7 Ways to Beat Equine Beauty Bummers
By Jess Hallas-Kilcoyne
“My grey horse is so covered with manure stains he looks like a pinto... My horse’s tail rubbing habit has left him with almost no tail and a big bald patch at the base of the tail... My horse’s mane is getting too long but he won’t let me pull it.”
These are just a few examples of the most popular grooming complaints grumbled about by horse owners with increasing frequency and frustration as show season looms closer and closer. The vast majority of grooming concerns can be at least partially addressed, and sometimes eliminated, by following good overall health care and management practises. That being said, it’s always beneficial to have a few tricks up your sleeve for beating the equine beauty bummers you’ll come across most frequently.
Help your horse put his best hoof forward, in and out of the show ring, with these tips from industry experts for troubleshooting some of the most common grooming problems.
1 - Create a Coat with Bloom
Problem: Your horse is in overall good health but you want his coat to really shine.
Solution: A well-balanced diet with adequate trace minerals, vitamins, and fatty acids is the foremost prerequisite for a healthy, shiny coat, followed by elbow grease. Regular grooming, especially with a rubber currycomb, loosens dirt and scurf from the coat and stimulates the skin to produce natural oils which improve the condition and appearance of the coat, giving it a pleasing bloom.
“Currycomb until your arms fall off,” advises Liv Gude, founder of Pro Equine Grooms, an online community for grooms, and a former professional groom herself. Or, she continues, “look into making a hay wisp.”
To make a hay wisp, take a long-stemmed hay (coastal grass or Bermuda type hay generally works better than more textured hays like alfalfa and timothy) and lay it out down the barn aisle in a pile about 20 feet long, one foot wide, and six inches deep. Wet the hay down and begin rolling it up and twisting it so that it forms a rope about six feet in length. Form two loops, one loop slightly larger, at one end of the hay rope (see illustration). Then braid the two loops and the tail of the rope together keeping the loops tight. Dampen the finished product and step on it to compress it. Your hay wisp should be firm and small enough that you can hold it in one hand. Use the wisp to brush the coat in the direction of the hair growth.
“These wisps can add unbelievable shine to your horse,” says Gude.
Making a Hay Wisp. Photo courtesy of Liv Gude, www.proequinegrooms.com
For a quicker fix, a coat shine spray will do the trick, as will this tip from Gude: “After a bath or shampoo, after you’ve rinsed your horse completely, take a five gallon bucket of water and put two drops of baby oil (a little goes a long way) in it. Use that as your final once-over with a sponge.” If you prefer not to use baby oil, apple cider vinegar or white vinegar also work well as a final rinse.
2 - Whiten Whites
Problem: Thanks to manure and urine stains, your supposedly grey horse looks more like a palomino.
Solution: “You need a shampoo that does a good job of cleaning without irritating the skin,” says Petra Z. McGowan, founder of EcoLicious Equestrian, manufacturer of natural, earth friendly horse care and grooming products. “A lot of whitening shampoos on the market use pretty harsh chemicals that will do the job but tend to leave behind irritated skin.”
“If you use heavy detergents, you’re going to dry the skin and make the hair coat brittle, which makes it more susceptible to picking up future stains,” explains Gude.
A dry, brittle coat is more susceptible to stains. Help prevent manure and urine stains on your grey horse by encouraging the skin to produce natural oils which act as a stain repellent. Credit: Robin Duncan Photography
Rather than stain treatment, try to think about stain prevention. “Really encourage the natural oils in your horse’s skin to stay there,” she continues. “Once you have that, you have a natural stain repellent. Then when those poop stains do come up, a washcloth with some warm water is typically all it takes.”
For really stubborn stains, Gude recommends shampooing and then rinsing with white vinegar. She’s found this particularly effective with tail stains. “Soak the tail in the white vinegar for a few minutes. Then rinse it out.”
Cover up any residual stains before you enter the show ring with a dusting of cornstarch or talcum powder.
3 - Speed Up Spring Shedding
Problem: Spring is here but your horse still looks like a woolly mammoth.
Solution: Good nutrition can help speed up the shedding process, but our grooming experts agree that there’s no substitute for elbow grease.
“Currycomb, currycomb, currycomb,” says Gude. “I’ll curry them after exercise as well. When they’ve been moving around and their warmer, their pores open and a lot more hair is going to come out.”
“You can’t beat a currycomb,” agrees April Ray, a former groom for Spruce Meadows. Her favourite currycomb is the Jelly Scrubber variety. “I don’t like shedding blades. I find they damage the hair.”
Rolling is nature’s way of allowing the horse to currycomb himself. Additionally, exposure to natural sunlight stimulates the coat to hasten the shedding process.
Ray also suggests letting your horse roll. “Take the blanket off and let nature do its thing. It makes such a huge difference. You’ll know that it’s worked by the huge patch of hair left on the ground.”
McGowan points out that turning your horse out without a blanket, depending on your climate, can help with the shedding out process. “The natural sunlight creates hormones that send a message to the coat to get rid of the old hair.”
4 - Reduce Tail Rubbing
Problem: Your horse’s formerly beautiful, thick tail is being reduced to thin wisps by his rubbing habit.
Solution: “It can be like detective work to figure out why they’re rubbing their tail,” says McGowan, who adds that tail rubbing can result from a dirty sheath, lack of a good deworming program, or the use of harsh shampoo which dried out the base of the tail.
Or tail rubbing may simply be caused by sweat residue left over from insufficient grooming after a heavy workout session. “If you have a super sweaty horse, you want to hose him down. Really get into the base of the tail to get the sweat out.”
