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When is it ESSENTIAL to groom a horse?

Mar 08, 2021
When is it ESSENTIAL to groom a horse?

Grooming means different things to different people and, more importantly, to people and horses.

To your horse, grooming is about skincare, insect protection, bonding with herd mates etc. 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 below, while others would be horrified.

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 your own.

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


How do horses take care of their skin in the natural situation?

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

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


What is mutual (allo) grooming in horses

This 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. This is 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 skin.

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


Grooming the unrugged horse that lives outside

Suppose your horse lives outside, in a herd situation, and does not wear rugs (and is therefore benefiting from wind and rain, mutual grooming sessions with other horses and being able to roll and rub). In that case, the only grooming you need to do is before you ride them. 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 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 ensure that the areas where the tack will sit on the horse are clean and free from dirt/grit, etc. Besides that, you only have to do the minimum grooming required to make the horse look tidy enough to ride.



Unfortunately, a 'dirty' horse can be considered uncared-for in modern culture. Inexperienced and experienced horse people alike can sometimes be judgemental about a scruffy-looking horse when that horse is likely to be less stressed than their pampered cousins that are stabled and wearing numerous rugs.

Try not to give in to peer pressure if you know you are taking good care of your horse, but that does not fit 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 a quick sponge down (with no detergent) in the saddle area after riding if they are sweaty.

How much should you groom a horse in summer? 

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 rubbing with a towel, the horse can be put back out to roll.

Grooming is also an excellent chance to look over your horse for any injuries or anything unusual such as lumps, bumps etc. If you do not ride your horse, 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 can partake in with their herd mates and how much you miss grooming your horse!

This tool is also useful when your horse is shedding their coat. These days there are some great shedding/grooming tools available. Most horses enjoy being groomed at this time of year as they love getting rid of that old coat. This is also an excellent 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; push their face away gently but firmly.


How can you make a field-kept horse look smart for an event?

For special occasions (in the warmer months), when you want your horse to look smarter, you can wash them 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 they need to look clean and tidy. Or better still, wash the horse on the morning of the event and put the cotton rug on. 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.


How often should you pick out a horse's feet if they live outside?

A horse living outside does not usually need to have their feet picked out daily. It is pretty natural for soil to build up in the hooves. Just before you ride, you can pick out the hooves. Hoof dressings are not usually necessary on a horse that is field kept and can cause problems as they prevent the hooves from absorbing moisture from the grass, especially the morning dew.


How often should you groom a stabled or rugged horse?

When horses are kept on their own (definitely not recommended) and permanently rugged (not recommended either), grooming becomes especially important because the horse cannot take care of their 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 daily) 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 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 be hosed after exercise. In racing stables, it is still a custom to allow them to roll in a sand roll after hosing, which is a good thing.

If you can, try to fit a daily grooming session in for your horse because a stabled and rugged horse needs 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.


How often should you pick out a horse's feet if they live inside?

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 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 on a stabled horse. Unless the horse has a particular problem and your vet or farrier recommends a specific product, it is usually best to leave well alone.


Washing and hosing a horse

Remember 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 being 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 not to overdo washing/hosing and spend quality time grooming your horse instead.


Clipping and trimming a horse

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

This 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 generally cold (in winter). Thus the horse can get very chilled if they are turned out wet.

If the horse lives outside without rugs, they need to be adequately dried 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 rain or sweat) means they can become too cold.



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

If a horse is only partially clipped (such as just under the neck and belly), 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 must have access to shelter).


Horses - what is too much grooming?

Trimming the muzzle whiskers, the eye whiskers and inside the ears should be avoided, and the good news is that opinion is now starting to change. Rules and even laws are beginning to change. Have a look at this article www.horseandhound.co.uk/news/horse-whisker-removal-banned-731272

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. A horse needs these important whiskers and hair. It is easy to get carried away and trim these essential structures, but they should be left alone.



If you enjoyed this article, check out the others on the blog. Also, make sure you sign up for the free mini-course called Horses, Pasture and Grazing and the free 23-page PDF called 10 common POSITION and BALANCE checks for riders


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