Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Have you ever watched two horses in a pasture or paddock, contentedly scratching each others' withers or rumps with their teeth? They do this because it feels good. If scratching each other with their teeth makes them feel good, it stands to reason that massaging their skin with a brush will also make them feel good.

Even without a companion, horses will seek to groom themselves. Turn a sweaty saddle horse out into a pen after hard use and what is the first thing that horse will do? He will lie down and roll in the sand, rubbing away accumulated sweat and scratching itchy spots. When the horse has finished rolling, it will get to its feet and send dust and dirt flying as its shakes itself vigorously. Both actions are a form of self-grooming and self-cleansing.

As the horse's caretaker, we can help with that feel-good grooming process. Horses should be groomed both before and after being ridden or driven. Grooming before riding helps make certain that there is nothing tangled in the hair where the saddle or harness will rest. Grooming after the ride helps remove sweat and debris that accumulated during exertion.

Daily grooming also gives you a chance to detect and monitor any injuries or other health problems such as cuts, skin infections, allergic reactions, thrush, etc. Finding health problems early gives you the best chance of treating them successfully.

Grooming your horse is something that should become a habit. However, it is not the easiest habit to lock into. After all, it does take time, and we often are in a hurry. Here in the west we call it a "cowboy brushing" when we need to get saddled in a hurry (when cattle have broken through a fence or some other emergency has arisen). A cowboy brushing means that you quickly run your hand over the area where the saddle rests and under the belly where the cinch goes, making certain that those areas of the body are clear of debris.

That being said, there aren't many times when such haste is essential. If we are going to ask that horse to carry us either in work or for pleasure for several hours at a stretch, we certainly can take a few minutes to groom him before climbing aboard. And, when we are finished with the horse, a thorough grooming should be the order of the day.

Training Benefits

While grooming is designed to help maintain a healthy skin and hair coat, there can be side benefits. This is especially true with stallions and young horses. During breeding season, stallions often are bred or collected once or more per day. It doesn't take long for them to make the connection between leaving the stall and mating. In the process they can turn rank, fighting the handlers to get to the mare or breeding dummy.

By taking the stallion from his stall at least once a day for grooming, a handler can convince the horse that merely being led from the stall doesn't necessarily mean covering a mare is imminent. It can make a big difference in the stallion's behavior.
Grooming is also highly important in training young horses. It gives us a reason to put them in cross-ties or tie them to a hitching rail. They learn to stand patiently and enjoy what is happening to them. We also teach them to stand quietly for the farrier when their feet are picked up and worked on by routinely handling their feet. Grooming also serves as a training approach for standing quietly while being saddled.

One must be aware, however, that one size doesn't fit all when it comes to grooming. It is an individual thing. Understanding each horse enables the groomer to pick the proper tools and to use them in such a way that the horse is not irritated.

Grooming Tools

Some horses have greater skin sensitivity than others. With some you can use a metal curry comb and apply it with vigor to the horse's apparent satisfaction. If you use the same approach with a horse which has more sensitive skin, you will have a horse that flinches and avoids being groomed.

Fortunately, there are a wide variety of grooming tools on the market so that we can pick and choose what is best for each individual horse. Many of these tools are made of pliable plastic. Basic grooming tools include a hoof pick; curry comb--metal or plastic, with plastic being far more popular today; body brush with stiff bristles; brush with longer, softer bristles; mane and tail comb; sweat or water scraper; and grooming cloth. There are many variations in these basic tools, as well as in such helpful devices as specially designed vacuums (see "The Right Stuff" below).

There is a right way and a wrong way to use each of these tools. Let's take a look at the correct way to groom a horse with each of the basic tools mentioned.

