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Basics of Bathing Your Horse

You can use this A-circuit groom's bathing technique to leave your horse with a glistening coat--and both of you feeling good.
Preparation for a Full Bath First I gather what I'll need: a hose with an adjustable nozzle, a big tub of water I've warmed if there's no running hot water, two buckets, several big half-moon sponges, a jar of hoof sealant with applicator, a mild shampoo, a rubber mitt, a wooden scraper (gentler than plastic or metal ones), a couple of big towels, a stepstool or ladder, and talc or lotion as the horse's legs tend toward dry skin.

I'm working solo most of the time, with horses who are used to bathing. But if your horse is at all nervous (or you are), recruit a helper who can hold the lead (attached to a halter with a breakaway top) and soothe him with pats and quiet words.

Wetting Down

1. Before I turn on the hose, I paint the walls, soles, and heels of the horse's feet with ISP Ointment?, which contains iodine, sulfur, and petroleum. This seals them, protecting them from absorbing water and then drying out, which can turn feet brittle, especially in a hot climate.

2. Now I wet him all over (except for the head). With the hose set on "shower" and the water comfortably warm, I work up slowly from the front feet and lower legs (making sure he's comfortable with the hose) to and over the shoulder and then the neck and mane, always point the spray away from his head. (No running hot water? I fill a bucket with warm water from the tub I've heated and sponge him generously, following the same sequence.)

3. From the neck I go down his back, down his flanks and hind legs, and under his body including the sheath and genital area (fortunately, most horses don't mind a gentle stream of water here). Finally I lift the tail, spray well around the anus and down between the legs, and then hose down the tail itself. The bonus: Even a horse who's nervous about bathing typically calms down once he's completely wet.


1. Suds do the cleaning, so I want to create a lot of them. I drop a sponge into an empty bucket, add warm water, then pour the shampoo in on top of the sponge, adding more warm water at the same time to build suds. (I'll resoak the sponge and add water or shampoo as needed to keep the suds coming.) 2. Using a round-and-round motion to go both with and against the hair and get soap all the way down to the skin, I start soaping the neck, then the front legs, back, flanks, under the body (including behind the elbows, between the front legs, and the sheath area), and down the hind legs.

3. Around the anus and between the hind legs, I use a different sponge, reserved for that area, with plenty of water. Then I dump the tail in my bucket to rewet it, soap it well, and...

4. the soap in thoroughly with my fingers (tail hair is thick, and I want to be sure the soap penetrates), all the way to the end of the tail, adding water to keep it sudsy.

5. Now I go back to the mane, make sure it's good and wet, pour a little shampoo directly on my hands, and use my fingers (and maybe my rubber mitt) to work the suds well in, right down to the roots. Then I go over the whole body again, in the same order, with the mitt, rewetting it frequently and really scrubbing. The mitt works a lot like a rubber curry, dislodging and lifting off loose hair and grunge -- and the rhythmic rubbing stimulates circulation and makes the horse feel grand.

A Thorough Rinse

1. Next comes a good rinse. With the hose (or a fresh sponge and bucket of clear warm water), I again go up the front legs to the shoulder. I keep the spray away from the head as I work down the neck and mane, then do the back and flanks and underside and legs, scraping with my free hand and applying more water until it runs off really clear. (I may use the mitt, too to make sure soap isn't trapped under really thick hair.) I'm particularly careful about rinsing the back (where soap residue could cause irritation under the saddle) and the stomach (where soapy water collects after running down the flanks). I also check the legs carefully -- hose in one hand, mitt in the other -- to be dure the pasterns and heels are dirt-free.Advertisement

2. After lifting the tail and hosing carefully between the hind legs, I give the tail a thorough rinsing, checking with my fingers that the thick tail hair is suds-free all the way to the roots.

3. To dry the horse, I first use my scraper, starting on the neck and scraping downward in the direction of the hair, using a little pressure but not enough to be uncomfortable. I go along the mane, down the sides and front of the neck, then the shoulder, along the back (not on the spine, but down either side of it), over the hindquarters, and down and under the barrel and flanks. In that little area of the flank where the hair goes different ways, I turn the scraper so it goes with the direction of the hair.

