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The Hows and Whys of Equine Cleaning

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A sorrel coloured horse.

Grooming your horse has many benefits. First and foremost, it is an excellent way to bond with it. Being animals which communicate more by sight and touch than sound, for a horse, seeing, smelling and feeling you is the quickest way to become familiar. Mutual grooming is a way for herd members to bond, and you can quite literally curry favour this way.

It's also an excellent time for you to get to know your horse. In the course of a good brush-down, you can become familiar with the texture of its coat and skin, so you will notice any changes caused by anything from allergies and bug bites to dehydration or muscular tension. They could indicate pain or stiffness so subtle you could otherwise miss it. Horses are made to control their pain. The weak are picked off in a herd - remember that!

While you're checking the coat and skin, you can also get a feel for their temperature. By getting to know the normal temperatures for different areas of your horse - should you feel a warm spot in a joint or muscle - you are better equipped to judge whether it's normal heat from exertion or perhaps an injury or infection. Checking your horse's eyes, nose, mouth, hooves and genitals in the course of grooming also helps to monitor health and general well-being. This allows you to make small changes in diet and management, as needed, to maintain a healthy, happy horse before small niggles become big problems in terms of health or behaviour.

Grooming is always important, especially when you're going to be working with an unfamiliar horse. Never just have them brought out for you tacked up and ready to mount! The time you spend socialising with your new four-legged friend before work will help you assess their general temperament and condition. It will also give the horse a chance to get to know you and trust you as someone who supplies pleasant massages rather than just giving orders.

Last but not least, grooming removes dirt, burrs and loose hair from a horse's coat. It promotes good circulation, making them gorgeously shiny and less likely to chafe where the saddle leather rubs the skin when you ride, preventing saddle sores. A quick once-over after work is just as important, to ensure no stones are left in the hooves and that a sweaty coat will dry properly. Your horse will appreciate a back rub after a good workout just as much as you would!

Good Horse-keeping

Opinions differ wildly on this, largely because for a good chunk of history keeping horses was optimised for humans' convenience rather than horses' comfort. A horse always had to be ready to use, be it for military purposes, field work or transport. Livery stables and the cavalry especially helped to establish the ideal of the horse kept clean and close by, available at a moment's notice. These days attitudes towards keeping horses are changing as the purposes for which they are kept evolve. So the concept of keeping your horse boxed up in a stall without a speck of dust on it is rapidly becoming outdated.

A horse or pony kept 'out' - that is, in a field, not cosied-up in a stable out of the elements - needs to be left fairly rough or well rugged up1.

Grooming a horse removes the protective oils from the coat along with all the scurf, dust and mud. While they may look lovely, any moisture will go straight through to the skin and give them a chill. Keeping horses neat and tidy is an almost entirely pointless exercise, as they'll have a go at practising their hippopotamus impressions in the nearest mud-wallow as soon as you let them loose again2. So, unless you're trying to lose weight, don't bother!

The exception to the above rule is, of course, when you wish to ride. Then the horse can be 'knocked down'. This is not a suggestion of violence! It implies a quick makeshift grooming - not a thorough, deep clean but taking the huge chunks of mud off. This makes sure you're reasonably presentable in public and the areas where any tack will be fitted are nice and clean so nothing will rub.

Otherwise, grooming should be done as much as you like, so long as you and your horse are enjoying it. But do at least a light once-over once a day for the purposes of checking your horse's body over and keeping them healthy. Your horse will also benefit from extra grooming in the autumn, and especially the spring, when they'll be shedding. You can help take the loose hair off to keep them from itching, which will also keep their mane and tail looking healthier because they won't be rubbing up against trees and fence-posts so much.

The Grooming Process

Of course, you can't simply drag your own comb across your horse's back and expect to get it clean that way. Over the centuries, certain techniques and tools have proven especially effective, and fortunately that knowledge has been passed down through the ages. Of course, you won't be needing all of it for everyday equine care, so the following directions will be divided into three sections: basic cleaning for the field-kept muddy pony; a second for the stabled sport horse that will probably be clipped out in the winter3 and well rugged-up for field time; and a third for those special occasions when you might want to show off your gorgeous specimen of chaotic discipline and 'interesting' bloodlines.

