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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
- Curry comb
- Coat conditioner
- Brush away loose hair
- Pick the feet
- Spot clean any dirty white spots
- 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)
- 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.
- Apply detangler and shine to mane and comb through it
- Spray showsheen, or a aresoll coat highlighter to your horse’s coat, and wipe in in with a clean towel.
- Trim any rouge whisker or bridle path hairs you see.
- 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)
- Use baby oil, or hair gel to hold together your horse’s forelock, and to lay rouge mane hairs flat.
- 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
- Spray a good layer of fly spray on your horse
- 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.
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
- 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.
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.