How to Groom a Horse

This week I am deadlined unto the thousandth generation, and I almost passed on doing the Horseblog. But then it dawned on me: I could take a quick trip in the Wayback Machine and see what I posted in the early days of this blog. And look! Five years ago almost to the day, a still topical post, and one that has drawn many visitors over the years.

So here, with the links updated and original comments intact, I present one of my first entries in the Horseblog. Enjoy!

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.

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.

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How to Groom a Horse — 14 Comments

  1. Your photos of the happy horse and the horse rolling made me laugh out loud. For several years my younger son went riding and helped take care of horses–I loved getting to know them. At the farm where he went there was a beautiful black mustang that went from completely wild, when it arrived, to so friendly and inquisitive after it became acclimated and trained that it would come up and nuzzle you if you came to the gate.

  2. Another purpose for rolling (highly advocated by my trainer) is that it’s a means for horses to self-adjust their backs. I’ve noticed that when Mocha is sore in either her hocks or has tight muscles, she’s often reluctant to roll. I’ve also noticed that other horses with back/joint/muscle problems are reluctant to get down and roll. My trainer (who has limited turnout) is nevertheless a big advocate for getting the horses out so that they have time to roll. He’s really, really big on horses getting out for a roll and tries to get all of them out in the arena for short periods when the weather is stormy so that the horses can roll.

    Modern setting grooming tool–a flexible rubber/latex curry is preferred to the old-fashioned steel-toothed curry. It’s soft enough to use on legs and face, but the teeth (mine has big teeth on one side, small teeth on the other) are as sturdy and as effective as the old-timey metal curry. Then there’s the rubber/latex grooming mitt with stubs on it. I’ve found that horses love both much better than the old-timey metal curry. It’s probably closer to a loofah in action, so for fantasy you could possibly apply a loofah instead of a metal curry.

  3. Oh–another thought. As you know, different schools of thought exist about the order of grooming. I was taught to pick hooves first, then mane and tail, finish with body grooming. My trainer teaches mane and tail, body, then hooves. Nonetheless, the order of body grooming is fixed–curry, stiff brush, soft brush, then rag if doing show prep. But show grooming is another thing entirely, especially if you’re applying Show Sheen, hoof polish, or anything of that ilk. For a special touch, the groom may want to sand the hooves, then apply a shiny hoof polish. It’s also possible to arrange the hairs on the rear end in a particular pattern–the checkerboard layout was very popular amongst Western parade horses for a while.

    If anyone’s interested in show grooming, there’s a good blog out there called “The Well Groomed Horse” that goes into nuances of polish and preparation, including the whys, wherefores, and controversial aspects of certain types of show grooming prep (some can be abusive to the horse). Then there’s the dynamics of braiding manes and tails–some pragmatic (mud tails), some just for show (hunter and dressage show braids, the many and varied types thereof). Getting the long and flowing manes and tails common to Western reining shows is a complicated and detailed process in and of itself (esoteric arts of washing, braiding, and conditioning–those horses get mane and tail washed daily). But it’s possible to get long and shiny manes and tails and that might be something to consider that a princess would want for a formal parade–a French-braided mane, checkerboarded rear end, hunter-stitched flowing tail and what it takes to have the tail long enough to drag on the ground (for the record, Miss Mocha has one of those, and I’ve never cut it. All I do is Cowboy Magic applications).

  4. Yup, yup. A few additional thoughts:

    1. If you do not allow your horse access to rolling without a saddle, he may very well decide to roll with it.

    2. Some horses love currying/brushing so much they will lean into your strokes, eyes half closed, ears goofy, lower lip hanging: blissed out. Nonetheless, this turns grooming into a highly cardiovascular exercise for the human.

    3. Dirt, straw, and loose horse hair will attach itself to the nearest warm-blooded creature–i.e., YOU.

  5. Wow, this brought out the commenters! Thank you all!

    My feeling on cleaning feet first is that if the horse is really muddy or dirty, that means I get dirty as I handle the legs and feet. I’ll clean the rest of the horse, then I won’t have bits of mud and other debris falling on my head while I do the feet. Feet are certainly a priority. You want to be sure there’s nothing trapped in there to cause bruising or inflammation.

