Photos by Lesley Ward
A good collection of grooming tools and a lot of elbow grease will serve most of your horse-grooming needs, but when preparing for competition, photo shoots or other special occasions, soap and water are essential. Here are a few things to remember when bathing your horse.
- Bathe your horse sparingly. Frequent use of soap can remove too much of the natural oils of your horse's skin, called sebum, leading to a dull, brittle coats and dry skin. Reserve bathtime for occasions where it is necessary.
- Test the waters before a full-fledged bath. If your horse doesn't like to stand still while being sprayed with the hose, set aside some time to condition him to the experience instead of waiting until the day before a show to struggle through it. If possible, use warm water, which is more comfortable for your horse.
- A fairly inexpensive investment is an adjustable hose nozzle that has several different flow options for different uses, just like an adjustable shower head. Nozzles that are only on or off can often have a very high-pressure flow, which is uncomfortable for your horse. Not using a nozzle at all means you must either constantly make trips to the spigot or waste water by letting it flow while you're sudsing up your horse.
- You can bathe your horse in moderate temperatures, but be cautious and take wind chill into consideration if you will be bathing outdoors. If you decide to bathe your horse on a brisk day, be sure to towel him off right away and put a cooler over him while he dries so that he doesn't get chilled.
- If you have access to a wash rack, make sure your horse will stand quietly while tied there. Ideally, a wash rack will have non-slip rubber mats or a textured surface to prevent horses from sliding on the wet floor. If you don't have a wash rack or a safe place to tie your horse within reach of the hose, have a friend hold your horse while you bathe him.
- Before you do anything else, slowly and gently spray your horse around his lower legs to get him accustomed to the water. Even if you've bathed him many times before, an unexpected spray might startle him.
You Will Need
- Washrack, hitching post or a friend to hold your horse
- Hose with adjustable nozzle
- 5-10 gallon bucket
- Large sponge
- Horse shampoo
- Conditioner/conditioning spray
- Sweat scraper
- Towels and cooler (for cool weather)
Mane and Tail
Take your horse's tail and stand off to the side so you are out of the kick zone. Wet down the tail thoroughly, making sure to soak the hair down to the tail bone. You will probably have to work to get through a thick tail. Separate the hair to make sure you are getting beyond the surface.
Some horse owners and grooms use human shampoo or a mild dish soap such as clear Ivory to bathe their horses. These products won't harm a horse and are reasonably effective, but for the best results, you'll want a product that is formulated specifically for equine skin and hair coats. Horse shampoos are designed for the pH of a horse's skin, which reduces the risk of an adverse reaction, such as hives or skin irritation.
Read the label instructions. Some products need to be diluted before you use them, but others can be used full-strength in the tail. Apply the shampoo to the base of the tail and work your way down to the end. Really scrub the area around the tail bone to remove the deep dirt. Suds up the entire length of the tail, reapplying soap as necessary. Take your time when rinsing the tail to make sure you've done a thorough job. Soap residue left behind can dull the hair or become itchy on the tailbone.
Using a conditioner in the tail will make it even shinier and easier to comb through. There are several different types made just for horses, including leave-in conditioners, conditioning sprays and even serums like you would find at a salon. Any type will work and most can be applied to wet hair, but check label directions.
If you plan to put up your horse's tail in a tail bag make sure it is completely dry before braiding it up. A wet tail left wrapped up can develop a fungus and even cause hairs to fall out.
To wet down the mane, stand slightly in front of your horse's neck so that you are spraying back, away from his head. Thoroughly wet the mane down to the roots and then apply your soap or shampoo, working the product through the entire length of the hair. If you compete at shows where you will need to braid, don't use a conditioner on the mane as that will make it slippery and hard to braid. When you rinse, make sure again to spray away from your horse's head and be sure that he can't lower his head so far that soap can run into his eyes.
Washing the Body
Wet your horse's coat down thoroughly. You may choose to do one side at a time. Depending on your product's instructions, you will either need to dilute it in your bucket or apply it directly to your sponge. If you have a product that can be used full-strength, you can also use your hands to massage it into your horse's coat. Make sure you clean under the tail, between your horse's front legs and under his belly. These areas tend to collect dirt, but since they are not easily visible, they're easy to forget.
Owners of white, gray or pinto horses often use special whitening shampoos to get rid of stains and make the white coat brighter. These shampoos are usually blue or purple in color and are meant to be left on for a few minutes before rinsing. Don't let the shampoo sit for too long, though, or you may find your horse has a bluish tint.
If your horse is black or dark bay, there are also special color-enhancing shampoos for dark horses that are meant to help counter the effects of sun fading.
Again, rinse your horse's coat thoroughly to avoid leaving soap residue behind. Some horses are very uncomfortable when they are dripping wet, so use your sweat scraper immediately to remove excess water. Spray the coat with a coat conditioner for extra shine, but avoid the saddle area as these conditioners can make the coat very slippery.
If the weather is cool or breezy, towel your horse off and throw a wool or fleece cooler over him as soon as you have finished washing his body.
Washing the Face
Some horses tolerate having their faces sprayed with water, but most, understandably, will never willingly accept it. There are a few ways to work around this. The simple solution is to wet a sponge or rag and clean your horse's face that way. Most of the time, it's best not to use soap on his face, but if you must, just use a small amount of diluted soap and be very careful around his eyes. Use a clean, wet sponge to rinse off the soap, re-soaking it and repeating as necessary.
Alternatively, some horses will tolerate the hose on the "mist" setting. Use that to wet down his face, then towel him off. Use a damp rag to clean the nostrils, mouth, and inside the ears.
Cleaning the Legs
If your horse has dark or chestnut legs, cleaning them is fairly simple. Just use your soap the same way you did on the rest of his body, being sure to scrub behind the pasterns where mud often collects. Rinse thoroughly, and you're done!
If your horse has white legs, you can use a whitening shampoo to make his chrome really shine.
After cleaning the legs, carefully use a stiff-bristled scrub brush to remove any caked-on dirt on the hoof wall. While it is standard practice in some breeds and disciplines to smooth the hoof wall with sandpaper prior to showing, this can compromise the periople, the protective outer layer of the hoof. Applying hoof oil to a clean hoof will give it shine without doing any damage.
When your horse is clean and shining, the first thing he will probably want to do is roll in the sloppiest mud puddle he can find. If you are headed to a show the next day, consider putting him in a lightweight sheet to protect your hard work.
Liked this article? Here are others on bathing your horse:
Tips for Bathing Your Horse
On the Go Shampoo