Summertime, and the living is easy … at least when it comes to your horse’s coat. (Don’t you love how sleek it is this time of year?)
Of course, we all know the basics of good grooming: curry, brush and bathe when necessary. Then rub that coat until it gleams. Indeed, you’d be hard pressed to find a professional groom who doesn’t stick to this routine, no matter the season.
However, there’s more to keeping a horse’s skin healthy and his coat radiant when temperatures soar and humidity peaks—especially during a long, hectic competition season. So, we asked veteran U.S. Equestrian Team groom Laurie Pitts and Ciera Cordero, who grooms for Canadian Grand Prix dressage rider Shannon Dueck, to share their favorite summer coat-care tips.
Tools and Techniques
It goes without saying that you should start each grooming session with clean tools and brushes that aren’t past their prime. Also, be sure to budget enough time to do the job right. While a vacuum might afford a quick fix, it doesn’t stimulate the circulation or distribute oils throughout the coat like a thorough hand grooming.
Pitts and Cordero have a few noteworthy suggestions to basic grooming. “I’m a big fan of the tried-and-true curry mitt,” said Cordero. “I use the soft side gently on faces or legs and the stiffer side on the rest of the body,” she continued, adding, “Elbow grease is a coat’s best friend.”
For her part, Pitts recommended taking advantage of your horse’s short summer coat to use your hands more this season. It’s a great way to keep tabs on the health of his skin. “For summer grooming, I spend a little more time using my hands to feel for tiny imperfections that are, in reality, an insect bite, a small thorn, a tiny tick, and ingrown hair,” she noted. “These small things can easily be missed with grooming tools, but a thorough hands-on exam will often find them before they become problems.”
In addition, Pitts suggested adding the following to your summertime tool kit:
- a fly spray with a built-in UV protectant
- apple cider vinegar with “the mother” (beneficial bacteria, yeast and protein that can give it a cloudy appearance)
- rubbing alcohol
Why apple cider vinegar? As Pitts explained, it is a natural insect repellant with anti-fungal properties—especially important in the summer because fungus loves warm, moist skin (as does rain rot, which is a skin infection caused by the bacterium Dermatophilus congolensis). “I will add this to clean bath water as a rinse after a hose off or to dip a sponge in if its only sweat marks that need addressing,” she said. “It also increases shine!”
Cordero agreed. “I like to think I’m a bit of a hot-weather expert, considering I’ve [been] living in Florida year-round for more than a few years now,” she said. “I’m incredibly picky with grooming especially during the hot season … I even do some vinegar baths when needed to help with any fungus, and it leaves a super shine to their coat.”
As for alcohol, it’s handy “… if you need sweat marks to dry super-fast, like at a horse show,” Pitts maintained. “It will also cool a horse quickly when applied liberally to the chest, flanks and legs.” However, she warned that it’s drying and therefore not for everyday use.
Sweat and Water
By the way, don’t sweat the sweat unless there isn’t any when there should be. In this case, get your horse into the shade and contact a veterinarian immediately to check for anhidrosis.
That said, sweat can wreak havoc on the skin and coat if not removed after a ride. This is due largely to its salt content.
One simple solution is to get out that hose. “To cool horses down, to get the sweat out of their coats, to rinse pollen, grass seed and other things off of their legs, requires water,” Pitts said. “Leaving sweat to dry in their coats is not good horsemanship. The salt in sweat is very drying to coats and is impossible to remove with just grooming. Your use
of soap doesn’t need to increase, but water does.
Precautions to take, whether rinsing sweat out of your horse’s coat or giving him a full bath, include painting his hooves with a water-resistant dressing beforehand to keep excessive moisture from weakening the hoof walls. Then, after rinsing your horse, get as much water out of his coat and legs as possible, taking special care to dry the legs thoroughly. Whether you use a sweat scraper, a dry sponge and/or a lot of clean, dry towels, this step is critical. “All my horses get their legs washed after every ride and towel-dried to promote healthy skin and avoid fungus,” Cordero noted.
Cordero has another trick that she uses when she needs to take care of a horse who has sweat: “When a horse isn’t too sweaty after, say, a trail ride, I will apply a spray hair moisturizer and let their coats dry all the way, then curry and brush their coats out,” she said. “But if your horse is very sweaty, I highly encourage giving them a shower; it will
be better for their skin and temperature regulation in the long run.”
Bathe Like a Boss
While it might be tempting to bathe your horse often during the sticky, icky “dog days” of summer, lathering up too frequently, especially with a harsh shampoo or soap, can strip the natural oils and leave him with dry, itchy skin. So can failure to rinse, rinse, rinse until nary a soap bubble is seen.
This can start a vicious cycle since your horse will be inclined to roll to ease the itching, dirtying his coat all over again. While a layer of dirt or mud can indeed soothe the itch and protect your horse from biting flies, it’s obviously less desirable at show time—and re-bathing him will only dry the skin again.
So how often is too often? While it depends on the individual horse, his coloring and his competition schedule, Cordero had this to say: “My horses get hosed off after every ride and properly bathed about once a week unless something else is happening … to avoid dry hair and skin.”
Pitts said her routine is usually “… a good soap bath before a horse show and washing of white areas as needed. This routine does not apply to gray horses. For them, do what it takes at the show to keep them sparklingly clean. Then, at home, back off and use as little shampoo as possible.”
When you do bathe your horse, use a scrub mitt to get deep down to the skin and be as thorough as you can while using the least amount of soap. One of Pitts’ pet peeves is a freshly bathed horse being walked away with sweat lather still between his hind legs. “Ewwww!” she said. “Stick the hose between the hind legs and rinse well.”