    Show grooming is an art in and of itself. Some breeds will use hair extensions to get the desired effect–false tails, especially. Others will apply makeup, glitter, even (illegally) surgery to make the horse look “right” for the show ring. A very simple expedient is talcum powder on the white parts of the horse to brighten the color, and colored polish on the hooves if they’re light or particolored, or clear polish if they’re the “right” color. Vaseline around the eyes gives an Arabian that coveted “bug-eyed” look. Clipping or shaving the coat on a foal so it has the sleek look of an adult instead of the foal fuzzies (this also allows the whole body to be seen unobscured).

    The list of things one can do goes on and on. Everyone who shows, with few exceptions, shaves off the whiskers on the horse’s face, clips the fetlocks smooth, shaves at least a couple of inches behind the ears (the “bridle path”), and may (though this has its detractors) clip the fuzz out of the ears.

    As the owner/breeder of a “natural” breed (little or no clipping of any kind), I get odd looks sometimes, because my horses whiskers. They’re naturally clean-legged and sleek-coated so the rest doesn’t get noticed, but the whiskery noses do. Since the whiskers are sensory organs as they are for cats, I’m just as happy not to have to remove them in order to satisfy the breed standard.

  6. Excellent article and comments. Just like some horses will rub into a curry comb, other horses are ticklish and may flinch away/twitch skin if groomed too hard with a brush that is too stiff. Sensitive horses will need gentle pressure with the curry comb (if one is used at all).

    Outside temperature can make a difference too. My mare loves to have her belly rubbed in summer, but the second it turns cold, she’ll lift her back leg as a warning to cut it out. This effect is most noticed if my hands are cold…

  7. You took me right back to Girl Scout camp, and patient wranglers teaching an 11 year old me the ins and outs of grooming a horse. And how to pick up a hoof without it landing on your foot. I was taught the hoof-curry-hard-soft combo, and damned if I don’t want to find myself a horse right now. I guess I’ll have to wait for January 2011 and Horse Camp once again. 🙂

  8. If I was preparing a horse for a ride by myself or other I needed to ensure that I actually had a horse for the activity. You can’t teach a lesson or lead a trail ride from back at the barn, and it does take time to get a horse ready for those activities. My general order of operations was 1) check and pick out the hooves and run a hand down each leg looking for swellings, cuts, etc. 2) Clean hands and start with the currying, then 3) softbrushing including lower legs, 4) finishing with a soft cloth or clean damp chamois to the face 5) comb or brush out the forelock and then 6) a damp cloth beneath the tail and between the hind legs. Once the body, legs and any part that comes in contact with the saddle and bridle are clean, 7) proceed to brush out the mane and tail, first for large clumps and drastic tangles then 8) fine brushing using a detangler/conditioner if necessary. For a horse on cross-ties or tied to a pillar or ring on the wall, you will need to move the halter down to around the neck in order to clean the face thoroughly. Braiding and vanity grooming such as checkerboards, clipping, and color brightening only take place on a thoroughly clean horse. Places you must ensure are clean are any places that comes in contact with saddle or bridle. These include a) bridle path behind the ears, b) cheeks and jowls, c) between the lower jaws, d) just behind the chin, e) between the front legs, f) through the girth area, just behind the horse’s front elbows, g) across the top of the shoulders (withers), h) along the backbone, i) anyplace under the saddle blanket or pad, j) underneath the base of the tail, k) between the hind legs from base of the tail all the way to the belly, l) around the ankles on all legs (cannons, fetlocks, pasterns, and heels). All of these places should be cleaned both before and after riding, to remove dried sweat, and mud/soil/droppings and to look for cuts and bruises.

    • Wow. When I actually have time in my day, the choice is ride, or clean. My horse gets his saddle and girth area brushed quickly and off we go. If I did all that, it would be dark by the time he was tacked up! Corollary – the biothane tack goes in the dishwasher about once a month and comes out sparkling.