Many horse owners groom their animals daily, especially when riding regularly or showing, and they use a wide variety of topical products--shampoos and hair conditioners, mane and tail detanglers, stain removers, coat polishes, fly repellents, etc. Jean Greek, DVM, Dipl. ACVD, a veterinary dermatologist at CARE (California Animal Referral & Emergency) Hospital in Santa Barbara, Calif., says horse owners often use anything and everything on their horses, sometimes without thinking about possible reactions or skin sensitivities. "Fortunately, there are not a lot of contact allergies in horses, compared to humans, but on occasion a certain product may be irritating to your particular horse," she says.
The biggest problem she sees in her practice is skin disease passed around by use of shared grooming tools. "A horse ends up with ringworm (a common skin infection caused by ringworm fungi--dermatophytes) or some other transmissible skin problem because owners have been sharing brushes, clippers, etc.," she says. "Ringworm, especially, can be readily spread. You may use a friend's equipment at a show and bring home ringworm to your farm or stable. Even a normal-looking horse can carry fungi on the skin; you may think you are borrowing tools from someone whose horse is perfectly healthy, and your horse develops ringworm."
Owners often try new products or something recommended by their friend, but he or she should test a small amount on the horse's neck to check for sensitivity before putting it all over your horse. Then if there's a reaction, it won't be made worse by a blanket or saddle pad rubbing it. "If your horse is sensitive, it won't affect his whole body," Greek notes. "If he does react, this doesn't mean it's a bad product; it just means your horse is sensitive. You might need to try several products before you find one that works best for your horse.
"Another issue is that people tend to use things on their horses that are harsh--that they'd never dream of using on their dog or cat--such as iodine-based medicated shampoos. Iodine definitely kills bacteria and fungi, but it is also hard on the skin," she says. "If the horse is already itching, anything with iodine in it may make him more itchy."
Some people dilute bleach for removing stains or treating a skin condition, but today there are better options.
"When I see a horse with an irritation reaction, it's frequently because someone used a shampoo and didn't get it all off," Greek says. "Thorough rinsing is very important, especially in places it's hard to get the hose, like right under the belly," she explains. Draft horses and Friesians with long hair on the legs need more rinsing to get all the soap out.
If you ever think a horse is reacting to a new shampoo or any other topical product, immediately rinse off as much of the product as possible with plenty of water. If you can dilute and wash away the irritating material, it won't cause further reaction.
"Contact reactions are uncommon and show up as redness or itching," says Greek. "The more serious cases show up as sores."
Read labels, especially if you know your horse is sensitive to certain ingredients. "I won't buy something if ingredients aren't listed on the label," she states. "Rules for listing ingredients for topical products are vague. If you bathe your horse with something that says it contains all natural ingredients, this doesn't mean it's safe. There are some very toxic natural substances. An example in California is Melaleuca. This is what tea tree oil is made from, and it's a very popular natural product, but a lot of horses are allergic to it."
Greek says it often surprises people to learn that natural products can be harmful. "Most things are well-tolerated by horses, and there are very few I'd recommend you stay away from, but the bottom line is that if a horse is allergic to one ingredient, it doesn't matter what the other 99.9% of the product is," she says. "Stay away from that ingredient in whatever product you use."
Read the fine print and make sure the product is adequately labeled. However, if it's not a prescription topical, it's not mandatory that everything be listed on the label.
"A client may ask if a certain product is safe to use, and I have no idea if it's not well-labeled," she says. "It's probably safe, but if your horse is sensitive to something, I'd hesitate to use anything that has some unknown ingredients."
Less is More
The most important thing when grooming is to keep your horse clean. Many people put more products on a horse than are needed or healthful. "If a horse has a specific skin condition, a medicated shampoo can be helpful, but otherwise just hosing him off to get rid of sweat and dirt is probably best," she says. This is less apt to destroy the natural oils on hair and skin than frequent washings with shampoo.
It's also good to brush a horse regularly, since this stimulates skin circulation for healthier hair and more production of natural oils, and it removes superficial dust and dirt. And you might run across a problem more quickly (or one you might not see otherwise), like small skin lumps or other signs of skin disease or parasites.
A Sampling of Products
Editor's Note: Inclusion in this section does not imply endorsement; this is a sampling of products from a large industry.