You'll need a good grooming kit. Keep it organised in a special grooming box, or simply store it in a bucket or fishing-tackle box. Just make sure the receptacle is easy to carry with one hand, will stay open when you set it down, and won't splinter too easily - in case it's kicked or stepped on. Many horse owners prefer to keep a separate set for each horse, especially the sponges! At the very least, there should be one complete set for each person that will be grooming at the same time. Children or adults with smaller hands will probably find it more convenient to have their own kit with smaller brushes. Overly large brushes can be tiring to use. Your kit should contain at least the following items:

  • Rubber curry comb: an oval comb with concentric rows of teeth, made of sturdy but flexible rubber. It is used for knocking thick mud off a grass-kept horse, and for those well-muscled itchy bits where, if your horse enjoys it, it can be used reasonably vigorously. Let the horse choose. You can also use it to clean your other brushes.
  • Alternately, a you may find a plastic curry comb - usually a plastic pad with thick, stiff plastic bristles - which does the same job as the rubber curry comb, along with a metal curry comb with sharp zig-zag, jaggedy metal teeth. The metal curry comb is never under any circumstances used on the horse. Its sole purpose is for cleaning the brushes against while grooming. It is usually held in the non-dominant hand.
  • Body brush, also known as a dandy or hard brush: a reasonably stiff-bristled brush used over the main part of the body, and in the place of the plastic curry comb for removing mud from the legs. Care should be taken in bony, ticklish or sensitive areas. It can also be used to brush out the mane and tail.
  • Face brush or soft brush: like the body brush but with softer bristles for use on the face, and sometimes on the rest of the body, after body brushing for a lovely polished shine.
  • At least two sponges in different colours. These are for cleaning the eyes, nose, mouth and genitals. Remember which colour goes at which end!
  • Hoof pick: for cleaning out the hollow underside of the horse's foot, removing debris which could cause bruising, and wet earth or manure that can clump and make it harder for the horse to walk. You can also use it to check the condition of the frog4 and sole, and the fit of the shoe if your horse is shod.

Those are the absolute basics. Most kits will also contain:

  • Mane comb: made of metal or plastic and used for pulling the mane and tail to adjust length and tidy up a messy 'do, or simply for untangling particularly snarly tresses.
  • Sweat scraper: a squeegee with a deep rubber edge. For scraping sweat or water off after exertion or bathing. Can also be a flexible metal blade with a handle at either end, which works equally well but needs to be used more carefully.
  • Stable rubber: that's horsey jargon for towels or cloths. Used for rubbing a wet horse down or for buffing a groomed horse to a nice shine.
  • Stiff-bristled brush: (often on the back of a hoof pick): for cleaning off the underside of the hoof.
  • Water brush: a relatively hard brush with plastic bristles, useful for washing your horse or applying water to the mane to make it lie flat. A good body brush can be used for the same purpose.

In the average horse-owner's kit box you will probably also find wide and varying selections of detangling sprays, stain-removing sprays, combs, massaging pads with funny rubber cones and bumps on, strange hand-crocheted hemp grooming mittens, thinning combs (which have a blade in the deepest part of the tooth, to thin out the mane or tail), shampoos, conditioners, bot-fly stones, hoof treatments, fly sprays, old hoof picks (like lighters, everyone buys hundreds but you can rarely find one when you want one), the odd fly-fringe, a weird bit you've never heard of before, a broken stirrup leather, a teaspoon, and probably a packet of mints or 'herbal horse treats' that were picked up in the tack store 'a while' ago and then lost underneath the layer of stuff that's never used. These aren't necessary for the novice horse-groomer, and you'll find you acquire them without conscious effort as time goes by.

In preparation for grooming, make sure your horse is tied correctly. Use a sturdy lead rope with a quick-release knot5, which any horsey person will be quite willing to demonstrate, to tie them to a sturdy fence post or ring in a wall. Choose a well-ventilated area with enough space to move around them. Leave the rope loose enough for the horse to be able to move its head, but not so long that it could throw its leg over the loop and get tangled! Using a headcollar is helpful, as you can remove the noseband without letting the horse loose. This allows you to groom the head more easily.

Have a 'skip' or shallow, wide bucket handy for picking out the feet, so it doesn't all go back into the feet as soon as the horse moves around again. Or use an old newspaper, if your horse doesn't spook easily. Especially nervous animals can be cross-tied - that is, fastened with a lead at either side of the halter to two different posts or rings set well apart on either side.

