Safe Use of Grooming Products

No matter how you use your horse, you want to enhance his natural good looks and keep his "outside" healthy. With a companion animal or sport horse, you also assume the role of equine beautician. Even if your horse never enters a show ring, you could be a big-time consumer of grooming aids. You can choose among hundreds of products, in the bottles, tubes, and cans packed on the shelves of your tack shop. Which ingredients do you want on your horse?

We'll explore the lotions, creams, and ointments you wipe, spray, or brush onto hair and hoof, along with grooming tools and beauty wraps. Although the substances might boast therapeutic benefits, they aren't in the same category as medications. And realize that even though these are cosmetic concoctions, anything you use on your horse can lead to harm.

Off The Shelf And Into Action

To groom your horse, you aim to clean, condition, polish, and protect his coat, skin, and hooves. Cleaning comes first. Before you reach for topical solutions, you clean with traditional grooming tools--curry, body brush, or a textured cloth. These hand tools remove dirt and scurf from hair and skin through pressure and friction. The massaging and stroking stimulate circulation.

You can save time by splurging for a specialized vacuum. Choose a model built for the rigors of sweeping dirt off the horse's coat.

Horses don't need to be bathed, but you probably include shampooing in your grooming regime. Like other grooming products, the shampoo you apply is a surfactant, or a surface-active substance. It cleanses by lathering and dispersing the soap evenly. A good equine shampoo cleans without removing natural oils of the skin. Some therapeutic shampoos might "degrease" an oily coat. Stain lifters remove brown blotches from light-colored hair.

To condition the coat, you soothe and moisturize hair and skin. Although a well-fed horse will have a shiny coat naturally, conditioning and polishing can make him gleam even more.

Conditioners might contain emollients, or agents that soften skin. These products also rehydrate, to replenish body fluids. Those for mane and tail will detangle twisted hairs.

To revitalize and rejuvenate hair and skin, you might choose a therapeutic conditioner. Some might be exfoliating, or remove dead cells from the skin.

After cleaning comes polishing. Increase the shine with "rubbing" (vigorous brushing or rubbing with a cloth). Use a finishing brush, rub rag, or grooming mitt to distribute oils throughout the coat.

Here you're faced with a barrage of brand-name products, all promising to make your horse shine like no other. The result of polishing is a haircoat (or hoof) that reflects light in an attractive luster. You also can apply cover-up products to alter the appearance of the color of hair or hoof, along with a gel or mousse to smooth and style mane, tail, and forelock.

Another aspect of polishing is trimming excess hair. You'll probably pick electric clippers to take hairs off the muzzle, ears, face, jawline, and lower legs. You might even shave the horse's body, shortening the winter coat to make him easier to cool out after exercise.

With the coat clean, conditioned, and polished, you'll feel the results of grooming by stroking the smooth hairs. Along with admiring the sheen of a finely groomed animal, you appreciate a pleasant fragrance. Brand names add fragrances to please the human, not the horse.

Products also protect from the effects of environment and insects. Sunscreens can shield the hair and skin from the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun. They have SPF ratings or contain PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid).

Insect repellents ward off flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and other bothersome creatures. Insects irritate the horse by landing on him, and their bites can sting or even inflame the skin. The horse reacts by rubbing to alleviate the distress.

In your grooming tasks, you look at the results on the surface. Yet what you do to the hair coat affects the skin as well, and contributes to its well-being.

Grooming helps you manage your horse's health. "We look at grooming as a part of groundwork," said Tom Tweeten, PhD, a biochemist with About the Horse Science, Inc. "You get a feel for the horse on the ground, before you ever get on its back. It's part of the warming up process."

So what's good, and what's potentially harmful? Time to read the fine print on product labels!

What's In The Bottle

You don't need to interpret every aspect of a product's formula, but you should examine the label. Because these aren't products intended for human use, manufacturers don't have to declare components. Some label their products with the list of ingredients, along with dosage and administration, and precautions. Other companies protect their trade secrets with vague statements (such as "patented ingredients") or no information.

Brand-name recipes are produced by combining materials of different chemical formulas. The resulting solutions are compounds.

Organic compounds include lipids (such as fats, oils, waxes, sterols, and triglycerides) and proteins. Your horse's living cells are made up of these organic compounds. His hair and hooves consist of the protein substance keratin.

