Feed and groom your way to an enviable gleam
Most days, Dianne Welde’s gelding, Ringo, looks like he’s about to step into the show ring. The blaze down his face and all four of his stockings are bright white; his mane and tail are shiny and tangle-free; and Welde can almost see her reflection in his coat. Welde attributes Ringo’s shimmer to his diet—high-quality hay and plenty of good pasture as a foundation, along with quality feed that provides Ringo with some calories from fat. But she does not discount the fact that the horse also gets regular grooming—lots of it—from head to toe.
“Of course, I groom him before every ride, but even on days when I’m not riding, I give him ‘a spa day,’ ” says Welde, a Western and English dressage rider from Parrish, Florida. “I just want to get my hands on the horse and check him out because you never know what you’re going to find.”
Welde’s logic is spot-on, says Susan L. White, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, Josiah Meigs Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the University of Georgia’s Department of Large Animal Medicine, in Athens. White says it does take plenty of grooming to get a coat that gleams. But the true secret to shine, as is the case with any healthy skin and hair, lies in caring for what’s beneath it.
Feed the Sheen
“A healthy, shiny coat starts with diet,” says White. “That means getting fat and vitamins A, D, and E.”
Like humans, horses need vitamin D to be able to absorb calcium to maintain strong bones. Also like humans, horses get vitamin D from sunlight. But while many of us drink fortified milk for the additional vitamin D we need, horses must obtain theirs from what they eat. Vitamin A helps a horse mount an immune response to infection and is important for healthy skin and for night vision, among other benefits. Finally, vitamin E is an antioxidant that horses get from eating fresh forage. Both vitamins D and E are fat-soluble, meaning they’re absorbed by dietary fat in the body.
Warren says fats such as fish oil and flaxseeds are omega-3 fatty acids, which have immune-boosting and anti-inflammatory effects. Corn oil, on the other hand, is an omega-6 fatty acid, which researchers believe to be pro-inflammatory. Adding omega-3s to a horse’s diet promotes healthy skin and might also boost the immune system and combat a variety of inflammatory conditions.
In any case, owners who want to support the development of a healthy, shiny coat should ensure their horses are getting enough of these necessary nutrients. Some owners believe this means adding supplements to their horses’ diets, which isn’t always the case.
Warren says supplements should fix vitamin and mineral deficits in a horse’s diet. However, she notes that most supplements do not provide enough of any vitamin or mineral to make a difference.
“So we see a lot of supplementation because the owners want to do the right thing for their animals,” she says. “There is a psychological component on the part of the owners,” that compels them to purchase a variety of these supplements without necessarily confirming need.
Warren says the best way for owners to figure out if a supplement is providing a horse with the vitamins and minerals he needs for a healthy coat is to examine the product’s label.
“All the labels are available online and are pretty easy to find,” Warren says. “But when you study the label, make sure you get help from someone who actually knows what the ingredients mean.”
Groom With Gusto
While it’s the most important element, good nutrition is only one aspect of the pursuit of a shiny coat.
“I can show you a horse that is going right into the (horse show) ring and a horse at the trailhead that isn’t getting all those special (feed) additives, and there’s no difference; they both have a shiny coat,” says White. “What’s the same is that they both get routine grooming.”
A regular grooming regimen is crucial to cultivating luster. And, just as in Welde and Ringo’s routine, it provides an opportunity to catch problems.
“Daily grooming gives you a chance to examine your horse,” says White. “You can see conditions such as cuts and abrasions, minor lacerations, lumps and bumps, and the presence of fungal and bacterial infections like ringworm or rainrot.”
That’s why White recommends owners use grooming time to examine their horses from the hoof up by checking for any new signs of heat, injury, pastern dermatitis (skin inflammation), and scabs or scars. Next, she suggests owners check ears for signs of gnats or mites and look over the entire body for patches of lost hair. Coat condition can also offer evidence of deeper health problems otherwise invisible to the owner’s eye, says Virginia-based professional groom Liv Gude, founder of Pro Equine Grooms, a national association dedicated to the ongoing education and promotion of professional horse grooms.