Follow up by scraping and towel drying—right down to the pasterns and heels—just as you do with a daily rinse-off. Remember, heat plus moisture left against the skin can cause trouble.
One of the telltale signs of summer is the bleaching of dark horses’ coats when they are turned out in full sun. If you don’t like the reddish hue that can result, Pitts’ tip about fly sprays with UV protectants is one way to help prevent this.
Cordero concurred, casting her vote for clothing that guards against damaging rays. “The best way to avoid sun bleaching is fly sheets and using sprays that help with SPF,” she said.
Then there are those delicate, pink-skinned noses and the “bald” areas around brands, both of which can get painfully sunburned. What to do? There are sunscreens and sunblocks specifically formulated for horses, some of which include skin-soothing aloe. It’s best to opt for non-greasy products formulated without drying alcohol.
Alternatively, you could simply keep your horse stabled during the brightest daylight hours or use sun-shielding masks. If they have a pink nose, I use a long fly mask with a flap over it,” Cordero said.
Stop the Stains
Every competition groom has a trick or two for making gray coats and white markings “pop.” These methods become especially important during show season.
Of course, getting whites white and keeping them that way can take a little time. That’s why many grooms recommend starting the whitening process on dingy, yellowed areas (like fetlocks and hocks) well before you leave for the competition, using whitening products sparingly to avoid skin irritation.
“There are many spot-washing/dry shampoo products on the market to help with stain removal and keeping socks white,” Pitts noted.
“There are some companies that sell a special whitening spray you can use for last-minute stains that works super,” Cordero said. “Other than that, I love to use whitening shampoo on whites; it’s the best way to get them clean. Leave it to sit for 10 minutes and your horse’s whites will be sparkling!
“I also love those grooming wipes, they work great as a last-minute touch up and add superior shine,” she said. “They are gentle enough to clean noses and ears but tough enough you can scrub at any stain.”
Of course, grooming isn’t the only way to produce a dazzling coat. It’s also important to think “inside out” when striving for that shine.
Ensure that your horse has regular veterinary care, including a customized deworming program (have you done a fecal count lately?) and good daily nutrition to prevent his haircoat from becoming dull or brittle. In particular, verify (with an equine nutritionist, if necessary) that your horse is receiving protein, fat, copper, iodine, zinc and vitamins A, E and C in appropriate quantities. Remember, too, that more is not necessarily better with some nutrients—it can even, in the case of selenium, be toxic.
Is supplementation essential for a lustrous coat if your horse’s diet is already balanced and nutritious? Opinions on this vary, and the answer might depend in part on the individual. “All my horses stay on some kind of flaxseed supplement year-round,” Cordero noted. However, she added, “Quality feed and hay [are] always important.”
Pitts’ charges stay on a fairly consistent regimen year-round, too. “I don’t change the diet in the summer, other than limiting grass consumption on horses with a weight issue or laminitic tendencies (sorry, ponies!),” she explained. “I always feed a high-fat feed with protein enough to build muscle, skin and hair.”
Summer coat care can present a challenge, especially if you’re competing. However, time taken to consider your horse’s comfort and health is always time well spent.
A Quick Grooming Refresher
Here are the basics of a good grooming routine:
- Begin by putting some muscle into your currying to loosen the dirt and scurf that accumulates on your horse’s skin.
- Then brush the coat vigorously from front to back, using short strokes in the direction of hair growth and alternating arms. Start with stiff-bristled brushes for heavy dirt or caked-on mud, moving to progressively softer, finer-bristled brushes.
- Finish with a rub rag or soft brush to remove dust.
To Clip or Not?
As of July 1, 2021, a horse is not permitted to compete in International Equestrian Federation (FEI) events “… if the horse’s sensory hairs have been clipped and/or shaven or in any other way removed, unless individual sensory hairs have been removed by a veterinarian to prevent pain or discomfort for the horse.”
The reason is the whisker-like hairs around the eyes and muzzle are tactile hairs, known as vibrissae. As the FEI veterinary committee stated in a 2020 memo, it believes that removal of these hairs “ … reduces the horse’s sensory ability.”
In addition, the hair inside the ears helps protect against biting insects and can be gently cleaned with a soft brush by turning the ear inside-out.
There are no official restrictions for clipping the body, legs and under-jaw area, etc. This is an individual preference and often done as much for sanitary reasons—especially in hot, humid climates—as for appearance.
Just ask dressage groom Ciera Cordero, whose experience with muggy, “brutal” Florida summers has taught her to keep the clippers handy. “I keep all my [mostly warmblood] horses regularly body clipped throughout the summer unless they naturally have a soft, short, thin coat. The short hair is easier to keep clean and avoid skin problems,” she explained. “Otherwise, [I do] routine leg clipping between body clipping to help keep the hair short, happy, dry and fungus-free!”
By contrast, hunter/jumper groom Laurie Pitts is not a fan of summer clips. “Clipping takes away all the horse’s defenses against bugs, sun and moisture,” she said. “The natural summer coat is slick and lays close to the skin, serving as a natural protectant against these things and sloughing off water like a raincoat.
“Horses are supposed to sweat! Don’t try and stop this process by taking their hair away. Keep the hair, curry/brush/rub on them until your arm falls off, and you will have a beautiful coat that looks amazing,” she said.
The obvious exception, as Pitts noted, is horses whose coats should be clipped because they suffer from pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, which causes the hair to grow in thick and heavy all year long. “When you must do this, you have to compensate with other ways of protecting them, like fly sheets/socks/masks and even more frequent application of fly spray,” Pitts said.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2022 issue of Practical Horseman.