind of tool is also useful when your horse is shedding their coat. These days there are some great shedding/grooming tools available. Most horses really enjoy being groomed at this time of year as they love to get rid of that old coat. This is also a great opportunity for 'bonding'.

Be aware that during grooming sessions some horses may attempt to groom you with their teeth because this is how they tell other horses where to scratch when mutual grooming. Don't take this the wrong way and tell them off for biting, just push their face away gently but firmly.

A horse that is living outside does not necessarily have to have their feet picked out every day. It is quite natural for soil to build up in the hooves. Just before you ride you can pick out the hooves though. Hoof dressings are not usually necessary and can actually cause problems in a pastured horse as they prevent the hooves from absorbing moisture from the grass (such as the dew in the morning).

For special occasions (in the warmer months), when you want your horse to look smarter you can wash him or her the day before (but again do not use strong detergent) and put a well-fitting lightweight cotton rug on for the night (in summer). This is far preferable to a horse having to wear a rug all the time just for the odd occasions when he or she needs to look clean and tidy. Or better still, wash the horse on the morning of the event and put the cotton rug on then. Either way, you will find that the horse looks smart enough for the day.

Remember: a healthy horse shines because they are healthy, not from being constantly rugged.

Grooming the confined or rugged horse

When horses are kept on their own (definitely not recommended) and/or permanently rugged (not recommended either) then grooming becomes especially important because the horse cannot take care of their own skin.

In this case, a horse needs daily grooming sessions. Otherwise dead skin and hair build up and cause discomfort and skin problems. So once a day the rugs should be removed and the horse should be given a good and thorough grooming, starting with a stiff bristled brush (to remove dead skin and hair and to make up for the scratching and rubbing etc. that a natural living horse partakes in on a daily basis) and finishing with a softer brush to remove dust.

The massage/grooming tool pictured above comes into its own for a stabled horse. Most horses in this situation will really appreciate a daily session with this.

Unfortunately in modern (commercial) stables thorough grooming is rarely done because it takes time (and 'time is money'). So nowadays stabled horses, are more likely to simply be hosed after exercise. In racing stables it is still a custom to allow them to roll in sand after hosing which is a good thing.

If you can, try to fit a daily grooming session in for your horse because a stabled/rugged horse needs the stimulation to their skin.

Also remember that your horse needs to behave like a real horse and allow them to roll in sand/dust or mud from time to time for the sheer pleasure it brings. This can be done when the horse is sweaty after work. The horse can then be cleaned up if you so wish.

Horses that are confined are more prone to hoof problems. The hooves tend to suffer because the horse is standing around in manure and urine. Even in a well-managed clean stable the hooves tend to end up packed with manure for much of the time.

This means that confined horses are more susceptible to conditions such as thrush in the hooves. The hooves of a confined horse should be picked out regularly (at least once a day) and washed (with water and a mild detergent) from time to time.

Opinions vary enormously when it comes to using hoof oils etc. Unless the horse has a particular problem and your vet/farrier recommends a certain product then it is usually best to leave well alone.

Washing and hosing...

Keep in mind that washing and hosing can remove essential oils from your horse's coat. So a horse that lives 'au natural' should not be washed too frequently otherwise the natural waterproofing agents in their skin will be removed.

Do horses enjoy be washed? We will never know for sure but while some horses seem to enjoy being cooled off with water in hot weather they do not seem to enjoy being 'power hosed' with cold water on a cold day (not surprisingly), so keep this in mind.

We tend to hose horses because it is quick and easy (compared to grooming). Most horses would probably prefer a good groom because it is closer to what horses do to themselves and each other if given the opportunity, so aim to not overdo washing/hosing and spend some ‘quality time’ by grooming your horse instead.

Responsible clipping and trimming...

Clipping, which is where all, or specific parts of the body of the horse are shaved, is usually carried out in the winter months when the horse has a longer thicker coat. When a horse is exercised in the winter months the extra coat causes heavy sweating.

This in itself is not too much of a problem; horses are meant to sweat, although they would not usually sweat as much as they do from being worked. The problem is that drying the horse is difficult, especially as the weather is usually cold (in winter). Thus the horse can get very chilled if they are turned out wet.

If the horse lives outside without rugs then he or she needs to be dried properly before being turned out unless it is still early enough in the day (and the weather is mild enough) for the horse to be turned out without risk.

So exercising a horse later in the day in winter, can become problematic for an owner with an unrugged horse.

A healthy horse can cope with cold weather as long as they are dry. Being cold and wet (whether it be rain or sweat) means that they can become too cold.

If a horse is clipped then rugs may become necessary to make up for the hair loss (it all depends on the style of clip).

If a horse is only partially clipped (such as just under the neck and belly) then rugs may not be necessary (but the horse should have access to shelter). Indeed, you may consider doing this so that your horse loses a little weight over the winter months and comes into the spring a little lean (as they would in the wild). This can be a good laminitis management strategy, (but remember, they should have access to shelter).

What is too much?

Trimming the muzzle whiskers, the eye whiskers and inside the ears is should definitely be avoided and the good news is that opinion is now starting to change. In fact, rules and even laws are starting to change. Have a look at this article

A horse needs these important whiskers and hair. The whiskers help a horse to ‘feel’ (in much the same way that a cat uses its whiskers to feel) and the hair inside the ear helps to keep dust and water out of the inner ear. It is easy to get carried away and trim these important structures but they should be left alone.

I hope you have enjoyed this article, it is one of the Equiculture Essentials articles for members of our Facebook Group for novice horse riders and owners (there are also lots of equine professionals, as well as ourselves, to give help and advice) - anyone can join: - hope to see you there :)

Jane xxx

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