It’s important to keep your horse clean and well groomed. Dried sweat left on a horse can lead to skin irritations. If a horse is dirty or dusty, they may try to rub, which can damage the hairs of the mane and tail. How often you give a horse a full wash depends on a lot on the horse and what it’s used for.
How Often Should I Wash My Horse?
It isn’t always necessary to wash a horse. Many horses don’t need washing with shampoo at all and can be kept clean simply with grooming and rinsing. But there are times when a full wash with shampoo is a good idea, such as the end of spring shed-out, to get rid of dirt that might have built up in the coat over the winter. If your horse is so muddy that it cannot be removed through normal grooming, that’s another time to think about a good wash. After a particularly grueling exercise session that leaves the horse very sweaty might be another suitable time.
Show horses and in particular light colored horses will need to be washed before events. But bear in mind that frequent washing (more than once a month) can rob the horse’s coat of natural oils and make it more susceptible to variations in temperature.
A full wash is best done when the weather is warm enough (over 70 degrees Fahrenheit), and ideally on a sunny day. Take advice before washing a horse which is sick or ill.
How to Give A Horse A Wash or Bath
The safety and wellbeing of both yourself and the horse is paramount, so ensure that you are well prepared. Not all horses enjoy being bathed so make sure the horse is calm and unstressed. Providing a hay net might help. Find a bathing area with plenty of space, ideally on grass and not concrete. If it is on concrete, put down non-slip rubber matting. Ensure you know where the water will be draining to, and that it won’t gather underfoot. Ideally, ask someone to hold the horse while you are washing it. Tether the horse using a quick-release knot or clip. If the horse does get frightened and try to bolt, the safest thing is to let it. This is assuming you are on a farm or in a barn area which is fenced. Otherwise the horse may become a danger to you and itself.
Ensure you have all the equipment you need to hand. This may include:
- Several sponges
- Wash mitt
- Bucket and plentiful water supply
- Hose with attachments
- Sweat scraper
- Step stool to reach over the back if necessary
- Shampoo and possibly mane and tail conditioner or detangling spray
- Curry comb
- Towels or chamois leather
Groom the horse thoroughly before you start washing, using your usual grooming method. This will get rid of any loose dirt and ensure the mane and tail are untangled.
Pre Rinse – Wetting the Horse
Horses don’t like sudden changes of temperature, so avoid a lot of very cold water on a very hot horse. After exercise they may need a few minutes to cool down a little. Try and ensure the water is not freezing cold to start with, by leaving it out in the sun for example.
Get the horse wet all over first, before using any shampoo. Some people advocate starting with the head and neck, to get the horse used to the water. Others suggest leaving the head and neck until last. This may be a matter of trial and error depending on the horse.
When wetting the body, start with the hooves and lower feet and work up, to replicate the way a horse would get wet if they were going for a swim. A sponge is a much more gentle way of getting the horse used to water than a hose.
When washing the head and neck, gently wipe the skin with a damp sponge and don’t directly spray with a hose. Avoid getting water in the eyes or ears.
Follow the shampoo instructions for getting the right strength and quantity of lather. The shampoo shouldn’t be left on the coat for too long, as dried shampoo can be an irritant. It also needs to be washed off thoroughly, or the result could be a dry, dull coat. It might be a good idea to work section by section, for example shampooing and rinsing one area of the back before moving on to the next.
Apply the shampoo with a sponge in a circular motion from the neck backwards. Ensure the mane gets a good lather by putting some shampoo in the palm of your hand and rubbing it in. Avoid using shampoo directly on genitals and sensitive areas – just stick to water. Use different sponges for these areas to avoid cross-contaminating. When washing around the hind legs, don’t stand directly behind the horse in case it suddenly kicks.
Take special care with the head and neck, as shampoo can sting if it gets into the eyes. Some advise not using shampoo on the face, only water.
It’s important to rinse out all the shampoo thoroughly. This can be done using a sponge or hose. Start from the shoulders and front legs and work down and back to include the underside and legs.
Be gentle if using a hose. Don’t use a powerful jet and avoid spraying sensitive areas directly.
Washing the Tail
Washing the tail won’t affect the body temperature of the horse, so it can be done after the horse has been rinsed and dried. Hold up a bucket of soapy water and dip the tail straight into it to soak. Rinse thoroughly and dry. You may want to use conditioner for the mane and tail.
Washing A Nervous Horse
Some horses hate water. Other horses may be scared if it’s the first time they’ve been washed, or the first time they’ve experienced a hose. Take special precautions if this is the case.
Put the horse on a long rope or lunge line so they have plenty of space to move about. Start by using a sponge. Ensure the water is warm so it’s not a shock. Increase the amount of water gradually and take your time. If it doesn’t like the sensation of the sponge on its skin, keep the sponge in place and allow the horse to move around, giving it lots of encouragement.
If you are using a hose, ensure it doesn’t get tangled underfoot. A hose boom or dispenser might help with this. Don’t use the most powerful hose settings; a steady even flow of water is best. A wand may work well. If the horse is very nervous, try introducing the hose before the water is turned on so they get used to its presence. Then start with a slow trickle and increase the quantity gradually. Start with the front hooves and work up and back.
One tip the first time is not to use any shampoo, in case the horse reacts badly and it becomes difficult to get the shampoo off. So just stick to water.
Don’t be afraid of getting help and advice, particularly with washing delicate areas such as the face and genitals. Watching someone else before attempting it yourself is a good idea.
How To Dry A Horse After A Wash or Bath
It’s important to leave the horse as dry as possible afterwards so that they don’t get cold. Use a sweat scraper to remove excess water. Take care with the mane and tail – it may be better to use your fingers to untangle any knots instead of tugging with a comb, as these hairs are more likely to break off when they are wet. Conditioner and detangling spray may help. Use a towel on the head and ears and other delicate areas.
Walk the horse around for ten minutes afterwards as the movement will help the body to dry. If it’s warm and sunny, turn it out into the sunshine. If not, keep it inside and consider using a blanket.
The horse may want to roll afterwards, which could undo all your hard work! Keep them in a stall or a clean paddock. Make sure grassy areas have been poo-picked before you start. and muck out the stable beforehand. You could also put a clean breathable sheet on the horse after washing.
Washing and Drying A Horse in Cold Weather
Ideally, only wash your horse when the weather is warm and sunny. However, if a wash in cold weather is essential, it can be done if the horse is in good health. Find a suitable draft-free indoor space, and only wash those parts of the horse that really need it. Use warm water and work quickly so that the horse stays wet for the shortest possible time. Stick to sponges and avoid using a hose. Dry thoroughly using a sweat scraper and thick terry towels, and put cooler rugs on afterwards, changing them when they become damp.
Products to Help with Washing A Horse
Some specialist equipment might help with washing your horse.
A water wand or equine bathing wand attachment to a hose might help you to reach if your horse is tall, and also regulate the water flow to be less stressful for the horse.
A horse wash mitt could be useful for applying shampoo. A good quality rubber curry comb will help with grooming as well as drying. There are specialist mane and tail detanglers also. Dandy brushes may be better than a curry comb for more sensitive areas such as the legs.
There are many different types of both shampoo and conditioner, so ensure you have products which are right for your horse. Shampoos come in different strengths; using shampoo that’s too strong can dull the coat and deplete its natural oils. Ensure that you “patch-test” any of these products before using all over.
Mane and tail conditioner can either come with or without silicone, and some are formulated to stay on after applying. Mane and tail detangling sprays might also be useful after washing to keep these areas smooth and shiny.
If the horse’s hooves tend to crack after washing and drying, consider using hoof conditioner or moisturizer.