As you read labels, consider the roles of ingredients. Each ingredient contributes a function, and the ingredient should be compatible with the hair's keratin structure. For example, does the product contain a solvent? The American Heritage Dictionary describes a solvent as "a substance in which another substance is dissolved, forming a solution; A substance, usually a liquid, capable of dissolving another substance."

Examples include alcohol, used as a solvent or cleaning solution, and glycerin, both a solvent and an emollient. Acetone can be used as an organic solvent.

Making a typical product involves extracting raw material to blend it into a formula. Many liquids begin with oil and water. With the popularity of "natural" products, you'll see essential oils as ingredients. These are distilled from a plant, and usually mixed with a carrier oil.

Citronella, from a tropical Asian grass (Cymbopogon nardus), is one such oil. The aromatic oil obtained from this plant is used in human and equine insect repellents. Cedar oil also adds a fragrance that can repel insects.

In conditioners, you'll see examples of humectants, or substances that promote retention of moisture. Glycerin is from glycerol, a liquid obtained from fats and oils. Cy Faries, of Exhibitor Labs, Inc., explained, "Glycerin is a wonderful humectant. Used in the same material with alcohol, you maintain the balance and still get rapid drying, as in hair spray."

Another popular moisturizing ingredient is aloe vera, from the plant Aloe barbadensis. Aloe is known for its soothing and healing properties. Surprisingly, nettle is another ingredient that soothes the skin.

You'll also see moisturizers containing oils from avocado, lavender, almond, rose, rosemary, pine, and wheat germ. Lanolin, fat extracted from wool, is another natural ingredient.

David Fletcher, of Unanimous, praised jojoba for its properties. "Jojoba is a therapeutic agent, which prepares skin for growth. It removes sebum. The skin retains proper moisture."

Vitamin E is added to moisturizers, and Panthenol (vitamin B-5) is used in repairing dry, brittle hair. Jim Cummings, of Cowboy Magic, explained, "Panthenol is vitamin B-5 made from rice bran pantothenic acid. Panthenol attaches to hair shaft barbs to fill in and add smoothness, plus other benefits." He also described silk protein: "A byproduct of vaporized silk molecules, recondensed into a liquid form to add strength, shine, texture, and ability to hold moisture."

Petroleum-based products also can function as emollients. Petrochemical, or a chemical derived from petroleum, doesn't mean harmful. Petrolatum, known as petroleum jelly, remains a staple for many uses. Mineral oil is an effective lubricant.

Cindy Carfore, president of Shapley's, described how an oil-based product balances a drying or healing action with moisturizing. "M-T-G has a drying agent and conditioning agents to keep the skin moist and conditioned. It protects against the elements that cause fungus." This conditioner is designed as a leave-in product, to condition the hair and skin.

The lubricant silicone comes from the mineral silica. Used on hair, this substance improves how hairs slide against each other, remaining slick and reflecting light. It also repels dust and dirt.

Shampoos are detergents, made of chemical compounds. Many contain sodium laureth sulfate and/or sodium lauryl sulfate. Both are derived from lauric acid, and they are found in top-quality salon products.

Cocamide is a detergent product, made with coconut oils and an organic compound, amine. You'll see cocamide MEA (made with the amine, monethanolamine) and cocamide DEA (with diethalolamine).

Products might contain astringents, to dry and tighten skin. Witch hazel can help relieve itching.

Antiseptic, antimicrobial, or antibacterial properties of some products can prevent or treat minor skin irritations. Examples of natural ingredients include thymol (of thyme oil), eucalyptol (oil from eucalyptus), and the popular tea tree oil (from Melaleuca alternifolia).

Pyrethins are compounds found in many fly repellents. They form the active ingredients of pyrethrum (from chrysanthemum flowers). One brand of repellent contains DEET, a colorless, oily liquid that earns its name from d.t., or diethyl toluamide.

Products benefit from added fragrances, to improve the smell of the formulation. Natural fragrances, such as verbena or chamomile, can please your nose without irritating the horse.

Lotions And Potions

You'll read confusing product claims as you explore brands. To stand out in the marketplace, companies present their product's features and benefits. Marketers want to convince you to buy the bottle, rather than the actual contents. Be a smart consumer by examining claims to separate objective fact from subjective opinion.

