As the horse’s largest organ, the skin is a great indicator for overall health, and maintaining a good grooming regime will ensure your horse looks its best, no matter the weather.
Made up of two layers (the epidermis and the dermis), the skin provides a protective barrier to wind, rain and dirt, helps to regulate body temperature and maintains skin hydration. A daily grooming session not only gives you time to relax and bond with your horse, it also provides an opportunity to run your hands over your horse’s body, checking for lumps, bumps or any changes. It will also allow you to notice any sensitive areas that only become obvious when pressure is applied. The process of grooming does more than just remove dirt from the surface; the physical motion increases blood flow to the skins surface and effectively massages the horse’s muscles. You can also use the time with your horse to practice simple ground exercises like carrot stretches or neck flexion’s.
In the wild
Naturally, horses take care of their own skin by rolling; itching against low branches and trunks; and the exposure to the weather means the rain has a part in removing dead hair and skin. Living in the company of other horses, mutual grooming provides an excellent opportunity for horses to target areas of their body unreachable by rolling or rubbing.
However, as horses have become domesticated, they now live in environments detached from natural landscapes, with limited access to trees and in some cases, little or no company. In addition to this, many horses are rugged during all hours, further removing their ability to get rid of dead skin and a build up of hair. As we have essentially removed our horse’s natural ability to care for it’s own coat, it is vital that we provide the care instead.
Sharing isn’t always caring: Grooming kits ought to be individual to each horse, even if they are owned by the same person, as it will prevent the transmission of skin infections, such as rain scald and dermatitis.
Once a day, usually before exercise, a horse should have a good and thorough grooming session. Starting with a stiff bristled brush, which will remove dead skin and loose hair, you should move down the body, avoiding sensitive areas such as between the hind legs or face. Once the majority of the dirt is removed, take up a softer brush to remove the dust, again working from the head to tail.
When it comes to the mane and tail, conditioning sprays and detanglers are great to add shine and soften the hair before brushing. You should always start from the end of the hair to remove tangles before brushing through the length, which will reduce the damage caused by hair breakages. While many like to keep a tail plaited everyday to stop it becoming tangled, this should only be done in safe environments. If leaving your horse in the field or stable unsupervised, bare in mind a plaited tail can easily become stuck in places an unplaited tail would simply slip through, which can cause severe injuries as the horse tries to free itself.
Tools for the job
Made of rubber or plastic, a curry comb has short teeth and is usually the first tool to use. Used in a circular motion, it helps loosen dirt, hair and stimulates natural oil production in the skin.
Metal curry comb
With metal teeth, this comb is too harsh for using on most coats (usually reserved for caked-on mud or winter coats) and instead used for cleaning off other brushes.
The stiff bristles of a dandy brush are useful for removing dirt and hair, and can be used on the legs unlike the curry combs. Following the direction of hair growth, brushes should be used in short strokes from front to back.
Used to remove the finer particles and dust, the soft bristles of a body brush add shine to the coat and can be used on the horse.
Usually a cloth or sheepskin mitt, a stable rubber is used to give the coat a final polish and shine.
Tails and long manes should be brushed using a large brush that resembles a human hairbrush, or with a dandy brush. Shorter manes should be brushed with a wide-toothed comb.
Sweat scrapers come in all shapes and sizes, and are used to remove sweat or water from the coat.
Your grooming box should always have an assortment of sponges – small ones for the eyes, nose and lips, and a separate one for beneath the dock, as well as larger ones for cleaning the body and legs.
To get the best from your brushes, you need to keep them relatively clean – there is no point trying to clean a horse with dirty brushes! On a day-to-day basis, keeping your brushes clean is very simple – rubber curry combs can be knocked to remove the dirt, while bristled brushes can be cleared with a metal curry comb. However, to get rid of all the ingrained dust and dirt, it is important to wash your brushes regularly. The time you do this will depend on how mucky they become, but make sure you do this monthly at a bare minimum to ensure any bacteria build up doesn’t cause infections on the skin.
Most brushes come up good as new after a soak and scrub in wrarm water, mixed with a little mild horse shampoo if needed, and some are even machine washable! Make sure every brush is rinsed thoroughly and most dry best with the bristles facing down or to the side. Brushes with wooden handles need a little more care to stop the wet bristles damaging the wood, usually a wipe with a towel will keep the wood in good condition. If you do need to use a stronger detergent, always make sure you thoroughly rinse any residue from the brushes to ensure it doesn’t irritate the horse.
Time to shampoo
The natural oils in a horse’s coat keep them waterproof so it is important not to overwash or use harsh products when bathing your horse. For most, a rinse with water on sweaty spots will often be enough after exercise to help cool the skin and remove any sweat that may later cause itching. It is advisable to save the shampoo for times when turnout is more important, such as before competitions or hunting, ensuring you don’t unnecessarily strip the coat of naturally occurring oils.
Horse’s skin has different pH to humans, so using a human shampoo or washing up liquid may leave the coat dull and flaky. When looking for a good shampoo, search for the least amount of parabens and additives, as well as low foaming properties, as this will make the shampoo easier and quicker to rinse from the skin, which also helps reduce the risk of irritation.
Tricks of the trade
Keeping your horse’s skin shiny isn’t just about the amount of time spent brushing it – good nutrition is the key to getting a natural sparkle. As long as a horse receives all the required vitamins and minerals of a healthy diet, the shine should come. However, skin-improving supplements are available and many people add oil to the diet for the same effect.