Depending on where you live, ticks may also be a culprit. “Use a product that leaves a film on the tail with a scent that the ticks don’t like,” McGowan recommends. “It’s a good preventative measure.
Tail rubbing can be caused by any number of things, including a dirty udder or sheath, parasites, shampoo or sweat residue, or sweet itch. Credit: Pam MacKenzie Photography
Other possible causes include allergies – either to food or environmental factors – and summer seasonal recurrent dermatitis (sweet itch), both of which require veterinary attention.
For mild cases of dermatitis, there are many commercially available topicals on the market. Look for one that will promote healing, control itch, and repels insects.
Ray suggests using antiseptic mouthwash, such as Listerine®, on the base of the tail. “The antiseptic kills germs and the menthol creates a soothing, cooling effect.” Additionally, most mouthwash brands contain eucalyptol, which repels itch-causing insects. If you’re worried about mouthwash being too drying on the skin, follow it up with an application of a good, oil-free moisturizing product.
5 - Troubleshoot a Thin Tail
Problem: You wish you could transform your horse’s thin, wispy tail into lusciously thick locks.
Solution: “Some horses are born with amazing manes and tails, others aren’t,” McGowan says matter-of-factly. “Massage does increase circulation which should promote hair growth. Rosemary extract is traditionally used in products for bald men. But you can’t expect miracles from products like that. If you have a Thoroughbred type of tail that’s thinner, the only thing you can really do is protect it from breakage so you don’t lose more hair than you have to. Don’t expect miracles and make sure you manage what you have as well as you can.”
Gude agrees that minimizing tail hair breakage is the best way to avoid a thin tail. “Protect the hairs that do exist with a detangler, and try to only finger-comb the tail.”
Minimize tail hair breakage by finger-coming the tail. Credit: ©CanStockPhoto/Phbcz
Most grooming experts seem to concur that using a brush or comb on the tail can lead to more hair loss.
“I am a no-brusher,” Ray states unequivocally. If combing the tail is really necessary, she recommends shampooing and conditioning the tail before gently detangling it. “I brush from the bottom working my way up to the top, trying to lose as little hair as possible.”
6 - Choose a Sheath (or Udder) Cleaning Product
Problem: Your horse’s sheath needs cleaning, but you’ve heard conflicting reports about which products are safest and most effective.
Solution: “Be careful about the products you put up there,” warns McGowan, who strongly advises against using any sheath cleaner that contains harsh chemicals, dyes, or scents which could aggravate the delicate skin of the sheath. “Don’t trade cleanliness for irritation. Find a very gentle, natural based sheath cleaner with natural emollients (moisturizers).”
“Remember, whatever you put up there, you have to be able to rinse out,” says Gude. “So nothing oil based, no petroleum products, no Vaseline, no A+D® ointment.”
A mare’s udder should be cleaned just as often as you would a gelding’s or stallion’s sheath – ideally about once a month. Products that are safe to use on the sheath are typically gentle enough for the udder as well. Credit: Pam MacKenzie Photography
Regardless of the product you end up using, more frequent sheath cleaning means you’ll use less product each time and reduce the risk of irritating the sensitive skin of the sheath.
If you’re really stuck on what to use to clean the sheath, ask your veterinarian, or play it safe and don’t use any product. “Nothing beats warm water,” says Ray, pointing out that it’s the only foolproof way to guard against your horse having an adverse reaction to a sheath cleaner.
Note to Mare Owners: Don’t forget to clean your mare’s udder. “Lots of people don’t know they’re supposed to clean the teats, but they get very itchy when they’re dirty,” says McGowan. “The vulva can be cleaned as well because when they’re in heat you can get build-up there.”
Any product that’s safe to use on a gelding or stallion’s sheath should be gentle enough for use on a mare’s udder, but when in doubt, always check with your veterinarian.
7 - No-Pull Mane Management
Problem: Your horse’s mane looks like a bushy bird’s nest but he hates having his mane pulled.
Solution: McGowan hates seeing a horse punished for fidgeting while his mane is being pulled. “Imagine having a bikini wax,” she says. “You’d flinch! So don’t be upset with your horse. If he does stand quietly, appreciate him, give him a pat, or give him a treat. It is an unpleasant experience for him but you can make it less taxing.”
“When you pull the mane, make sure it’s on a warm day or your horse has worked out,” she continues. “This increases circulation and opens the pores. When the pores are open, pulling out hair is not going to be as painful.”
If your horse absolutely refuses to allow you to pull his mane, never fear. There are other ways to thin and shorten the mane.
“Take a really sharp pair of scissors and, holding them perpendicular to the mane, cut up into the mane,” says Ray, deeming this trick the next best alternative to pulling. “It takes a bit of practise to make it look natural, but it does help to shorten and somewhat thin the mane a bit. Use a long, plastic comb as you go to keep the length even.”
Traditional mane pulling, while effective, is not tolerated by all horses. If your horse detests having his mane pulled, don’t worry; there are many alternative ways to thin and shorten a mane. Credit: Holly Burns.
Never use scissors to simply cut the mane to the desired length. “Your horse can end up with a bowl cut!” says McGowan, who prefers to use a mane thinning knife for a more natural look.
There are a number of grooming tools on the market that combine a comb with a razor for no-pull mane thinning and shortening. Their use is certainly an option, but, Gude warns, “the base of the mane will still be thick and then you may have tons of short hairs poking out.” Instead, her recommendation is to, “use scissors or an old clipper blade to backcomb the hair and lob off the ends.”
This article was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.
Main Photo: When it comes to getting a healthy, shiny coat, there’s no substitute for elbow grease. Credit: ©CanStockPhoto/Cynoclub