Have you ever watched two horses in a pasture or paddock, contentedly scratching each others’ withers or rumps with their teeth? They do this because it feels good. If scratching each other with their teeth makes them feel good, it stands to reason that massaging their skin with a brush will also make them feel good.
Even without a companion, horses will seek to groom themselves. Turn a sweaty saddle horse out into a pen after hard use and what is the first thing that horse will do? He will lie down and roll in the sand, rubbing away accumulated sweat and scratching itchy spots. When the horse has finished rolling, it will get to its feet and send dust and dirt flying as its shakes itself vigorously. Both actions are a form of self-grooming and self-cleansing.
As the horse’s caretaker, we can help with that feel-good grooming process. Horses should be groomed both before and after being ridden or driven. Grooming before riding helps make certain that there is nothing tangled in the hair where the saddle or harness will rest. Grooming after the ride helps remove sweat and debris that accumulated during exertion.
Daily grooming also gives you a chance to detect and monitor any injuries or other health problems such as cuts, skin infections, allergic reactions, thrush, etc. Finding health problems early gives you the best chance of treating them successfully.
Grooming your horse is something that should become a habit. However, it is not the easiest habit to lock into. After all, it does take time, and we often are in a hurry. Here in the west we call it a “cowboy brushing” when we need to get saddled in a hurry (when cattle have broken through a fence or some other emergency has arisen). A cowboy brushing means that you quickly run your hand over the area where the saddle rests and under the belly where the cinch goes, making certain that those areas of the body are clear of debris.
That being said, there aren’t many times when such haste is essential. If we are going to ask that horse to carry us either in work or for pleasure for several hours at a stretch, we certainly can take a few minutes to groom him before climbing aboard. And, when we are finished with the horse, a thorough grooming should be the order of the day.
While grooming is designed to help maintain a healthy skin and hair coat, there can be side benefits. This is especially true with stallions and young horses. During breeding season, stallions often are bred or collected once or more per day. It doesn’t take long for them to make the connection between leaving the stall and mating. In the process they can turn rank, fighting the handlers to get to the mare or breeding dummy.
By taking the stallion from his stall at least once a day for grooming, a handler can convince the horse that merely being led from the stall doesn’t necessarily mean covering a mare is imminent. It can make a big difference in the stallion’s behavior.
Grooming is also highly important in training young horses. It gives us a reason to put them in cross-ties or tie them to a hitching rail. They learn to stand patiently and enjoy what is happening to them. We also teach them to stand quietly for the farrier when their feet are picked up and worked on by routinely handling their feet. Grooming also serves as a training approach for standing quietly while being saddled.
One must be aware, however, that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to grooming. It is an individual thing. Understanding each horse enables the groomer to pick the proper tools and to use them in such a way that the horse is not irritated.
Some horses have greater skin sensitivity than others. With some you can use a metal curry comb and apply it with vigor to the horse’s apparent satisfaction. If you use the same approach with a horse which has more sensitive skin, you will have a horse that flinches and avoids being groomed.
Fortunately, there are a wide variety of grooming tools on the market so that we can pick and choose what is best for each individual horse. Many of these tools are made of pliable plastic. Basic grooming tools include a hoof pick; curry comb–metal or plastic, with plastic being far more popular today; body brush with stiff bristles; brush with longer, softer bristles; mane and tail comb; sweat or water scraper; and grooming cloth. There are many variations in these basic tools, as well as in such helpful devices as specially designed vacuums (see “The Right Stuff” below).
It is not difficult to spot a clean, well-groomed horse, as the natural oils brought to the surface will cause the horse’s coat to gleam. Its mane and tail will ripple in the breeze with no signs of knots or tangles. There might even be a special little gleam in the horse’s eye because it feels good.
There is infinite variety when shopping for grooming tools. One can purchase plastic brushes that are designed to fit the hand and are equipped with flexible “fingers” that clean and massage. There are brushes with horsehair bristles, grooming combs with teeth that rotate to help clear tangled manes, portable vacuums that pull dust from the coat, brushes that are designed just for the horse’s face, specially designed bathing gloves, kits that contain everything needed in pulling and braiding manes…the list goes on and on.
And, oh yes, you can still purchase the old-fashioned metal curry comb. Only now, it often is referred to as the reversible shed ring.
And, of course, there are a great many grooming boxes available for holding the grooming equipment and supplies, making it possible to keep them all in one place instead of being scattered throughout the tack room or stable.
However, when all is said and done, it isn’t the number of items one has in the grooming box that is important. It is how and how often you use them that matters. Regular grooming is essential, whether done with the most sophisticated equipment available, or with a brush and old-fashioned metal curry comb.