How to Groom your Horse like a Professional

Imagine yourself watching the practice ring at a horse show. Sitting there gazing at all of the trainers, the coaches, the amateurs, and youth practicing diligently before the show, can you tell which of the horses have been groomed by professionals, and which aren’t? I know I can.  Watching the practice ring at a show is one of my favorite things to do as an equestrian, and if you haven’t tried it, I would highly suggest it.

So how do the pro’s horses stand out?

A professional trainer’s horse is spotlessly clean, with the silkiest manes and tails, the shiniest coats, with the whitest legs, and the most impeccable clip jobs; even in the practice pen.  Horse’s groomed solely by amateurs can sometimes achieve the look of a groomed horse comparable to that of a professional, but it is rare.  Horses cared for by amateurs are typically a bit more dull, with not so perfect clip jobs, and white feet and legs that are just not as sparkly white.

Now don’t get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with an amatuer grooming their own horse.  In fact I make all of my lesson kids groom their horses at home and at the show.  It creates a bond between horse and rider, and builds character in both youth and adults.  I would love it if everyone groomed their own horses at shows, which is why I like to write these blogs.

So how do these pros get their horses to look so glossy and perfect at horse shows?

I’ll tell you what the professionals do every day at home, what they do before a show, how they get their horse ready in the practice pen, and how their finish their horse for competition.

 

The routine at home

Feed

Paid professionals take much pride in the way their horses are cared for especially when it comes to their grooming and conditioning, and they start with what a pro feeds their horse.  

In my experience, not only do trainers feed the highest quality feeds to ensure an extremely healthy looking horse, they also tend to feed their horses feeds that are high in fats and oils.  Not only does this keep their horses in a good show weight, but it also makes their coats bloom.  A horse who is healthy and shiney (and frankly a little fat) to begin with makes it easier to create a beautifully clean horse at the show.

 

Blanketing

Whether it’s warm or cold, professional equestrians usually keep their horses blanketed. This is because they want to keep their horses as warm as possible, in order to keep their coats as short as possible.  Sometimes they even opt for two blankets if one isn’t enough.  This is because a horse with shorter coat is a more sleek and polished looking than a horse with a long coat.

Blanketing not only keeps a horse’s coat short, it provides multiple other benefits to their coats.  The next most obvious benefit is that it keeps their coats free from dirt and dust.  I always put a sheet over my horse after giving her a bath before a show to keep her nice and clean.  

In addition to preventing the growth of coat hair, it keeps the coat laying flat against the horse’s skin.  Imagine getting the goosebumps when you are cold; the hair on your arms raise to help trap air against your skin to help insulate you.  This process happens to horses as well, and a horse with a puffed up coat tends to look dull and hairy.  A sheet or blanket will help keep the hair pushed down against your horses skin, but like a helmet will give you helmet hair.  This makes the horse’s coat looking sleek lite satin.

Lastly, a trainer will keep their horse blanketed for a long enough period of time that the natural oils of their horse’s coats will accumulate against their skin making their coat almost slippery.  Much like if you do not shower for a long time and your hair becomes sleek and oily.

There are some cons associated with keeping a horse blanketed all of the time, like a horse overheating, and the possibility of hair rubbing completely off in places; but for a professional, the benefits outway the cons.

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Snoozer was less than impressed with his blanket.

Turn out

Depending on the trainer, and the discipline, full time show horses get limited to no turn out.  While some pros prefer to let their horses out to let off some steam, others prefer to leave them in entirely to safeguard them from any injury they may inflict upon themselves outside.

Your average horse owner typically turns their horses out for the whole day, but let’s face it, horses who go outside, get dirty.  Even if they are brushed every day, horses who go outside will always be dirtier than ones who stay inside, and the horse whose mane and tail are exposed to the elements will always be more brittle, and snap off quicker than the horse who stays in.

You may think, “What if I bathe my horse regularly?”  One would think that would help, but when you bathe a dirty horse who came in from turn out, you are washing away any natural oils in your horse’s coat, making him less shiny than the horse who remained inside.