For example, “metabolic conditions such as Cushing’s disease can affect hair growth, curl, and thickness,” says Gude.
When a horse is healthy, she adds, his coat shines naturally due to oils derived from the skin.
“Oil is released by sebaceous glands just as in humans,” she says. “Oils will move down in the natural ends (of the hair) when you continue to groom.”
It’s important to get rid of the dirt first when you begin grooming. Gude suggests owners apply a hard rubber curry comb in a small circular motion from the horse’s neck to his hindquarters to loosen any sand, mud, or dirt.
She likes to use a curry mitt to loosen the dirt because she’s able to feel if the horse is sensitive or sore in the back, neck, or butt, all while giving him a massage.
Avoid using a curry comb on a horse’s sensitive spots, such as his legs or head, unless it’s one with densely spaced gentle nubs designed for that use.
Next, use a stiff Dandy brush to coax oils down the hair shafts.
“Brush in an arc, and flick your wrist as though you are flicking dirt off,” says White.
As with the curry comb, start at the horse’s neck and move across his body. Use a soft brush on sensitive, thin-skinned areas such as the horse’s face and legs.
Don’t forget to wash grooming brushes periodically to keep them in good condition and avoid accidental transfer of pathogens.
When doing so, first use a comb or other brush to scrape accumulated hair from the base and bristles. Then, put them in a bucket of water with dish soap and separate and scrub the bristles to remove body oil and dead skin, says White, adding that you can also put them in the (otherwise empty) dishwasher.
An additional approach to keep the coat healthy and the horse comfortable is with clipping and/or bathing.
Gude says shorter or longer hours of daylight affect the way a horse grows or sheds hair.
“A lot of people think that a horse’s hair growth had to do with the weather—that if it’s cold the horse is going to grow hair,” Gude says. “But that growth is related to the amount of daylight, and it takes 16 hours of daylight for the hair growth cycle to take place.”
As a result, horses with thick coats sometimes require clipping so they don’t become overheated when worked. Some owners complain that clipping leaves a horse’s coat dull, but that dullness is temporary, says Gude.
Like when you get a haircut, clipping removes the dead ends of the horse’s hair. Clipping a horse’s hair from 1 inch to 2 mm exposes the hair’s natural live ends.
“So, he’s going to look dull,” Gude says. “But the oils will move down in the natural ends when you groom him.” Another source of dullness is the sun.
Despite all the grooming and clipping, it might still be nearly impossible to keep a horse—especially one that spends time roaming a paddock—dirt-free. That means most horses need a bath sooner or later.
She advocates rinsing sweating horses in warm weather and sponging or toweling them when it’s cold, advising against bathing a horse too frequently.
“When you overbathe you have to put fake oil back onto the horse’s skin in order for it to look shiny,” Gude says. “Instead of bathing, it’s all about elbow grease.”
When a full-blown bath is appropriate, White recommends owners use shampoos, conditioners, and detangling products that are pH-balanced for horses.
“There are lots on the market,” she says. “And if a horse has an infection such as rainrot or ringworm and you have to clean the area, use a very mild soap such as baby shampoo.”
In any case, don’t put the shampoo directly on the horse’s body, White says. Instead, dilute it and make it sudsy in a bucket with warm water; wash the horse with a bathing mitt, cloth, or sponge; then rinse well.
“You don’t want to leave any residue,” White says, which can irritate the horse’s skin, leaving it itchy. Residue can also prevent the coat from having the best sheen or “bloom” possible.
Sure, most owners give their horses a quick grooming before they ride. But White believes you’ll get the best results from longer grooming sessions.
“You should spend some time doing it when you’re not in a hurry,” she says. “Horses are creatures of habit, so if grooming is pleasant, they look forward to it.”
Welde agrees. “I think Ringo really enjoys those ‘spa days,’ ” she says. “He obviously likes the attention.”
Add in proper nutrition and careful attention to your horse’s health, and his coat will be envy of any barn.