Best of the Blog: How to Groom a Horse

Editor’s note: We’re reprinting some of our favorite blog posts from the past five years. This week: a popular post from Judith Tarr’s horseblog series in 2010.

By Judith Tarr

This week’s blog is all about the basics–as in, your character the hunky stablehand is grooming a horse for the bratty princess to ride, and you need some good stage business to make the scene punchier. This Just In (or Edited To Add as they say): With lovely synchronicity, here is a podcast on the ritual of grooming a horse as meditation (if signup on the site is required, it’s free–and highly recommended for details on all things related to horses).

Grooming is one of the first things a horsekid learns. The age of the rider who takes the already groomed horse from the stablehand is still here, not only with wealthy horse owners but with trainers and instructors who pay staff and working students to get the horses ready before each session, but nearly everyone who handles horses has put in time with the brushes and the currycomb. It’s part of the apprenticeship, and a rite of passage.

So then. You start, not with the horse, but with a set of tools for the job. I’m going to go with more or less contemporary tools and methods, but watch for asides about earlier periods and technological levels. The basics for getting the dirt off a horse and getting him fit to be seen, driven, or ridden are:

  • Brush (twist of straw, small stick broom, even loofah or sea sponge in the right area if your tech is not up for making a brush)–these can come in soft, medium, and stiff for different purposes
  • Currycomb (knobbly root or branch, fingers)
  • Mane and tail brush or comb (hairbrush or comb, bundle of twigs, fingers)
  • Hoofpick (pretty much any not too sharp,straight or curved implement will work for this–wood may be too soft unless it’s a very hard wood, but you might use a stick hardened in the fire, or a longish, pointy-ish stone)

There are numerous other implements and specialty items that can show up in the grooming bag/box/tote/bucket, but these are the main tools for the job. Others might include scissors or clippers for trimming manes, whiskers, and fetlocks; a small, curved knife for trimming hooves and callosities on legs and fetlocks; various goops and ointments for treating and moisturizing hooves, medicating wounds, taming wild manes and tails, etc., etc., etc.; mineral oil or a patent preparation (these days often with tea-tree oil–not applicable prior to discovery of Australia) for cleaning the penis sheath of a gelding or stallion; towels and cloths for multiple uses; sponges for washing horse, and smaller sponges for cleaning bits and tack; shampoo of some sort; sweat scraper; shedding blade.

And that’s just a few of the many objects you may find in a grooming tote.

But, as I said, for basic purposes, you only need the brush, curry, and hoof pick, and your fingers will do to get the straw and debris out of the horse’s mane and tail, if you’re patient and good at separating hair after hair after hair after…

Horses, you see, are devoted, dedicated, nay consecrated to the gospel of getting as much dirt on their bodies as physically possible. There is a purpose in this, aside from driving the human caretaker nuts (though that’s a definite bonus): rolling relieves itchiness especially in shedding season (which in most horses occurs in late summer and early spring), and imparts a layer of dirt (or better yet, mud) that protects against the sun and flies. This is a happy horse:

And this is how she got that way:

These are pasture horses, with free access to dirt and mud, but even a horse in a stall shows a faery gift or mutant superpower for finding the one truly filthy spot in the stall (manufactured beforehand by the horse) and carefully incorporating that filthy spot into his coat. If he’s blanketed to prevent this, he’ll find ways. Believe it.

So your hunky groom expects to find a horse in filth max. He will either retrieve the horse from his stall or go out to the pasture or paddock with a halter and leadrope.

The horse may or may not be in favor of being caught and brought in. If he is in favor, he’ll come right up and push his nose into the halter (optimal) or stand while the groom walks up to him (varying degrees of acceptable depending on size of pasture and distance of horse from gate). If he is not in favor, there could be hours of fun for friends and family, while the horse runs a merry chase.

The first rule here, actually, is not to run after the horse. Be casual. Saunter. Do not make eye contact. Watch sidelong, over the shoulder if possible (if he’s a stallion, be careful; turning your back on a stallion can be a bad idea, of the ‘he’ll charge and grab you and make big holes in you and/or rip pieces off’ variety). Apply subtlety and indirection. And, if possible, use bribery: treat in the hand, grain in the bucket. Shaking the grain bucket will bring in many horses who are otherwise inclined to stay out with their friends, thank you.

We won’t get into herd dynamics, the fine art of catching the omega horse in a herd of alphas who keep chasing her off, how to deal with a jealous herdmate, etc., though if you have a specific question of this nature, by all means ask in comments.

At any rate, we’ll assume that, sooner or later and preferably sooner, hunky groom has the horse haltered and led into the grooming area. There he will tie the horse by a ring to the wall, by two rings and two ropes on opposite walls (crossties), by rope around pillar or stall bar, etc. Then he will begin the grooming process. This takes, for a quick brush/clean feet/saddle and bridle, about fifteen to twenty minutes. A full grooming job with clipping, bathing, and braiding can take hours. You can guess which option the bratty princess will go for (especially if she gets to watch the bathing, and there is a lot of flying water because many horses are not in favor of getting wet, and the groom’s shirt and trousers suffer the ineviable consequences).

At its most basic, grooming the horse involves first currying him: applying the currycomb in a brisk but not aggressive circular motion all over the horse’s body to loosen dirt and hair. Pay particular attention to the neck, back, and belly (but be careful–he can be ticklish). Do not, except very carefully, curry the legs below the knees or hocks: the skin is thin there and the horse has no padding over the bones and tendons. Same applies to the head and face: careful, and only if and as needed.

Once the horse is well curried (many horses love this; it’s a full-body massage), brush off the dirt and hair. You may use several brushes: stiff to get off heavy dirt and mud, medium to clear away the remainder, and soft around the head and lower legs and to polish the rest of the body. A really good grooming will make the horse gleam.

Next, clean his feet: lift each one and pick out dirt and stones from the sole. Work carefully around the frog and make sure no stones or other objects are caught inside the folds and crevices. When the feet are clean, apply hoof oil or dressing if needed or requested.

Then comb or pick out the mane and tail, unknotting tangles if any, and removing dirt, straw, etc. Braid if Her Highness insists.

And there you are. Clean horse, ready to saddle, harness, or take to the fair.

Judith Tarr’s Book View Cafe books include Writing Horses.

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Best of the Blog: How to Groom a Horse — 2 Comments

  1. “If he’s blanketed to prevent this, he’ll find ways. Believe it.”
    SO true! It shouldn’t amaze me anymore but it does when I see mud so far up, under her blanket!
    Oh… and the paler the horse the more dirty they delight in being!

  2. They’re making their own camouflage. Pale horses standing out against the landscape and all. “Hello, predators of all kinds! Free lunch today!”