Personally, this factor is one reason that I know my horses will never be as lacquered looking as the rest of the pros.  I like to turn my horses out about eight hours a day, every day.  Keeping a turn out blanket on your horse will help keep him less dirty, and if you are determined  enough to have your horse shine bright like a diamond, you could bathe him, then leave him in for about a week before the show to try to achieve the professional horse coat all of the trainers have.

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Putting black horses outside can be especially harmful to their coats, as the sun will bleach it and turn it brown.

Every Day Grooming

Horses in the care of a professional, are always groomed twice a day; before and after they are worked.  Whether they are just lunged, or ridden, they are always groomed habitually.  When I groomed for trainers they had a specific regimen they followed.  It went as follows:

  • Curry comb the horse’s coat vigorously
  • Spray diluted moisturizing spray over the entire coat, mane, and tail feathers
  • Brush the body with a soft brush, brushing away loose hair, and brushing in the moisturizing spray
  • Carefully comb through/ detangle the mane and tail feathers
  • Pick the feet
  • Clip any long whiskers or a long bridlepath 

This was all done before any tack or protective equipment was put on the horse,  and it was all done again after the horse had been worked and properly cooled off.  If the horse got too hot and sweaty during his workout session he would get rinsed and sponged with a mixture of special oils and liniments.

An important detail to mention is that if you have groomed your horse properly after you have ridden, your horse should look as if he hadn’t been ridden at all.  That’s right, absolutely no saddle marks.  “IMPOSSIBLE!” you say, but it is more common than you think.  The university from which I graduated had 157 horses in their equestrian program, and every single one was always free of saddle marks.  In fact, you would be called back to groom your horse again if he was left with any sweat marks, because this is how a horse should be groomed.

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This is the specific coat moisturizer that the trainers I worked for used on their horses every day.

Monthly grooming

At home, horses in the care of professionals have their tails wrapped up (you can take a look at my article on caring for a show tail), and redone before each show, or about once every two months.  If the horse has a long mane, pros usually keep them braided (you can look at my caring for a long mane article) to prevent any wind knots and tangles.  Lastly, a good equine professional keeps their horses feet trimmed on a regular basis with proper shoeing on their horse’s feet.

Before leaving for the horse show

Usually, a big name trainer will have an assistant, or paid groom to go through a list to ensure every show horse gets the same treatment before the show.  This list usually entails:

  • Clipping legs
  • Clipping the head
  • Clipping the ears and bridle path
  • A full bath including taking down and washing the tail
  • Putting the tail in a tail bag once dry
  • Sanding Hooves

If the show is in the wintertime, most trainers opt to give their horses a full body clip about two weeks before the show.

I’ve written full articles on how to do most of these  so if you have any questions feel free to browse my older works.

 

In the practice ring at the show

Some trainers can have specific pet peeves about how their horses are presented, even in the practice ring.  The trainers I worked for hated when there were any shavings in the tail feathers of the horse they were working, even if they weren’t about to go into the show ring.   Pet peeves for trainers are understandable because the way their horses look while they and their clients ride are a reflection upon how much effort and care is given to each individual horse.  

Not only is the daily grooming ritual repeated before the horse is worked at the show, extra steps are taken to perpetuate a picture of professionalism and cleanliness on the part of the trainer.  These steps include but are not limited to;

  • Brushing all of the shavings out of the tail feathers, and mane
  • Wiping a thin layer of baby oil on the horses face and forelock
  • Wrapping legs in clean, modest colored polos
  • Wiping any extra boogers out of the horse’s nose
  • Dusting off any dusty tack

 

Speaking of tack…

If you haven’t already noticed, the tack a pro uses to practice in is usually very modest.  Normally, you will see matching plain leather bridles, and saddles with little to no embellishments, and modest colored saddle pads and protective equipment.  They save the bright colors and fancy tack for the show ring.

While practicing pro’s tend to go for a more modest look with solid or muted colored saddle pads and protective equipment because they want to be taken seriously.  Most trainers shy away from polos with crazy designs, halters in neon colors, or sparkly bright saddle pads.  Those eccentric or blingy items of tack are seen as a distraction to them, and the fancy colors or patterns tend to be a passing craze that will go out of fashion before the tack has been used to its full potential.

