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by Kim and Kari Baker


Mirror KB Equine Article Series

Primp Like a Pro
Put a Professional Finish on your Horse
by Kim and Kari Baker

     You can't improve natural beauty, or can you? Most horsemen will acknowledge that horses as a whole, possess a natural beauty that cannot be rivaled by many species. If it's a given that horses are naturally beautiful, why does so much extra primping and preening go on in the show barn? What's the purpose to all that extra spit and polish and man-made veneer?

     In the show world today, competition is at its toughest and it's estimated that you have only a minute or two during your class to catch the judge's eye, and then somehow emerge from the crowd to pull off that all-important "second look." If you've been around the show ring for any length of time you've probably made, or at least heard, the proverbial comment, "That judge didn't even look at us." In all probability the judge did look, but with so many others vying for his appraisal, getting that important second look is nothing less than a challenge.

     It takes much more to produce a competitively turned out horse than simply providing it with a healthy diet, proper exercise, and diligent daily grooming.  Though it will vary depending on breed preferences, there are a number of grooming tricks that one can use to add that finished show ring touch.

Polish that coat

     A sleek shinny coat is the most noticeable trait of a healthy horse and is truly the basis in achieving a winning look. Producing a coat that glistens actually begins with providing a good diet. Your horse's nutritional regimen must contain essential amino acids such as lysine, methionine, and cystin. These nutrients actually link together to form protein. Minerals (i.e. zinc, manganese, and copper) will aid in improving the health of hair follicles while fats (i.e. corn oil, linseed oil & rice bran), not only contribute to the production of sebum, the skins natural oil, but also aid in the absorption of the fat-soluble vitamins A & B. Vitamin A is particularly essential for maintaining healthy epithelial cells.

     While not a nutritional additive, keeping your horse on a well-scheduled deworming program will add to his improved health and sleek coat. "Our horses are all dewormed on a monthly basis and if there is a big show during the month we'll deworm the horse again three days before the show. We find that this helps tuck the horse up a little," explains George Greasley, of George's Show Horses in Spokane, Washington.

  A regular grooming routine helps remove dirt and dead hair from the horse's coat, and a vigorous session with a rubber currycomb followed by energetic use of the dandy brush will promote circulation. It also produces friction that stimulates the release of the skin's natural oil, sebum. To aid in distributing this natural oil, finish up with a brisk rubdown of the horse's coat with your bare hands. This has the effect of lubricating each hair follicle, producing that sought after shine.

     As a rule, bathing your horse too often is more likely to damage rather than enhance a shinny coat. I don't bathe my horses very often as I feel it dries out the coat and isn't healthy for the skin. Usually I will bathe the day before a show then follow it with a silicone oil free coat conditioner," says Jeanne Hale of Moosewood Farm in Palmer, Alaska.

     Shampoos not only work to remove dirt they also remove natural oil from the skin and hair, so it's best to keep full body baths to a minimum. No more than one every two weeks should do the job. In between baths, if you find it necessary to remove sweat after a hard work out, a warm water rinse with a few drops of mineral oil, Pin-Sol or Bigeloil, will do the trick.

     When you do bathe your horse, choose a mild shampoo. Wash the body, mane and tail then rinse thoroughly and follow with a conditioner. Don't forget to thoroughly but gently wash around your horse's eyes, nostrils, ears, and under the tail. Likewise remember to clean your gelding's sheath or mare's teats. This is also a good time to remove the excess growth from leg chestnuts and ergots. Finish by scrubbing the hooves with a stiff brush. Following the bath with a vinegar and water rinse will eliminate soap residue as well as aid in detangling both the mane and tail. Another benefit of a vinegar rinse is that it also works as a repellant for flies. 

     "A good conditioner is always used on the tail which is then braided in three equal sections and protected in a tail bag," says Greasley. Just before the class the tail can be shook out and tangles removed.  "Don't use anything but your fingers to undo snarls," he cautions.

     To enhance the shine on gray, white and to some extent on roan horses add a couple squirts of bluing or a measure of Quic Silver to a bucket of rinse water. Using a product such as Show Sheen will add extra luster to the coat and will help repel dirt when the horse is dry. However, don't use such a product on the mane if you intend to braid. Otherwise it will be too slick to work with.

Trim & Tidy

     For most breeds, the sleek chiseled look of refinement conveys quality. This means that all of the excess hair around your horse's head and legs must go. To some exhibitors this means clipping the entire head, while to others it simply means removing the excess shag under the jaw along with whiskers, the long guard hairs around the eyes and even the short fuzzy hair inside each nostril. Some will exercise this latter method, but also will include any white face markings.

     While there are good reasons for leaving hair inside your horse's ears, ears should at least be neatly trimmed around their entire edge. Keep an ear net on your horse to protect against insects if you choose to clip the inside the horse's ears.

    Bridle paths are not only clipped for aesthetic effects, but actually serve the functional purpose of providing a place for the halter or bridle to neatly rest behind the ears. However, bridle path lengths vary depending on the breed of horse, so be sure to find out what is acceptable for your breed or discipline before clipping.

     "The rule of thumb for the different stock breeds is the length of the horse's ear, when ones lays the ear down on the neck. You'll want to clip short at first then a little longer until it looks balanced. Arabians breeders prefer to clip somewhat longer bridle paths, of about 9 inches," explained Greasley. A few other breeds and disciplines like a bridle path to be just wide enough for the headstall.

    Clipping the lower legs of your show horse also adds an air of refinement. Even up the hair around the coronary band as well as trim away the excess hair of the pastern and fetlock. White leg markings are generally clipped entirely, taking care to blend them smoothly into the adjoining dark base coat.

