Grooming is about much more than presentation. Here’s how to keep your horse looking great and enrich your relationship… naturally.
Some horses hate grooming. They can’t stand still, and will try to nip, bite, kick, flinch, swish their tails and toss their heads. Others tolerate it by just tuning out and resigning themselves to the process. Then there are the horses that absolutely love it. Having a horse that looks forward to grooming is often a true testament to the quality of your relationship…and if your horse doesn’t fit into this category, grooming is a great way to build this relationship.
In this article, we’re going to look at how you can have a nicely groomed horse with a neat mane and tail, shiny coat and clean edges (ears, chin and fetlocks) – and how to achieve that goal as naturally as possible and with your horse’s best interests in mind. You can have your horse looking great while enhancing your relationship and solving behavioral problems – all at the same time.
Shine comes from the inside. It’s a reflection of good health and is attained mainly through good nutrition. Grooming massages the skin and improves circulation, but if your horse’s coat is dull, dry and frizzy, this usually means his health is compromised. He may be missing something in his diet or be emotionally stressed.
Apart from making sure our own horses enjoy a happy life, we take care of their nutritional needs with elements such as flaxseed oil (also known as linseed oil), Parelli Vitals (liquid minerals) and Parelli Essentials (for optimum digestive health) sprinkled on top of a simple grain, bran and sunflower seed mix, good grass and alfalfa hay. This ensures the horses shine from the inside.
Every day, we brush our horses and we do it with love, putting our hearts into every stroke – not just mechanically taking the dirt off. Horses can feel the difference, and sometimes horses who dislike being groomed will respond much better when you soften your touch (for introverted horses), speed up (for extroverts), or find their favorite itchy spot (left-brained horses).
Washing – We rarely use more than water to wash the sweat off our horses, since keeping the natural oils intact is important protection against the elements and insects. In fact, many horses roll in the dirt right after bathing to restore some kind of skin protection, and light-colored horses seem to need dark dirt! When we do use shampoos, we select those that are moisturizing and feature natural ingredients, and even then, we only shampoo when filming or for a show. Mostly we just rinse with water or wipe over the coat with a damp rag and sometimes a little oil.
Moisturizing – When the climate is especially dry, we gently rub a little oil around the eyes and muzzle to lubricate and soften the skin in these delicate areas. Natural oils like flaxseed, coconut or olive oil are best. First rub the oil on your hands and then smooth it on, or add it to a damp cloth. Not too much, though – you don’t want your horse greasy.
A beautiful mane and tail
Some horses have big, full manes and tails, while others don’t – a lot like people, really! Taking good care of them is part of keeping the hair soft and supple. Once again, good hair health depends on the same elements as a good coat, so first make sure your horse is getting the nutrition he needs, and then use natural shampoos, conditioners and de-tanglers to avoid breakage. Always brush carefully, just like girls with long hair do!
Mane and tail length is usually a personal preference or a breed/ sport style. The style for some sports and breeds is long, while for others it’s short. Some people like long, natural manes and tails, no matter what, while others prefer a certain style of grooming – not too short, not too long.
Here’s how I trim the manes and tails on my warmblood horses:
Mane – I like a groomed and trimmed mane with a soft edge, rather than a blunt, clipped, straight edge. But I don’t like the traditional approach of “pulling” manes. This involves backcombing and then pulling hairs out, which hurts or stings to some extent. To achieve this look without discomfort, I use thinning shears (scissors with teeth) and cut diagonally into the mane, both ways, sometimes going deeper into thicker areas to produce a more unified look. I end up with a somewhat natural line that is not too long and not too short but has a wellgroomed appearance. (There are also special combs you can use, so instead of pulling the hairs out after back-combing, you can simply press a lever and the comb cuts the hairs). Sure, you’ll make mistakes – I certainly have – so go for a longer length first, or once you’ve corrected the mistakes, it will be too short!
Tail – To help the tail look a little fuller and smarter (like a good haircut), I trim the ends somewhere between the fetlock and the hocks. I go shorter for a sporty look, longer for a more elegant look. Again, I use thinning shears to snip back and forth on diagonal angles until I get the length I want. This way the cut has soft edges. If the top of the tail has been rubbed or has short, in-growing hairs, I thin that area out a little so it doesn’t look so bushy as it grows out.
Shiny hooves are a reflection of good health, just like the mane and coat – or our fingernails, for that matter. If you see dryness, flakes, cracks and ridges, you need to look at how to help your horse’s health and nutrition.
We only use hoof dressing when the weather is particularly dry; otherwise, we leave them alone. Putting too much moisture on the hoof can make it soft when it needs to stay tough and strong. When we use nutritive oils, we rub them into the coronet band rather than the hoof itself.
The final touch
Groom with love! I’ve seen so many people brush, comb, trim, wash and scrub as if they were working on a dirty wall. Grooming your horse is an intimate thing; this is a living, feeling, breathing and sensitive being. Approach grooming as if brushing a child’s hair. Use “feel”, and do it with care and love, even if you are in a hurry. Your grooming sessions can either enhance or damage the relationship you have with your horse. Think of it as a way to improve your relationship with your horse, to spend undemanding time with him instead of just getting him ready for what you want to do. Think of it this way: what would make your horse look forward to grooming time?
If he hates to be groomed…
Horses hate being groomed for one of three reasons: fear, dominance, or because you’re doing it wrong!
Some horses are afraid to be touched; they find it invasive and uncomfortable. If you are trying to be gentle but still have trouble, this can be an indication that your horse doesn’t fully trust you. Watch facial expressions for positive signs of enjoyment, such as soft eyes, head tilting and lip stretching when you find that itchy spot. Some horses will even maneuver themselves into position to give you better access to that spot! Watch too for negative signs such as twitching skin, lifting head, ears going back or a swishing tail, which means “back off or else!” Use our Friendly Game principle of “approach and retreat” to gain acceptance and figure out how to make grooming into something your horse enjoys.
When it comes to fear of things like clippers, you need to apply some serious attention and preparation to build your horse’s confidence. Refer to our member DVDs and articles, or even help from a Parelli Professional, for more information.
In a herd of horses, the dominant animal initiates grooming… it’s all about who touches who. If you have a left-brained horse that objects to grooming, it’s most likely because he thinks he is the boss. Rather than resorting to cross-ties, this is your chance to figure out how to improve your relationship and gain the alpha position. It might mean you have to play with your horse first to get him in the mood to be groomed, or that you need to find that itchy spot under his belly, his thighs, tail, or on top of his mane near his withers – the parts he cannot reach to scratch himself.
3. You’re doing it wrong!
Some horses hate grooming because it is too scary, too soft, too hard, too boring or annoying. Knowing what Horsenality™ the horse is will give you major clues as to how to make your grooming sessions less stressful and build you relationship:
Left-brain extrovert — Grooming is all about fun and should be vigorous!
Left-brain introvert — Grooming is all about enjoyment and itchy spots!
Right-brain extrovert — Grooming needs to be firm, yet rhythmic and soothing.
Right-brain introvert — Grooming needs to be gentle and sensitive.
With this knowledge, you can make your grooming sessions much more fulfilling and take your relationship and fun with your horses to a whole new level. Who knew that grooming could be this valuable?