As an amateur, you can indulge in outgoing pieces of tack and equipment if you want, that’s the beauty of caring for your own horse, but if you want to be seen as someone who really knows what their doing, maybe go for a more modest look.

 

The finishing touches

So, you’ve made it this far and you need to get your horse ready for his class.  Assuming he has already been bathed, is free of saddle marks, and has been groomed at home with all of the earlier steps mentioned these are the next steps that need to be done

  1. Curry comb
  2. Coat conditioner
  3. Brush away loose hair
  4. Pick the feet
  5. Spot clean any dirty white spots
  6. Apply hoof black, or transparent hoof polish to hooves (it is important to do this after you have brushed their coat as to not get any loose hairs stuck onto the wet hooves)
  7. Take down clean tail out of its protective tail bag, and carefully comb through it with detangler and shine.  For a straighter tail, dowse it in showsheen to make it damp, then brush through it to take the kinks out.
  8. Apply detangler and shine to mane and comb through it
  9. Spray showsheen, or a aresoll coat highlighter to your horse’s coat, and wipe in in with a clean towel.
  10. Trim any rouge whisker or bridle path hairs you see.
  11. You may apply a thin layer of baby powder to white legs if they seem yellow, be careful though, because too much baby powder can look tacky, (make sure your horse’s hooves are dry before you apply)
  12. Use baby oil, or hair gel to hold together your horse’s forelock, and to lay rouge mane hairs flat.
  13. Saddle up (but do not tightened all of the way, your horse may be sitting around with the saddle on for a while)Apply face highlighter or baby oil to your horse’s eyes and muzzle for a shiny look
  14. Spray a good layer of fly spray on your horse
  15. Bridle, and go warm up for your class.

*Note; I did not mention any part of braiding or banding manes.  If you need to braid or band your horse’s mane and tail you must also take this factor into consideration, and depending on the type or style of braiding you need to do, you can prepare your horse as early as the day before like in the case of button braids, or you may need to braid right before your class in the case of a running braid.

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Horses in their groom stalls, impeccably turned out for their classes, and awaiting their riders.

Right before competition

When you leave for your class, make sure you have someone who can help you, that has a groom bag prepared.  This groom bag should have

  • A clean rag
  • Fly spray
  • A soft body brush
  • Showsheen
  • Mane and Tail brush
  • Small braiding rubber bands
  • Baby oil
  • A hoof pick
  • A bottle of water
  • Safety pins in case your number falls off.
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Your helper should look similar to this picture of me from my time grooming for a very successful Western Pleasure trainer in 2011.

If you’ve made it through this entire article, then you are now armed with the knowledge to groom your horse like a professional horse person does. Take these steps into consideration if you want your horse to look as clean and polished as those pros.   

A perfectly groomed horse will not ensure you win your class, but a well groomed horse completes a beautiful picture for the judges to watch.  A poorly groomed horse is a distraction and an eye soar.

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Caring for a Long Mane

Ever wonder how some horses like reiners or Friesians have such a beautiful long mane?  There a few reasons.  First is purely genetics; if any horse’s sire or dam has a long mane, then their offspring may have a long mane.  The second is hair maintenance.  Frequent care of any mane will cause it to grow longer and stay tangle free.

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Care of a long mane is simple, although sometimes time consuming.  It consists of washing the mane and putting it into braids at least once every month.  Here are the steps the professionals use to a maintain and grow a beautiful long mane:

First, the hair should be thoroughly washed and conditioned. Take special care to scrub the crest of the neck where the mane grows out of.  This will massage the hair follicles and encourage hair growth.  After washing, be sure to rinse out any remaining soap and conditioner residue.  If there is any soap left on your horse’s skin it will become itchy causing your horse to rub out his mane.

Next, once your horse’s mane is thoroughly rinsed, wait for it to dry.  For a faster dry time you can blow dry your horse’s mane, but be careful that you desensitize your horse to the sound of the blow-dryer beforehand.  Once dry, gently comb through the mane.

Lastly put the mane into braids.  A horse with an average thickness of mane each braid will use four to five inches of mane hair.  This will insure you don’t have a large number of tiny braids to deal with.  When you begin braiding be sure to make the very top of your braids as loose as possible.  If the top of the braid is tight, and your horse puts his head down to graze it will pull a large amount of hair out (this is especially true at the withers).  Once you’ve insured that the top of your braid is loose, the rest of your braid should be tight so that your braids don’t fall out.  Tie off your braids about three inches from the end of the mane hair.