4. Because a scraper would be too hard on the legs, I wipe them down with a clean, wrung-out sponge, squeezing it out frequently as I go. Then I towel-dry the body, being especially careful to dry the stomach and all the way down the legs. (In a hot climate like Florida, damp legs -- even if they're clipped--seem to invite bacteria to grow.).Then I comb the mane -- it's still a little wet -- and walk the horse to help him air-dry.

Washing the Face

1. Now, with the body clean and the horse used to bathing, I wash his face and head (standing on a stepstool or stepladder for his comfort and mine). I dunk my "rinse" sponge in fresh water, wring it out so it isn't drippy, and then go all over the face and head to wet it: first from under the eyes down, then up under the forelock (being careful no water drips into his eyes), behind the ears, down the cheeks, and then under the head. (To give myself free access to the underside of the jaw but prevent the throatlatch strap from flying free and hitting an eye, I've clipped the strap to the top ring on the right side of the halter).

2. Next I wring out my soapy sponge enough that it isn't drippy and wash behind the ears, down over the cheeks and under the eyes, then in front of the ears, above the eyes, and down the nose, taking care that suds don't get too close to the eyes.

3. I don't use a lot of soap; typically, I don't need to. If the face is really dirty, I can follow up my soapy sponge by rubbing with my rubber mitt. I go all over the face, the cheeks, behind the ears, and under the head -- using the mitt in the chin groove and the area between the jawbones, which can get very grubby. I rinse with a bucket of clean water and a fresh, wrung-out sponge, starting up high and rinsing the sponge frequently as I go. I dump that bucket, rinse the sponge and squeeze out any remaining suds, refill the bucket, and go over the head one more time to be sure the soap is gone. I rinse and wring out the sponge until it's as dry as I can get it, go over the head once more, and then wipe out the nostril area. (I'll wash the sponge out well in hot water afterward.)

Final Touches

1. I finish drying the head with one of my big towels, getting rid of any remaining moisture -- including on and around the ears.

2. Finally, with body and face both really dry, I put ointment or lotion or talc on the horse's legs if need be. Baby powder (I use Johnson & Johnson's) helps sensitive skin feel more comfortable. Both aloe-vera lotion and baby lotion are soothing to dry skin. And some horses have medicated lotions prescribed to treat a skin condition. After applying ointment or lotion, I bandage legs so shavings and dirt and sand can't stick to them.

This piece has been adapted from an article that originally appeared in the April 2003 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.Bathing Your Horse: Step by Step Drs. Foster & Smith Educational

Bathing Your Horse: Step by Step

If you are bathing your horse for the first time, consider a few things before you begin:

First, check the weather. If it's too cool for you to get wet, then it's probably too cold for your horse, too.

Next, carefully choose a good area for bathing. The ground should be concrete or grass, not dirt that could turn into mud pile and negate your efforts. Tie her up or, better yet, have a companion hold her still for you. Bathing can dry out hooves, so consider massaging petroleum jelly or hoof dressing onto her hooves for waterproofing.

If you will use a hose, begin by directing the water at one of your horse's front feet. Leave the water there until she shows signs of acceptance (for example, she stops trying to move away). For an overly nervous horse, you may want to begin by sponging the water onto her back and then gradually introducing the hose.

Let the Bathing Begin

After hosing your horse's feet and legs, gradually move up to the body. Once the horse is wet, you can use a sponge to shampoo the coat. Mix a little bit of mild horse shampoo in a bucket of water. Too much shampoo can dry out the horse's coat, leaving it dull and dry. Shampoo one section and rinse. Trying to shampoo the entire horse before rinsing is not recommended. If the shampoo dries, this will also result in a dry, dull coat.

In general, horses don't like having water on their heads, so leave the head for last. To help make your horse comfortable with the water, try trickling a little between his ears, or you can allow him to take a drink from the hose. You will want to minimize any rinsing, so if you use shampoo on the head, only use a very small, heavily diluted amount. After washing the head, thoroughly dry ears and nostrils with a soft, clean towel. At least every six months, use a gentle, non-irritating sheath cleaner to clean the sheath of stallions and geldings or the udders of a mare.

Once your horse is clean, use a sweat scraper to remove excess water from the coat. Then rub her down with clean, dry towels. Work a horse conditioner into her mane and tail to minimize hair breakage. Walk your horse until her coat is completely dry, otherwise she may be tempted to take a roll in the dirt.