Some manufacturers have experience making human personal care products. You'll see the adjectives "human-grade" or "salon-quality" applied to equine products.

A relevant definition is "pH balanced" or "pH neutral." The pH value indicates acidity or alkalinity, with 7.1 as neutral. A horse's skin is in the range of 4.5 to 6, or more acid than alkaline. A high alkaline soap affects the skin's protective acid mantle. Some name-brand human shampoos are as high as 11.

You'll see the claim "mild but effective." As in the "gentle but spirited" horse for sale, a product must strike a balance between safety and action. You want to buy a product that works on your horse, without damaging hair or skin.

What if you want to color hair harmlessly? Try a tack shop alternative to the drugstore to match your horse's shade. Carfore described Show Touch Up as a temporary coloring. "It's a color pigment, not a paint or a lacquer. It coats the surface of the hair shaft, to cover temporarily a blemish or scar." This product washes out with soap and water, or, as in the case of the darker pigments, washing with baby oil. (A permanent dye would strip hair color.)

How do lotions and potions really work? Most often, the answer is subjective, as you won't be able to obtain proof. For example, you'll see combination products, such as a shampoo that washes in a fly repellent, or a fly repellent doubling as a sunscreen and also polishing the coat. You won't know how the product really works on your horse until you buy it and try it.

You might see the terms "harsh" or "gentle" to describe cleansing substances. A detergent, like the compound you scrub on your skin, is harsh on the skin. Soap, made from natural oils and fats, is most likely gentler than the sink cleanser or solvents found in dishwashing liquids. Propylene glycol, a shampoo ingredient, has been linked to sensitivity reactions in humans.

A product might coat the hair, or actually penetrate it. Faries explained how the body of the hair shaft, the cortex, is soft. He described the cuticle, or the sleeve around the cortex, as follows: "The cuticle is like snake skin, with embriations like scales. It's a tough material, and very flexible. It can bend without breaking."

He described how his color-intensifying Quic Color works by penetrating between the embriations, and through the translucent cuticle, refracting light outward. The result is a richer color to the human eye.

Fletcher explained how an agent can penetrate into the hair. He uses biotin in the product Restoration. "It's hydrolized, which means the molecular structure of the biotin ingredient has been reduced down to absorb into the cuticle layer. It stimulates the skin so the papilla of the hair will grow."

Fletcher added, "It's expensive to penetrate the hair shaft. It's cheap to coat it. A product may contain four ounces pure product, and the rest is filler."

As a consumer, you're bombarded with ads for "natural" formulations. What does a "natural solvent" or "99% natural" really mean? In some cases, either could represent plain water. And when you read "aloe-enriched," you might infer a thick gel of moisturizing aloe. The enrichment can be a very small percentage of this essential oil.

Investigate the facts behind "miracle" or "revolutionary." For example, just because a product has a connection with NASA doesn't mean it helps animals on Earth.

Find out which manufacturers maintain their own laboratories, and how they conduct product research. In most cases, research consists of testing the product on a range of horses. Research rarely is conducted according to scientific protocol.

You'll read lots of negative claims, too, as in "non-greasy" or "non-oily." Oil and grease imply messy, yet oils--especially the popular extracts from plants--are present in many products.

Equine Cautions

How much can surface treatments change the horse? As you examine products, remember medicine's guideline to "first do no harm." For that balance between mild yet effective, you need to groom with care.

Follow the application directions, such as diluting a concentrate with water at recommended proportions. To mix a concentrate with water in an emulsion, as with a fly repellent concentrate, shake the bottle of mixture well before use. Shaking disperses the concentrate through the water.

When using a potent shampoo, like an antibacterial brand, leave it on the coat for the specified time before rinsing. Manufacturers also might specify frequency of treatment, and restrictions on using conflicting grooming products.

Investigate possible side effects. Applying too much product can backfire, as in improper use of polishes. Silicone has been linked with skin problems, because it tends to build up on the coat. It's hard to wash out the residue. Faries noted, "A molecule of silicone will attach to itself. It forms almost a vacuum, and it's not water-soluble." He added that a hybrid silicone and organic formula, an organic molecule, has the advantages of silicone's sheen and detangling, without sealing off the hair.