It's traditional to start on the neck on the left or 'near' side; work your way to the rear; then over to the right or 'off' side. This is simply because most horsey activities take place on the left, whether it be leading them, tacking up or mounting. When you're ready to switch to the other side, don't duck under its head. The horse may shy and hit you with it quite hard! If you can't easily walk by in front, you'll have to go around behind. Those hindquarters look imposing, and they can deliver quite a kick. So either walk by out of kicking range or pass very close so a kick won't be able to gain momentum. While doing this, keep a hand on its croup6 and make sure the horse knows you're there!

This is important throughout the grooming process. Most accidents are the result of the horse being startled, especially if it's been dozing or otherwise not paying attention. Speak to it in a low, calm voice, and avoid sudden motions or noises. A cocked hind leg doesn't necessarily mean the horse is about to kick - it's more likely the horse is simply resting that foot.

The Field-Kept Pony or Horse

You will be looking to mainly concern yourself with removing caked mud, loosening up the coat and seeing some semblance of your horse's natural colour, but without removing the oils from deep in the coat. Clean enough is good enough. Use the plastic or rubber curry and your fingers to get clumps out of the mane and tail; to loosen caked, spiky sections on the body; and to have a good scratch where the horse is itchy. (If you pay attention, it'll tell you where it wants a good scratch - just make sure you brace yourself!) Press firmly enough not to tickle, but be gentle, especially if you have a thin-skinned pretty like an Arab or some such.

After you've loosened the big clumps, give your horse a good once-over with the rubber curry. Using firm, circular motions, work against, then with, the coat. You want to aim for a rhythmic 'up, round, down, off, up, round, down, off' stroke. You'll make the coat stand up against the grain, but that's fine at this step - we want to get that dust and hair out! Don't use the curry comb on sensitive areas like the legs and face where there is little muscle covering their bones.

Once the worst of the mud is off on both sides, you can go for it with the body brush. Use long, firm strokes with a slight upward lift at the end of each to flick the dust up and out. You should scrub across the metal or rubber curry comb every couple of strokes to keep it clear. And knock the curry comb out against the wall or fence-post every once in a while. This gets loose hair, dirt and some dead skin out of the coat. The harder and longer you work at this, the cleaner your horse will be. Old cavalry manuals recommend grooming until you have 20 dusty curry comb prints on the wall, or even until the white glove test reveals no more dust. That's overdoing it for everyday use - you don't want to over-groom!

Use the body brush to get the dirt off the legs as well. Then give the face and the rest of the horse a quick polish with the soft brush to make the coat lie flat. Some people will recommend holding the brush in the right hand while grooming the left side, and in the left hand while grooming the right side - but this is not a hard-and-fast rule. You may find it necessary to switch hands several times to avoid cramps, especially with a particularly large or muddy horse.

If you're planning on riding, pay particular attention to the saddle, bridle and girth areas, and the area under the boots7 if you'll be fitting them. You don't want any grit or clumps under your saddle or girth to cause rubbing. This will at best be uncomfortable and give you both an unpleasant ride, and at worst cause injury or even infection.

Stop brushing once you've given the horse a once-over and it looks comfortable, though probably still a bit scruffy and dusty. You will be in roughly the same state as the horse if you've been doing it properly - don't wear your best clothes! While you're working, pause to run your hands and eyes over the horse, just getting the feel for it; making sure its not stiff, sore, cut, bruised or tender anywhere. Check the eyes, teeth, feet and genitals. Sponge off the face and genitals a couple of times a week while you're doing this. Use warm water in winter!

Finally, tidy up the mane and tail. It's enough to pick out stray bits of straw and burrs with your fingers. Be especially careful if you belong to one of those stables where the sin of having straw or sawdust stuck in the tail carries the penalty of having to buy a round for all who witnessed it! To work on the horse's tail, don't stand directly behind it. Pull the tail over to one side while standing beside the horse. Hold it in one arm while using the other hand to clean and untangle it.

No Hoof, No Horse

However much or little time you spend grooming it, you must always clean the hooves well prior to working your horse. The entire weight of the horse will rest on one hoof - one toe - when it's being ridden at faster paces. Although the outside is made of hard horn, the inside is quite soft and delicate in places. Even a small stone can cause severe discomfort!