To ensure the bath goes smoothly, have all your tools ready and nearby. Use the checklist of horse bathing equipment below for helpful reference.

Equipment Checklist

Hose with adjustable nozzle (large tub of water warmed if no running hot water). Three buckets of water - one for rinsing water, one for mixing shampoo for body washing, one for mixing shampoo for head washing. Several big sponges. Mild shampoo especially made for horses. Horse conditioner. Sheath cleaner. Sweat scraper. Clean, dry towels. Petroleum jelly or hoof dressing. Rubber gloves to protect your hands. Bathing Your Horse in Winter

Waterless shampoos have their place in our barn.
By Lee Foley

The sheet-style Rambo New market cooler is wonderful for your bottom cooler layer, but for the top you'll want a traditional square cooler that goes over the neck, too. If you don't have to get your horse wet when the temperatures dip, great! Eventually, even heavy mud will dry and be curried off. Sometimes, though, there's no choice and you've got to give the horse a bath.

As long as the horse is healthy - meaning he's not very old, very young, prone to respiratory or immune problems or has an illness or diarrhea - you should be able to safely bathe your horse in the winter. Ideally, you'll have a draft-free wash stall with warm water. Of course, most barns are far from ideal . . .

Get Started

Try to bathe the horse inside, away from drafts, even if it means in his stall where the bedding can soak up water (so you don't get icy patches) and then be replaced. Use buckets and a sponge instead of a hose, and wash only the areas you must. For example, if he needs a medicated-shampoo bath because of a breakout on his rump, just bathe the butt.

Waterless, aka "dry," shampoos are also an excellent choice for cold-weather cleanups, especially if it's a limited area, such as socks.

If you must bathe the entire horse, do the front half first, then the back half, putting a cooler over the wet area to keep him warm while you work the second area.

Use lukewarm water for both the bath and the rinse, and avoid shampoos that must sit on the horse for so many minutes before rinsing.

Note: We won't use dishwashing liquid. As much as people think it's just dandy for bathing a horse, it will leave the skin and coat dry, which is particularly troublesome in the winter when the air is already causing dryness. And dry, itchy skin opens pathways for infectious skin disease, and dirty blankets can also lead to skin problems.

As you bathe, scrape off excess water as quickly as possible, then rub the wet area briskly with a thick terrycloth towel (you'll want to have several of these available for the bath).

After towel drying the horse, place two clean fleece coolers on the horse and leave them there until the horse is completely dry and warm. You can use a sheet-type cooler for the underneath layer, but a large, square traditional cooler is best for the top layer because it will cover him ears to tail. Tie or clip the front closed.

Old timers used to place a layer of fluffed-up straw under the coolers. This allowed the moisture to rise up into the top cooler as it evaporated, keeping it off of the horse's back. It's still a great idea, if you have straw available. Either way, replace the two coolers when they become damp with two dry coolers. Leaving a damp cooler on your horse can cause him to become too chilled.

If your horse has a thick coat, it'll take awhile for him to dry. Giving a horse a bath is different from him getting wet in turnout. Chances are his hair kept the snow or a light rain off of his skin, but a bath gets right down to the skin. (Note: We'd avoid the use of heat lamps in a barn.)

Bottom Line

Winter bathing should be minimized, but it's not "forbidden." Attention to drafts, using coolers to keep the horse as warm as possible, and working quickly will go a long way to preventing problems. The correct product choice can make a difference, too, so we've compiled our favorite skin-friendly products here.

Our recommended products for winter bathing:

Waterless Shampoos: Green Clean and Quick Clean.

Detanglers: Show Sheen and Laser Sheen.

Shampoos for Itchy Skin: Lucky Braids and Miracle Coat Premium.

Conditioning Shampoos: Corona and Orvus WA Paste

Medicated Wipes: DermaCloth and Aloe and T-Tree Wipes.

Gentle Medicated Shampoo-Spray Treatment Packs: Absorbine Medicated Twin Pack and EQyss Micro-Tek.

Strong Medicated Shampoo: Chlorhex 2X and Ketochlor.

Medicated Spray: Vetericyn.

Blanket Wash: Horseware Rambo Wash and Leather Therapy.

Tags: bathing your horse, cold weather horse bating, Cover Story, Equestrian Shopper, winter bath, winter horse baths, winter skin problems
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