Show Prep Tips Designed to Keep Your Horse Healthy
You can spruce your horse up for a show without hindering his long-term health.
You've been training and practicing for months. Your mare is right where you want her to be, and now it's time to get to the show and give her a chance to strut her stuff. But you can't just show up at the show like you do when you practice. You need to primp, groom, tweak—anything you can think of to make her look absolutely stunning. But are there long-term effects? Could you be doing something that might not be in your horse's best interest?
Verena Affolter, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECVP, of the University of California, Davis, thinks so. Affolter has lectured on skin pathology, and she says that sometimes grooms and owners primp without realizing some long-term effects. Here are some specific things she says to keep in mind.
Those Wispy Whiskers
The horse's whiskers, Affolter says, act as his receptors. So cutting them too short might impede your horse's performance.
"The whiskers may not look nice," she explains, "but they do have a definite function. They help orient the horse. It's okay to cut them back, but cutting them completely off may not be doing your horse—or his performance—any favors."
Another thing that's often trimmed for aesthetic reasons is ear hair. This can also pose a problem, depending on where you live.
"In my opinion," Affolter continues, "it's not a good grooming practice to cut the hair really short in the ear. Again, it's okay to shorten it, but these hairs have an important purpose. They protect the ear from mosquitoes that can get in there and bite the horse. It's a lot more difficult for insects to get in there when there's more hair."
Sometimes when grooms or owners see chestnuts on the legs, their first instinct is to reach down and pull them off. While this can be fine, trouble occurs when the chestnuts overgrow and dry out. In this case, Affolter recommends you have your farrier trim them during his next visit.
"When you pull off those really long chestnuts," she says, "you can go too deep and hurt the horse." Best bet? Keep the chestnuts in check all year round to prevent last-minute stress at the horse show.
What About Baby Oil?
It's not unusual to see groomers and owners applying baby oil to horses to increase their sheen. But baby oil can clog pores and trigger skin irritations. If you are accustomed to using baby oil, don't worry. Just remember to use light oil.
"I think a really fine baby oil doesn't do too much harm," Affolter adds. Like anything, excessive applications of baby oil could cause problems.
Gesundheit! (Oh, My Allergies!)
Some owners and groomers might think is always a good idea is to use products that are organic because they won't cause problematic reactions. Not true, Affolter says.
"But plants are chemicals as well," she explains. "You can have an allergic reaction using natural products. It's not a matter of right or wrong—but it doesn't give you a free ticket that nothing will happen. Ninety percent of the time you'll be fine, but you (and your horse) are still susceptible to an allergic reaction."
An easy way to avoid this is to do the standard test—apply a small amount of the product to a small area on the horse. If the area does not show signs of reaction after 48 hours, you should be okay. But like anything else, moderation is key.
To be extra sure that your horse is safe, you can take him to an equine dermatologist and have a test conducted. Chances are, you'll find the extra money is well worth the peace of mind.
Horses which are in the full swing of a show are sometimes left with tack on for long periods of time. This could cause skin and safety problems, so it's best to take off all the tack.
"Everything that you would leave on over a long period of time isn't good," Affolter says. "Boots really should be taken off after the horse is worked. If you leave them on, especially in the summer, it gets really hot underneath. I don't think I'd leave on heavy-duty boots over 24 hours."
And what about tack during the show itself? Again, this delves into the foggy area of show dress and working dress. But there are ways around it.
For instance, pads that are designed to prevent slipping might be desirable in the winter, as they help warm up the horse. In the summer, however, they can cause him to get excessively hot. For long-distance or endurance riders, Affolter recommends a cotton pad that breathes.
"Go ahead and put the show pads on top of the functional pad," she says. "But make sure it's friendly to the skin. Also, be sure the detergent is completely washed out of the pad, as it can really cause some nasty irritations."
If there's anything that makes Affolter cringe, it's when horses' tails are injected to keep them from swishing during a show. (This is prohibited by many show organizations.)
"The horse is no longer able to swish the tail, which can be a real problem in areas with insects," she says.
The bottom line? When it comes to form versus function, it's usually best to think long-term and go for function.
Feet, Feet, Feet
"A horse is only as good as his feet." Of course, this saying is just as important in the show circuit.
Ada Gates knows this as well as anyone else. This farrier not only ran her own farrier business and blacksmith shop with her husband, Harry Patton, in Monrovia, Calif., but she also served as the "horseshoe inspector" for the annual Rose Bowl Parade. Seeing everything from chains on feet to feet held together with duct tape, she maintains that the key to good hoof health—both cosmetically and functionally—is consistent, quality maintenance.
"It all starts with good cleanliness," she says. It might sound elementary, but she maintains that the key to keeping grooming woes to a minimum is to start with dry stall flooring that is kept free of excess urine or manure.
"Check that stall cleaners clean straight down to the solid floor," she says. "Often, bedding that is dry on top and wet or soiled underneath contributes to white line disease or thrush." And those are nasties you can live without.
Wash Rack Woes
You no doubt need to clean and bathe your horse. Let's face it—horses get quite dirty. But giving a simple bath can't cause problems, can it? After all, it's the basic first step to getting your steed ready for the show.
"Some hair products have alcohol in them," Affolter warns. "They may make the tail fluffy for a short while, but then they dry it out. A fine moisturizer or oil base is nicer for the hair. Over-shampooing your horse can also be a bad thing. Especially in the winter, soap can take the natural fats out of the hair and diminish the insulation properties."
For winter workouts, the best bet is to let your horse's sweat dry naturally, brushing out the dust and debris afterward. Leave the baths for shows.
And if you're thinking of using fancy human products on your horse, think again. Human hair products have been formulated specifically for a human pH. "I'd stick to the horse-formulated products," Affolter says.
The bathing woes don't stop with the hair; they can also put excess moisture in the hoof.
"Horses that are left in wash racks can receive too much water in their hooves," Gates says. Avoid too much moisture and a soft foot by getting your horse out of the wash pens as soon as the bath is over to allow his feet to dry.
The Bottom Line
It's true that there's a lot to think about before donning your show duds the next time. Allergies or no allergies? Cotton or felt? Supplement or ointment? And while many of these tips might seem like simple common sense, every owner has his or her own idea of how to best care for a horse and what makes him shine.
No one knows your horse like you do, but some tips from the pros might not be a bad idea to make sure your horse is in tip-top shape. After all, no one needs a preventable crisis before a show. Perhaps these tips can help you prevent one and still look good in the process.
About the Author
Katherine J. Meitner is a free-lance writer located in Milwaukee, Wis., and former associate editor of the American Farriers Journal. Her work has appeared in Western Horseman, Green Magazine, American Farriers Journal, and No-Till Farmer.
POLL: Enriching Your Horse's Environment