If your horse has very thin hair the product MTG may also be applied to the roots as directed.

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These steps should be repeated ideally once every two weeks, but should be done at least once a month.  The longer the braids are left in the more at risk your horse is to pull out entire braids.

Long manes do not have to be braided like this; however, if they are not, they are at risk of getting wind knots as depicted in the picture below.  Wind knots are very common for long-maned horses and commonly need to be ripped or cut out causingthe mane to be uneven in appearance.

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Cooling Down: the Most Important Part of Your Ride

Many people forget that horses are athletes as well as companions and that they should be treated as such.  Any competitive human athlete always takes the time after their workout, game, or race to bring their heart-rate and body temperature carefully back to normal so that their body has time to repair itself; they do this by staying moving.

The cool-down session of a horse’s workout is the most commonly forgotten part. Because horses are athletes, they too need time to cool down and bring their body back to normal.  Going for a hard ride, then sticking they horse in his stall while he is breathing hard and sweating is harmful to his health in multiple ways!

If it is cold out while your horse’s body is trying to cool down, he will experience a rapid cooling, get the chills, begin to shiver, and become stiff, sore, and sick.  If he has access to food while he is hot and sweaty he will not be able to digest properly because his body is trying to cool off; this could cause him to colic.  If it is extremely hot outside, and you hose him off with ice cold water his muscles can experience shock, or can tie-up.  On the other hand, if it is extremely hot outside and you let him stand in his hot stall he could suffer a heat stroke.

So, how do you properly cool down your horse?  Follow these steps for a proper cool-down:

If it’s COLD outside:

  1. Un-tack your horse
  2. If he is sweaty, lay a cooler* over the top of him.  If the cooler becomes soaked with sweat before your horse is dry you will need to replace the old cooler with a fresh one until your horse is dry.
  3. Walk your horse around until his breathing returns to normal and he does not feel hot to the touch.  (You can observe how hard your horse is breathing by watching how quickly his flank rises and falls).
  4. If your horse is cool, but he still has access sweat on his body, he does not need to keep walking around, but he does need to maintain a cooler until he is dry.
  5. Once your horse is completely dry he will be easy to brush off, and he can be fed or he can go frolic in the pasture.

*A cooler is the common term for a fleece-like blanket designed for horses.  Its purpose is to wick away moisture from the horses body.  It is the only devise that can properly cool down a wet horse in cold weather.

An Unappreciative Horse and His Cooler

If it’s HOT outside:

  1. Un-tack your horse
  2. If he is foaming or dripping with sweat, rinse him off with warm water to avoid shock.
  3. Walk your horse around until his breathing returns to normal and he does not feel hot to the touch. (You can observe how hard your horse is breathing by watching how quickly his flank rises and falls).
  4. If your horse is cool, but he still has access sweat on his body the sun is a great tool to use to evaporate any sweat.
  5. Once your horse is completely dry he will be easy to brush off, and he can go back outside, into his stall, or be fed his favorite snack.

If your horse cannot catch his breath, is panting, lethargic, or just cannot seem recover he may be suffering from HEAT STROKE.

What to do in case of Heat Stroke:

  • Take your horses temperature rectally.  Anything over 101°F is considered abnormal.
  • Keep walking to help your horse catch his breath.
  • Sponge ice water onto the neck, chest, girth, and flank areas to try to cool his blood and organs down.
  • Inform your vet if you suspect heat stroke so he can be ready if your horse is not recovering in a timely manner.
  • Note the time you stopped working your horse to monitor how long it is taking him to recover (the vet will want this information).

Wrapping Polos: the Right Way

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Polo wraps are one of the most common and one of the oldest types of protective equipment.  They were designed to protect the horse’s legs from interference caused by the other legs during work.  Polos are a long piece of fleece cloth that ranges from 4-6 inches wide, and 6-10 feet long.