     If you feel that your horse requires a full body clip it's best to do it well ahead of a show in order to give the coat time to recover. Treatments with mayonnaise rubbed over the entire body and left on for a few hours may help moisturize the skin and aid in returning the coat to its normal color, particularly the bays. Mineral oil baths may help as well.

Mane & Tails

      Depending on the breed and discipline that you intend to participate in, your horse's mane will need to be styled accordingly. Some manes can be left long to flow naturally, while others are pulled and thinned to about 4 inches in length. In either case your next option, or decision is whether or not to band or braid. Here again, you'll have to stick with the acceptable styles of braid, length, number, and size according to breed preferences.

     "When braiding I start at the head end because as the horse loses patience over time it begins to get restless. When they're fidgeting it's easier to work on the base of the neck than the head end," says Lise' Jumper of Jumper's Appaloosa SportHorses in Emmett, Idaho. "To help stick the mane hairs together, particularly on a thin short mane, I spray it with Quic Braid in 6 inch sections as I work," she adds.

     While the western pleasure and halter horse usually sports a banded forelock and a four inch mane that is also banded, a reining or working cow horse is typically shown with a long free flowing mane. If you show in two disciplines that require different styles you may have to make some compromises, or at least be innovative in preparing your horse.

     Patti Shores of Drivingrein Appaloosas in Monroe, Washington shows her mare in both reining and combined driving. "My mare has a long free flowing mane for reining, but when I'm doing driving dressage I like to use a French braid on her. It's quick, tidy, and looks neat," says Patti. "When I braid I don't pull new sections in at every 'turn'. You want to give the neck room to stretch without pulling on the braid. Otherwise you'll end up with loose braids and stray ends."

     The best time to band or braid is while the mane is still slightly damp from the bath. Throughout the braiding or banding process be very gentle to avoid breaking hairs that will later show up as unsightly stubble. Many exhibitors prefer using a heavy thread rather than yarn to make their braids. If you choose to use yarn be sure that it is water resistant, or you may end up with braids that begin to fall apart soon after or during the braiding process.

     Tails of most breeds are kept long and flowing and, like the mane, you want to be careful to avoid hair damage. While still partially damp from the bath the tail can be braided from about 2 inches below the tailbone down to the tip of the tail hairs and then vet wrapped. This will give the tail a wavy full body appearance when dry. "For a tight clean looking tail-head, spray the top of the tailbone with Quic Braid then wrap with vet wrap. The wrap is pulled off the tail in a downward motion just as the horse enters the arena," says Greasley.


     The use of black or clear hoof polish on your horse's hooves will depend on his breed, color and markings. Most breeds prefer the use of hoof black, but others, like the Appaloosa, must use a clear polish so as not to cover up its striped hooves, one of the breeds identifying characteristics.

     Before applying any hoof polish lightly sand the wall and coronary band of the hoof. While you've got the sandpaper out you can also sand the leg chestnuts. Once the hooves and chestnuts are sanded, Greasley suggests to first use a clear shoe paste on the hoof wall, like what you might use for your own shoes. "Then I apply a clear or black hoof polish followed by Qwik Dry, the brand ladies use for aiding in drying their own nail polish. Usually two coats of each hoof polish and Qwik Dry will be all that is need though I have used three coats at times," says Greasley. Leg chestnuts can be painted with hoof polish, black on black legs and clear on other legs, or they can simply be shined with a light dab of clear jell or baby oil before entering the arena.

     Unfortunately some of the special effect treatments that are applied to the hoof in the quest of ribbons are not always the best things for the hoof. Keeping your horse's hooves in a healthy condition is most important, therefore, as soon after the show as you can, remove the hoof-polish so that the natural moisture balance of the hoof can be restored.

     With such tough competition in the show arena today, you have but a few short minutes to get the judge's attention. But, if you've done your job well, the judge just might take a shine to your horse.

Day before the show

* Clip whiskers, eye guards, excess jaw hair, ears, nose, bridle path, and white leg and face markings.

* Bathe horse.

* Braid or band the mane while still damp from bath then protect with a sleazy.

* Braid tail then cover with a tail bag.

* Remove excess growth of chestnuts and ergots while still soft from the bath.

Day of show

* Brush coat with a clean brush. Vacuum coat if horse will stand for it. Wipe entire horse's body with a clean rag then follow with a clean bare hand. Spray on a coat conditioner like Grand Champion or Show Sheen.

* Matching your horse's color, use a touch up color enhancer to cover any scraps or dings your horse may have and blend into the surrounding coat.

* Remove sleazy and check braids and bands. Tighten up any that have worked loose.

* Remove tail bag and shake out the tail.  Gently pick out any snarls with your fingers. Spray Quic Braid to the tail dock and wrap with vet wrap - this will be removed just as you enter the arena.

* Use a disposable shaver to remove any muzzle stubble that was missed during previous day's clipping.  Baby oil applied to the muzzle will make shaving easier for you and more comfortable for the horse.

* Evenly work baby powder into white areas with your fingers, being extra careful on face markings.  Trot your horse a few feet to loosen excess powder. To give white markings a sharp outline use a damp rag to trace around the edges.

* Use fine-grained sandpaper to sand the hoof walls and leg chestnuts. Clean out the bottom of hoof and spray with WD-40  (this will prevent build up of arena clay in the bottom of hoof.) Stand your horse on a rubber mat while you apply two coats of polish to the hoof walls.

* Rub a small amount of clear jell or baby oil on fleshy areas of the head, i.e. muzzle, eyes, and inside of ears as well as over the bridle path, and on leg chestnuts. A little jell or oil can also be applied to the area under the tail. Be careful not to put baby oil on too thick as it will collect dust.

After the show

* Carefully remove mane bands or braids. A seam stripper works well to get the knots out of braids without cutting the hair.

* Remove hoof polish.

* Turn your horse out for a well-earned roll in the dirt.

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