Individual horses can have sensitive skin and can react to ingredients. Just because a horse is a large animal, he's not insensitive. A typical horse has more than 50 square feet of skin, and an uncomfortable sensation on all that area could create quite a feeling of irritation.

A grooming product might be the cause of irritation, itching, burning, heat rash, or hives. Although it's difficult to trace a specific skin condition to a product, high alkalinity in a shampoo can cause a horse to rub.

A horse might have an allergic reaction to a certain substance. If you suspect your horse might be allergic, look for hypoallergenic products and read labels carefully. You also can conduct a test by applying a small amount of product on a patch of the horse's skin.

A dry skin condition might be traced to alcohol's drying effect. Alcohol rapidly evaporates and cools the skin, reducing the oil on the skin. Dryness also could be caused by overuse of shampoos formulated for human use. Tweeten noted, "Human care products are used daily. Humans shower every day. Do we want to use a human care product that will be put on the horse one day, which is designed to be replenished 24 hours later?"

Products can pose more serious dangers to the horse. Just as in household products, many of these are hazardous to health.

Read the label of any repellent. Fly repellents can contain toxins that cause a poisonous effect through physical contact, ingestion, or inhalation. The herb pennyroyal is toxic. One gel cautions against contact with the skin--and yet it's made to apply onto the horse's skin.

Some brands are labeled nontoxic. The label might imply the product is safe to ingest, but don�t do it or let it get in your horse�s drinking source.

Try to keep a repellent out of the horse's eyes. If you apply a gel to the inside of the ear, realize that it's likely to melt and run down inside the ear.

Show horses undergo special beauty treatments. With some breeds, it's a standard practice to sand the hoof walls smooth, then apply a shiny hoof polish for a slick appearance. Remove the polish after the show, so the wall doesn't dry out.

If you use a facial highlighter on the muzzle and around the eyes, apply only enough for the effect. If the oil or cream gets too hot, excess product will melt. Remove highlighting products after a show.

The tools you use also affect the horse's well-being. A sensitive horse might object to the stiff fibers in your body brush. Rubbing the hair and skin with a metal-toothed currycomb can cause pain and irritate the skin. Clipper blades get hot with continued use in a body-clipping session, and the blades can burn the skin.

Use grooming appliances with care. Stand the horse on a dry surface, and keep an eye on the appliance. Never allow the cord to contact water on the barn floor or be in the way where a wayward metal-shod hoof can cut into the cord.

With any scissors or blade, watch the horse's movement when you use the instrument. He could spook while you're scraping off bot eggs, and you could lacerate the skin.

Grooming wraps can cause discomfort and injury. Incorrectly applied, a tail wrap can inhibit circulation and actually cause permanent damage. A mane tamer or hood of stretchy fabric might smooth the mane, but fabric or fasteners can snag on objects in the stall or pen. Close observation is necessary to avoid problems when extra horse "clothing" is being used.

A neck sweat, used in combination with a sweating lotion, "reduces" the neck by creating heat. If you combine the sweat with an attached hair dryer, blowing hot air, you can overheat the horse, cause dehydration, or even give him an electric shock from the appliance. The sweating lotion can run into his eyes and burn. Rinse all lotion off of your horse when you remove the wrap.

Human And Environmental Cautions

Grooming-related accidents usually involve a product. Any of these items can harm you--directly or indirectly. Whenever you groom the horse, position the animal in a restricted area. Tie him so he remains in one place.

The horse can hurt you as he evades a grooming treatment. Train him to accept the noise of clippers and pump spray bottles. Avoid startling him through the static shock of rubbing. If he spooks, he can step on you, or hit you with his head or body.

Watch for dangers in the barn while you're grooming. Hoses and electrical cords involved in grooming can entangle you or the horse.

Many of these products aren't "green" (good for the environment). Fly repellents are considered hazardous materials when shipped, and many labels note, "Do not recycle bottle." Many also are labeled as "Flammable."

Products can include chlorofluorocarbons, known to attack the ozone layer. However, most brand-name products have become less harmful. Look for biodegradable solutions, which means that microorganisms can break down the prouct into compounds found in nature. A green product contains no phosphates, chlorine bleach, or dyes.

By using products with care, you'll enjoy admiring your well-groomed horse. His smooth skin, a gleaming coat, and a silky tail will reflect your concern.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More