  • Hoof Pick--This all-important tool is used to remove dirt and debris lodged in the hooves, particularly in the grooves beside the frog (sulci). Cleaning the hooves on a regular basis can prevent the foul-smelling infection called thrush. All signs of dirt and debris should be removed before going on to the next foot. Normally, you will start with one of the front feet and work your way around the horse--front foot, back foot, opposite back foot, and opposite front foot. Whatever your routine, the horse will catch on quickly.
  • Curry Comb--The prime function of the curry comb is to dislodge dirt and debris that might be tangled in the hair or stuck to the skin. To accomplish this, move the curry comb over the horse's body in small, relatively gentle swirls. The amount of pressure applied will depend on the horse's sensitivity and the amount of debris to be removed. If the horse's coat is relatively clean, only gentle pressure will be required. However, if the coat is matted with mud or dried sweat, the curry comb will need to be applied with a bit more vigor. Care should be taken that the curry comb, especially if it is metal, not be used below the knees or hocks, over the forehead, or on other bony protuberances. The lack of flesh and the presence of nerve endings in these areas means that we can irritate and cause pain to the horse by using a curry comb. During the grooming, it is important that the tools be cleaned frequently. A curry comb that is matted with dead hair and dirt won't accomplish much in the cleaning department.
  • Body Brush--This is one of the key tools in grooming, and it can be used on almost all parts of the horse's body. However, I have seen horses with such sensitive skin that they flinched when this rather stiff-bristled brush was applied with vigor. The brushing should progress from the head to the neck, the chest, withers, and foreleg all the way down to the knee and even the hoof, the back, side, belly, croup, and, finally, the hind legs all the way to the hoof. The farther down the leg you go, the more gentle the brush strokes should become because you are now traversing bony areas. If the horse appears sensitive to the stiff-bristled brush around the head or lower legs, you should switch to the soft brush. The strokes over the horse's body should be in the direction of the natural lie of the hair, flicking the dirt up and out of the coat at the end of each stroke. This type of brushing will remove some of the debris loosened by the curry comb as well as dislodging some that might have been missed. This brush is also excellent for the mane and tail. More about that in a moment.
  • Soft Brush--This brush is not designed to loosen dirt and debris. It is designed to remove stuff that has been dislodged by the curry comb and stiff-bristled brush. This means that you will want to apply this brush in short flicking strokes, sending dust and foreign particles into the air. Both the hard-bristled brush and the soft brush should be cleaned frequently by rubbing the bristles across the curry comb. Remember, you want to remove debris, not just move it around on the horse's coat.
  • Mane and Tail Comb--This instrument should be used with care, particularly if the mane or tail happens to be tangled. If you are using a metal mane and tail comb on long, tangled hair, there is a danger that you will pull out far more than desired. If the mane or tail is tangled, it is far better to gently and carefully separate the hairs with your fingers, pulling a few apart at a time, then running your fingers through the hair. Once you have cleared up knots and tangles, it might be better to use the hard-bristled brush to complete the mane and tail grooming. Once the mane and tail are soft and silky from repeated grooming, you might even switch to just using the soft brush.
    When brushing the tail, do not brush the whole thing at once. Instead, pick up a small handful of tail with one hand and let part of it waft through your fingers, bringing the brush into gentle play against these strands with soft downward strokes with the other hand. The more frequently a horse is groomed, the less vigor is required.
  • Sweat or Water Scraper--This device, made of either metal or plastic, can be used to remove excess sweat after a workout or excess water after a bath. It is a highly important tool when we give consideration to the way in which a horse cools itself. The prime coolant in thermoregulation of the horse is sweating--sweat carries body heat to the skin, and evaporation produces a cooling effect. However, if sweat or water remains on the horse's skin on a hot and humid day, it can trap the heat and the cooling effect is lost. This is especially true when giving a horse a cooling bath in hot weather. If we do not remove water from the horse's coat, body heat will quickly warm it, and it will have a counter-productive effect in the cooling process. The sweat or water scraper is always used along the horse's body as the hair lies and, because, of its hard surface, is not used on the head or lower legs. If the external temperature is cool, the horse should be covered with a light blanket after a bath and walked until dry.
  • Grooming Cloth--The finishing touches to a good grooming job are applied with the grooming cloth. This can be as simple as an old towel or even a blanket. It is used to apply the final polishing touches by wiping away dust that was left by the soft brush, and it can be used to cleanse areas around the eyes or ears where a brush isn't appropriate.

It is not difficult to spot a clean, well-groomed horse, as the natural oils brought to the surface will cause the horse's coat to gleam. Its mane and tail will ripple in the breeze with no signs of knots or tangles. There might even be a special little gleam in the horse's eye because it feels good.


The Right Stuff

There is infinite variety when shopping for grooming tools. One can purchase plastic brushes that are designed to fit the hand and are equipped with flexible "fingers" that clean and massage. There are brushes with horsehair bristles, grooming combs with teeth that rotate to help clear tangled manes, portable vacuums that pull dust from the coat, brushes that are designed just for the horse's face, specially designed bathing gloves, kits that contain everything needed in pulling and braiding manes...the list goes on and on.

And, oh yes, you can still purchase the old-fashioned metal curry comb. Only now, it often is referred to as the reversible shed ring.

  • One of the most popular pieces of grooming equipment today--especially around show barns--is the vacuum. They range in price from under $200 for certain portable vacuums to $500 and up for heavier, more elaborate units with booster power. Electric vacuums are touted as being able to cut grooming time in half as they suck loose hair, external parasites, dust, dandruff, and debris from the horse's coat. There are a number of brush attachments that come with most vacuums to help you loosen and remove all these contaminants. One unit even has a hose that can be submerged in water to create a whirlpool. Most vacuums also have reversible action so that you can use them as blowers as well as vacuums.
  • Hand brushes come in a variety of styles as well as colors. Some of the softer ones have bristles made of horse hair. Those who champion these brushes claim they are best for bringing natural oils to the surface.
  • There also are a variety of plastic brushes with flexible fingers that massage the skin as they loosen debris. They are made to fit the hand with an easy-hold grip designed to reduce hand fatigue during grooming.
  • A popular grooming tool is the plastic curry comb that contains many fine plastic teeth to help remove dust and dirt and massage the skin. Most of these have a handle that can be adjusted to fit the size of the user's hand.
  • There also is great variety in the items involved in the bathing process. Sponges, for example, come in all shapes and sizes, and bathing gloves and mitts are available that slide over the hand and are designed to provide a massaging action while scrubbing the horse. Some mitts are designed to be used on either a wet or dry coat--on the dry coat, they are used to wipe away dirt.
  • For those finishing touches, there are polishing mitts (some of them made from sheepskin) that are used to give the coat additional sheen. Special grooming cloths also are on the market. One, manufactured in England and called the "cactus cloth," is made from hand-woven maguey fibers. It is used to remove sweat marks and grass stains.
  • Even hoof picks are becoming multi-dimensional. One is advertised as being a three-in-one unit. It has a smooth round safety tip for cleaning the frog, a flat tip for cleaning the sole and a wide scraper blade for cleaning the hoof wall. It is available in four bright colors.
  • There are also special brushes for cleaning the hoof and others for applying hoof dressing.
  • There are a variety of mane and tail combs on the market that are designed to do everything from thinning the hair to rendering it shimmering and silky. Some are of metal construction, and many are made of plastic.
  • Also on the market are a wide variety of feed formulas that are designed to add that special sheen to the hair coat.

And, of course, there are a great many grooming boxes available for holding the grooming equipment and supplies, making it possible to keep them all in one place instead of being scattered throughout the tack room or stable.
However, when all is said and done, it isn't the number of items one has in the grooming box that is important. It is how and how often you use them that matters. Regular grooming is essential, whether done with the most sophisticated equipment available, or with a brush and old-fashioned metal curry comb.