There is a common misconception that polos are able to provide support to the leg; this is untrue.  Polo wraps do not, and cannot provide support to the leg.  For a leg to obtain support it must be partially or completely immobile.  Polos are a simple piece of cloth and cannot physically immobilize the leg of a 1000+ pound animal.  So, polo wraps provide protection, not support.

Because of this common misconception, many people wrap polos too far up the leg, or too far down onto the pastern.  When wrapping the legs in this manner the polos create interference with movement.

Also note the difference between polo wraps and standing bandages.  Many catalogs and websites switch the names of these two items because they appear very similar, but they have two separate uses.   Just remember that a polo is usually made of fleece or a thick material.  Standing bandages are usually made of cotton or a thinner woven material.  When looking at a picture in a catalog, the polo will appear fatter, while the standing bandage is skinnier when they are rolled up.

Remember: if done improperly, a polo can cause serious harm to a horses leg.  If there is uneven pressure a tendon could possibly bow.  If you do not want to risk this, use a splint boot or sports medicine boot instead.

Before you wrap:

You must first make sure your polo is rolled properly.  The easiest way to remember which way to roll your polo is if you connect your two Velcro pieces together as shown in the picture below.

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Once your Velcro connects to each other, keep wrapping the polo in the same direction.  However, you may need to start at the fold on the top of the wrap making the wrap almost double up in the beginning like in the picture below.  This will make sure that your wrap will start off nice and tight.

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Rolling your polo as tight as possible will make it easier to wrap onto your horses leg. Below is a polo that is wrapped incorrectly because it is too rectangular, and a wrap that is too loose; you will not be able to roll these  onto the leg.  A polo that is rolled up correctly is also pictured.  Notice how it is tight and uniform.

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Wrapping:

Before you begin wrapping run your hand down the leg to wipe away any excess dirt that could cause irritation.

Place the wrap on the inside of the cannon without unrolling it.  If the end of the polo is facing towards the hindquarters while it is resting on the cannon, then the rest of your wrap should be correct.  If the end is facing the hindquarters but is away from the leg you will be wrapping the polo on wrong, and when you are finished your Velcro will be backwards.

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You will always be wrapping inside to outside, and front to back.  So, the left legs will always be wrapped counterclockwise and the right legs will always be wrapped clockwise.

Start in the middle of the cannon and roll the polo downward.  When you do so, you will be wrapping halfway down the previous track of polo.  This way you will never have a gap between polos.

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Once you reach the very top of the pastern, wrap downwards and around the fetlock as to cup the fetlock.  Your polo should just barely be covering the horse’s ergot, and not be covering any of the pastern. This is the beginning of the ‘V,’ which you will be doing twice.

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Next, bring your polo back upwards and roll it around the cannon once. You will notice a shallow inverted ‘V’ shape formed in the center of the front of the fetlock. Now, do the same two motions over again; roll downward and back up over the same ‘V’ shape you had before.  The reason we create the ‘V’ shape twice is because the fetlock is the most vulnerable part of the leg and receives the most amount of impact from the other legs.

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Once you have created the second V then roll the wrap up the rest of the leg.  Keep in mind that your goal is to end with the Velcro at the top of the cannon.  So, if your wrap is extremely long, or your horse’s cannons are very short, you may have to cover more than half of the previous wrapping.  If you reach the top and there is still too much, simply start wrapping downwards again, but keep it in mind for next time.

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Make certain that while you’re wrapping you’re applying even pressure! If parts of your wrap are tighter than others you may bow a tendon!

Additionally, make sure there are as little wrinkles as possible in your wrap.  Wrinkles also cause uneven pressure and are hazardous.

If your Velcro is bad:

If your Velcro seems to not be able to stick to itself then taping the polo on is appropriate.  Masking tape is the most appropriate tape to use because it cannot stretch; stretchy tape will wrap too tight and a leg could become seriously injured.  If you only have stretchy tapes make sure to lay the tape over the leg; do not wrap it around! There are two ways to use the tape as shown in the pictures below.

First is to simply wrap the tape around itself, or you can wrap in a three tier system.  Both are appropriate.

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Like everything in the horse world, learning to wrap polos takes PATIENCE and PRACTICE.  Never settle for an OK wrapping job because you could potentially injure your horse.