Picking up a horse's foot is probably the most intimidating part of the grooming process for a novice. But it's not terribly difficult. Start at the front left leg, standing beside it facing the rear. Make sure the horse knows you're there, and run your hand down the leg to the fetlock (the part just above the hoof). Use a verbal command - 'foot' works well - to ask it to pick up its hoof. Lean slightly against the horse's shoulder to encourage it to shift its weight to the other side. When the horse gives you its hoof, cup it firmly in your hand, not allowing the animal to put it down or pull it away until you're done. Then set it down rather than dropping it, and praise the horse for its cooperation.

The hind leg is marginally more complicated because it folds differently. You'll need to pull the hoof out and back slightly, and will probably find it easier to rest it on your thigh while working. Don't, however, allow the horse to put its weight on you!

Using the hoof pick is quite simple. With a little practice, you can work very fast so your horse won't have to balance on three legs for too long. Run it around the inside of the shoe, loosening the debris and scraping it away from the sole, being careful not to jab the frog. Gently clean off the frog as well, preferably using a hard brush or your fingers, so you can have a good look at everything and ensure all is well. While you're picking out the feet, check the shoes (if your horse wears them) for fit, security and condition. Also check the 'clenches' - the nails sticking out the top wall of the hoof. They should not be standing proud or working loose.

Water, Water Everywhere?

Normally, it shouldn't be necessary to wash a horse for everyday riding - grass stains are merely decorative, not harmful. However, it can't hurt to get your horse used to being washed, and may help it to cool down in hot weather. If you don't have a handy river or pond to ride or lead the horse into, you'll have to make do with a hose.

Always start at the bottom, spraying just the legs - with a gentle stream, not full pressure-washer mode. That may be enough, especially for cooling down. Otherwise, slowly work your way up, and forward, toward the heart, carefully watching the horse's reactions. Never simply start spraying the belly and back, as the sudden cold can be quite a shock! If your horse doesn't appreciate the hose, a kinder approach is to use a bucket of warm water and a sponge.

Like a sweaty horse, a freshly washed one should never just be put in the stable - especially if it's draughty. Either walk it around until it's dry, let it run around in the paddock8, or put a rug on it and tie it out of the wind and direct sun.

The Stabled Horse

The unfortunate horse that is condemned to spend all of its time in a stable - or a horse that was groomed on being brought in from the pasture - will usually need a less vigorous version of the above. You can probably skip the plastic currying stage altogether, unless it's shedding heavily, and go straight to the body brushing. With a stabled horse you can afford to go a little deeper into the coat and go over the horse more thoroughly to get a good clean shine. You will also need to use your sponges more often - probably every day, and definitely no less than every other day. Other than that, follow the instructions above.

Once you've got to the feet, clean out the debris, then brush the loose bits out with the stiff-bristled brush. Apply a conditioner or moisturiser, as required. Gently go over the face and ears with the face brush. Continue over the rest of the body, if you wish, for a lovely shine. Any stains, especially on white markings or a grey horse, may need removing with a spray and a scrubbing, or a little patch wash with an equine shampoo or baby wipe.

When giving any horse a thorough clean, don't forget the often-overlooked areas below the forelock, on the chest, between the front legs, and on the belly. If you're short and the horse is tall, stand on a stool or bucket for a top view, to make sure you've got it all!

Showing Off

Preparing for a show is a complicated process. But for those special occasions when you fancy getting gussied up and looking nice, here's a brief as possible guide. Any stable is sure to be swarming with people to give you more helpful hints and tips!

If your horse has not been tidied up in a while, you will need to start pulling the mane and tail a few weeks in advance, in order to do it in stages and get a good result. It takes time and experience to get excellent results every time. So try to watch someone and get them to show you if you can. If not, here's how in brief:

Comb the mane down ('lay' it with a little water if required) on the side to which it naturally falls. If it doesn't naturally fall to one side, you may have to precede this with a few nights' of tight plaits, put in damp, to encourage it to stay on the side you've chosen!

Only ever pull from underneath the mane. Select a few overlong hairs from underneath and, using a metal comb, back-comb the other hairs up the strands. Don't try to remove too many at a time; you are pulling hair out at the root here! Wrap the few strands around the comb and, supporting the base of the mane/neck with your other hand, pull smartly out and away, taking the hair with you. Comb the mane down flat again and select a few more long hairs, and repeat.

It's important to stand back regularly and look at how short you are going, and to have a mental image of what you want to achieve. Don't try to get it all done in one go, as the horse will get sore and fractious. It's better to pull three or four sections twice a day than spend half an hour fighting with both of you going away sore and sweaty and resenting one another.

