Whether it's a pre-show scrub or a summer "get-out-the-winter-grime" bath, your horse's coat will benefit from a good shampoo. But, to be honest, that's not the only reason I do it. I'm proud of my horses, and I want them to look well-groomed. That it's good for the horse is an added benefit. While I can't say if my horses like being clean, I certainly like them better.
You'll get wet, so dress accordingly. It's not a bad idea to wear rubber gloves, which not only keep your hands warm, but also keep your skin from drying out. Obviously, it's wise to tie him up or have a friend hold him. Finding a spot that won't get muddy is a good idea, too.
Your shampoo selection should reflect how often you bathe your horse and what you intend the bath to do. Is it simply to wash away dirt? Is it to replenish oils in the skin? Is it to keep flies away? The more you bathe your horse, the more gentle the shampoo should be. Take time to shop.
"It's important to use shampoos formulated for horses," says Curt Morse, regional product manager for Absorbine.
"You want to look for a shampoo that is pH-balanced for the horse and mild enough so you could shampoo a horse every day if you wanted without causing any problems."
Morse notes that horses have a delicate balance of bacteria on their skin, which needs to be maintained. "You want the horse's skin and coat to be clean, yet you don't want to kill the bacteria."
I always use shampoos especially formulated for horses. If I'm getting a horse ready for a show, I bathe him a few days before the event. Even the best soaps can take the glossy sheen off the coat. Any stains or spots can be touched up the day of the show.
Once you've made your shampoo selection, you're ready to start. Begin by wetting the entire body down to the skin. I've found my horses generally enjoy this, especially in hot, humid weather. Start at the feet and work up the leg, then onto the body. This will get your horse accustomed to the sound and feel of the water. He'll be more accepting when you finally hose his back.
Mix the shampoo with warm water in a bucket. Be sure to read the manufacturer's directions carefully -- some shampoos are more concentrated than others. Sponge on the soapy water, sudsing up each section at a time.
After you sponge each section, work the shampoo in-and the dirt out-with a rubber curry comb or a grooming mitt. Use lots of elbow grease. This is the time to get out all of the dead cells and dirt from deep in your horse's coat. If your horse is dirty enough to color the white suds, rinse away the suds and soap him again.
Keep soapy parts wet. If they are allowed to dry, the shampoo will leave a film that will dull the coat.
Rinse well with clean running water in reverse order from how you wet him down. The better shampoos rinse out easily, but be thorough because residues dull the coat and irritate the skin.
Start with the top first and work down, rinsing the lower leg and hooves last. It's good to massage the horse's skin with either your hands or a mitt as you rinse. Keep the water running until no more soap runs out.
After rinsing, I use the sweat scraper on my horse to remove any excess water, followed by a good toweling.
Finally, I walk him until he's dry. If he's not, my horse will immediately roll in the dustiest spot he can find, and it'll be back to the drawing board. If it's chilly or windy, you might want to toss on a cooler that will pull moisture away from the skin, and keep him a little warmer.
Remember to use common sense when bathing-if you think it's too cold to be standing outside getting wet while washing your horse, it probably is too cold to bathe him, unless you have a heated wash stall.
Horses generally dislike having their heads washed, so the task takes a little more planning. Don't use the same amount of shampoo you used, proportionally, for the body, but use a separate bucket with minimal soap. That translates to less rinse time.
Using a small sponge, I gently wet my horse's head, massage in the shampoo, then rinse. Keep in mind that horses don't like gallons of water dumped on their heads, so it's good to have another bucket of water with a clean sponge to rinse away suds.
I finish by lightly wiping the nostrils and inside the ears with a damp (not wet) sponge.
Tails and manes are tricky, too. Fold the tail in half, approach from the side with a bucket filled with warm soapy water, and dunk the tail in. Be careful; remember that you're at the business end of the horse.
Shampoo the tail the way you shampoo your hair. Don't scrub too vigorously, or you'll break the hairs.
Keep in mind that a wet tail can pack a nasty wallop, so try to hold it still while shampooing and rinsing.
Conditioners are a good idea, especially on the mane and tail. I have started using a mane and tail conditioner to minimize hair breakage.
"Like shampoo, I recommend using a conditioner especially formulated for horses," says Morse. "It's a very good idea if you bathe a horse frequently.
"Even a good shampoo will strip out some oils, so a conditioner is a good way to replenish those oils and, again, balance the bacteria."
Baths damage hooves
Bathing horses will tend to dry out hooves, which can lead to breakage, which might be why dry, brittle hooves are more of a problem in the summer. An easy way to minimize this is to coat the hooves with a petroleum jelly prior to bathing, says The Mane Points publication director Dr. Ken Kopp.