Grooming should be done as part of your routine horse care. It has benefits for you and your horse – it helps to keep you fit and it is good for your horse’s skin. Basic grooming involves brushing the whole of the body in the direction of the hair growth to remove mud and dust, picking out the feet and tidying the mane and tail with a brush. As well as making sure that your horse does not have any dirt/grit on them that would cause a rub from tack while being worked, it gives you chance to look over your horse for any injuries or indeed anything unusual such as lumps, bumps etc.
Why does my horse like to roll and get dirty?
Grooming means different things to you and your horse. In a natural situation horses take care of their own skin. They do this by rolling (which as well as having other benefits helps to remove dead hair and exfoliate the skin), rubbing on protrusions such as a low tree branch (for the same benefits as rolling) and by mutual grooming. Mutual grooming is where two horses use their front incisor teeth to rub/nip each other to reach the parts of the body that are difficult to reach. This is a literal case of ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’. The weather also plays a part as rain also helps to wash out dead hair and skin.
So how often should I groom my horse?
If your horse lives outside in a herd situation and does not wear rugs (and is therefore benefiting from mutual grooming sessions with other horses) then the only grooming you need to do is just before you ride him or her.
In this case you need to make sure that the areas that the tack will sit on the horse are clean and free from any dirt/grit etc. Other than that you only have to do the minimum grooming required to make the horse look tidy enough to ride, but by all means groom your horse as often and for as long as you like if he or she enjoys it. Brushing leaves the essential oils in the coat whereas washing (hosing/sponging) does not, so limit washing if your horse lives outside without rugs.
During those times of the year when horses are shedding their coat you can do your horse a favour by grooming him or her with a tool especially for the job – such as a hard rubber curry comb etc. Be aware that during grooming sessions some horses may attempt to groom you with their teeth as this is how they tell other horses where to scratch. You should not allow your horse to do this to you (push their face away gently but firmly), because you could easily end up with an unintentional but still painful nip.
Horses that are not rugged should be cooled down and dried with a towel after exercise and before being put back in the paddock to roll in the dust. After exercise on a warm day, the sweat can be removed with a wet sponge or a hose (no detergent or a mild detergent).
A horse that is living outside does not necessarily have to have their feet picked out everyday. It is quite natural for soil to build up in the hooves. Again, just before you ride you can pick out the hooves. Hoof dressings are not necessary and can actually cause problems in a pastured horse as they prevent the hooves from absorbing moisture from the grass (such as the dew in the morning).
Is grooming important for my confined or rugged horse?
When horses are kept on their own (not recommended) and/or permanently rugged (not recommended either) then grooming becomes even more important because the horse cannot then take care of his or her own skin. In this case a horse needs daily grooming sessions. Otherwise dead skin and hair builds up and causes discomfort and skin problems. So once a day the rugs should be removed and the horse given a good and thorough grooming starting with a stiff bristled brush (to remove dead skin and hair) and finishing with a softer brush to remove dust. In this case please try to remember that your horse needs to behave like a real horse and allow them to roll in sand or mud from time to time for the sheer pleasure it brings. This can be done when the horse is sweaty after work. The horse can then be cleaned up and rugged again. In fact a very good tradition in racing stables is to let the horse roll in a sand roll after exercise.
For more information please see the Equiculture Responsible Horse Care page.