The tail should be pulled in a similar way, except that you are pulling from either side of the dock, so you won't have those short spiky hairs at the top of the tail. Be very careful of your horse reacting badly and kicking you in surprise or pain. Ideally, get an experienced person to show you how to go about it safely with the minimum pain for both you and your equine friend. Also, don't pull the tail too short or too often. Remember, those hairs take years to grow to that length!


Wash your horse the night before, put a rug on it, and keep it in a well-mucked stall to prevent new stains. Use an equine shampoo or mild human shampoo, well diluted. Washing-up liquid, washing powder, kitchen cleaners, soap, and so on, are simply not made with the health of your horse's skin in mind, and can be quite toxic! Think about how washing-up liquid degreases things, for instance. Do you want that to happen to your horse's hair and skin? When it's stripped clean of those lovely natural oils, you lose protection and that healthy shine, too.

Wash the mane and tail, spray with a detangler, and allow to dry. Then brush them out. When your horse is washed and rinsed well, and no doubt washed again (since you never get all the stains out the first time), scrape the excess water off and rub down to help the drying process. (Unless you're posh enough to have a handy infra-red drying room. No? Didn't think so!) When dry, use the body and face brushes, grooming with the lay of the hair.

On the day of the event, do any spot washing required (stable stains are strangely stubborn at six in the morning...) and wash the feet. Groom with your regular brushes, working your way to softer and softer brushes until you're simply rubbing with a clean stable rubber, with the lay of the hair, to achieve a good shine. If you like, spray a rag with a commercial shiner product and apply, or simply dampen (not wet) a rag with baby oil.

If you will be riding, be careful where you apply any coatshine, as it tends to make the coat exceedingly slippery - not good if you're planning on doing anything particularly active! Spray the mane and tail with detangler or simply with water, if required, and brush out. If you wish to plait, make sure you know what you're doing and give yourself plenty of time. For what it's worth, a good, clean, tidy, loose mane and tail should be plenty, unless you're in a showing class requiring formal turn-out - in which case your knowledge of grooming will be well beyond the scope of this Entry.

Now the sky's the limit and no holds are barred - in theory. You can rub chalk into white bits, or use commercial whiteners. You can apply a subtle touch of petroleum jelly around the nostrils and skin around the eyes (not too close!), to make them shine. You can oil hooves, or apply a sparkle finish to hooves, manes and tails. Unless you're very skilled, apply quarter marks using a template held over the quarters, and a wet brush to back-comb the coat into a pretty pattern. The options, detail, products and supposed effects are almost endless.

Enjoy, but remember the most important thing: don't do anything that could harm your horse. This means no bleaching of white areas, no using boot polish to darken dark areas, no hair dye... You get the idea. If you want a Barbie horse, get one made of plastic! Going overboard will most likely make you the object of ridicule rather than admiration - better to let your horse shine through its natural beauty and your combined skill.

Now for the Fun Part

You will, by this point, be exhausted, bedraggled, covered in unspeakable and unidentifiable substances, dusty, tangled, and thoroughly worn out. Just in time to go show your horse off... That is, once you find someone to show you how to tack up!

1Putting a rug (blanket) on your horse while its out at pasture comes with its own set of difficulties - not the least of which is the risk of your horse entangling itself in it, which can be extremely dangerous! Don't do it if the horse won't be well supervised - the risk is simply not worth the bit of extra grooming effort.2Especially the greys!3Clipping the coat short makes the horse less scruffy-looking in winter, as well as causing it to sweat less while working - so it can be trained longer and harder. However, clipping robs the horse of its natural defence against the cold and wet, so it shouldn't be undertaken lightly!4The triangular cushion of softer, spongy flesh inside the hoof that acts as a shock absorber.5That way, the horse can be released quickly if it panics, preventing injury.6Not a disease in this case - the croup is the rump of the horse.7Boots or bandages around the horse's leg and ankle help give additional support and protection from injuries caused by brushing up against things, including the other hooves. While boots are fairly foolproof, bandages should only be wrapped by someone who knows what they're doing. They're not to be confused with hoof boots, which some horses wear when working instead of iron shoes.8Where the horse will immediately roll around in the dust, rendering the whole exercise futile unless you wanted a breaded horse.

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