Corona Cornona has made award-winning products for more than 100 years. The company offers concentrated shampoos and mane-and-tail detanglers. The high-sudsing shampoo is pH balanced and gentle enough for daily use on horses.
eZall A convenient system for washing/shampooing your horse, the shampoo is applied with a foamer-applicator that connects to a water hose. The product mixes with water coming through the hose. "Start with the animal dry; don't wet it beforehand or this will dilute the product," explains Vicki Byrd, office manager for the company. "We recommend you spray one side of the horse, then apply the product to mane and tail, then spray the other side. Leave the product on the horse five to seven minutes, then remove the shampoo bottle from your hose nozzle with the quick release snap and rinse the horse.
"We also have Tail & Mane Treatment, for deep cleaning/conditioning on tail and mane--applied by hand with a squirt bottle," adds Byrd. "You first wet down the tail and mane, then work the product into the hairs." This removes the dirt, then you rinse it out. The product can also be used to pre-treat stubborn stains on the horse's body before you use the foamer applicator for applying the shampoo.
"Our Show-N-Go product is a conditioner, detangler, and shine enhancer," says Byrd. It helps lubricate and work out knots or burrs, but has no petroleum or silicone products so it doesn't leave the hair too slippery for braiding or for using a tail extender.
The company's multipurpose cleaner can be used on tack and some people use it on horses, but it doesn't have coat conditioners and is not as good for the skin. "It's safe to use, but dries out the skin if you use it very often; it takes out the natural oils," she explains.
Their shampoo is inexpensive. "You can wash a horse for 50 cents or less and get 50 to 65 washings per gallon since it only takes about 2 ounces per washing. It comes in several sized containers, including a 55 gallon drum for use in a wash bay." For more information visit eZall.com.
EQyss Grooming Products Don Van of EQyss says he originally made high-end human products for a salon. "I also had racehorses and decided to make products for my horses," he says. "We took human formulas and increased certain ingredients. Half the people who use my horse products use the same products on themselves." EQyss products are more expensive than some, because he says it costs more to make them.
"The reason people buy our products is because of the results they get, and that's because we don't use alcohol, silicone, or detergents," says Van. "We don't use anything that strips the hair of vitamins, nutrients, and natural oils, and we don't coat the horse with oil, wax, or powder. After washing the horse, you use our rehydrant spray that captures moisture from the air and binds it to the skin. This keeps the skin from drying out."
He also makes Survivor, a detangler. "One drop on mane or tail works wonders. Some of our competitors' products might do the same, but in two or three days it's all gunked up, in knots, and dirty again. Ours doesn't do that because of the way it's made. Other than our shampoo, there are no competitor products similar to ours. But we are not for everyone. You may not think you can afford what my products do, but you'll never say you don't like what they do," he says. For more information visit eqyss.com.
Double K Industries This company sells Horse Sense products, which include a variety of shampoo for horses: White Knight (for whitening and stain removal), Ultimate, and Emerald Black (for black or dark color--to eliminate red tones and sun fading). These shampoos contain coconut-based surfactants (wetting agents) for deep cleaning, and anti-static compounds that leave the coat shiny, soft, and manageable without attracting dirt, and they are easy to rinse out. For more information visit doublekindustries.com/pages/Horse-Sense.html.
Triple J Products These natural horse care products include citronella oil, soap, detergent-free shampoos, and conditioners. Examples are the oil-free Coat Sheen and Sheath Cleaner, Citronella Aloe shampoo (that won't strip natural oils from the coat), and Luster shampoo. For more information visit triplejproducts.com.
Other products include a wide variety of shampoos, conditioners, and detanglers. Cowboy Magic makes herbal blend shampoo and conditioner, and it offers a mane and tail detangler containing silk protein. For more information visit cowboymagic.com.
A line of "Me" products (Shine Me, for the ultimate "show" look; Condition Me, to enhance natural color and shine; Wash Me, a gentle shampoo; Moisturize Me; Detangle Me; and Clean Me, to remove stains and dirt when bathing is not an option) are available through connectivehorsemanship.com under "Products."
Some owners also use Citre Shine (for humans, available at grocery stores), which is similar to Cowboy Magic. Some spray manes and tails with Healthy HairCare Hair moisturizer (healthyhaircare.com), then brush them out with a body brush.
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.