Grooming: Keep Your Gray Horse Gleaming

Linda Murat, who groomed former Olympic silver-medal jumper Gem Twist, shares her method for keeping gray horses show-ring spotless. From Practical Horseman magazine.
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Linda Murat, who groomed former Olympic silver-medal jumper Gem Twist, shares her method for keeping gray horses show-ring spotless. From Practical Horseman magazine.

Occasional preshow baths aren't enough to prevent a gray horse from yellowing-and if he does yellow, clipping is the only way to remove the stain. To make sure your horse never reaches that state, you need a daily routine for basic cleanliness and a weekly (or at most biweekly) bath and touch-up system that stops stains from setting.

You'll need:

  • Regular grooming tools-sponge, sweat scraper, currycomb, soft brush, towel (and a vacuum cleaner if you have one: great for initial stain removal on grays)
  • Mild liquid soap: store-brand baby shampoo-inexpensive, not harsh, and does a good job of basic cleaning-or Ivory Liquid dish soap
  • Moderately stiff scrub brush (I like one called Flex-Scrub, which curves to the contours of the area being scrubbed; costs about $2 at grocery stores)
  • Orvus paste shampoo (expensive, but does a thorough cleaning job on any color of horse)
  • Quic Silver for at-home stain removal and extra shine before shows (also expensive, and needs care in application, but the most effective product I've found for making gray coats shine)
  • ShowSheen as a finishing touch for the tail.

Daily Routine
To minimize the amount of stain removal you have to do and the energy you have to expend, pick up your horse's stall frequently (the less manure in his bedding, the fewer manure stains he'll have), and check for grass stains when he comes in from turnout (the longer they set, the harder they are to remove).

Groom your horse daily with currycomb and brush, finishing off with the towel.

As you curry, use extra elbow grease (or your vacuum) on any manure, mud or grass stains you find. Especially if his coat is toward the darker end of the "gray" range, that may be enough to get most stains out. But if, after currying, he still has a stain or two, what you do next depends on whether you've bathed him within the last couple of weeks.

If you have bathed your horse recently and he's still clean, put warm water on the stain, apply about a teaspoonful of baby shampoo (more if the stain is large), scrub the area with your scrub brush (back and forth on the body, up and down on legs), and rinse. But if he's dirty or hasn't been bathed in a while, such spot-cleaning will leave him looking streaky; instead, you'll need to work on the stain as part of a full bath.

Cold-weather modification: Substitute hot toweling for spot cleaning.

Weekly/Biweekly Routine
Ideally, you should bathe your gray horse with baby shampoo or other mild soap at least every other week, following the procedure described below. But if your barn is cold, your water is cold, you don't have bucket heaters, and you can't bring yourself to do a full bath that frequently, at least shampoo the spots where stains tend to build up and set: hocks, elbows and tails on most horses. Be careful to scrub the tail all the way down to the roots of the hairs-because when you braid, any lingering dirt will be obvious.

If a stain won't come out, or if the tail doesn't look really white when you've finished shampooing, apply Quic Silver full-strength and leave on for two to three minutes. Two to three minutes is plenty for removing most stains; with a really stubborn stain you can go to four or five, but I wouldn't leave it on any longer.)

Cold-weather modification: In the very coldest weather, your horse may object strongly to your washing the base of his tail, in that case, concentrate on his legs and the bottom of the tail, where most stains tend to happen.

Regular Bathing
Wet your horse's whole body with warm water. Put about half a cup of baby shampoo in a full-size bucket and fill with warm water; then sponge the liquid on and lather his whole body. Use the scrub brush to remove ground-in dirt-and don't forget his ears and the base of the mane, both places where dirt builds up, and where left-on dirt will really stand out against a sparkling white coat. (To clean the ears, wet them first with the sponge; then apply a small amount of shampoo to the outsides with your hands and scrub with your fingers. Be careful not to get any water inside the ears when you rinse.)

Rinse your whole horse thoroughly-if you let the shampoo dry on his coat, he'll look dull instead of shiny. Treat any stains that haven't come out with Quic Silver; apply full-strength, rub in, leave on for two to three minutes, and then rinse off.

If your horse has dry skin, after you've rinsed him off put a few drops of bath oil in a bucket of water and sponge that solution over him. (Just a few drops; don't overdo. An oily coat attracts dust.)

Cold-weather modification: Take advantage of any unseasonably warm days to bathe your horse. If you must bathe him on a colder day, wash just one area at a time. Start with the legs, tail and hindquarters; when they're finished, cover the quarters with a cooler. Next do the neck and mane, and finally the midsection (the most important part to guard from getting chilled); when you're finished there, cover his whole body with several dry coolers and walk him to help his body temperature stay up.

Pre-Show Preparation
The two-bath routine I use is a modification of my regular bathing technique. (If you're not bathing your gray horse regularly in cold weather, I suggest you do this variation a week before any show he may be going to, so that you get out most of the built-up dirt, and again on the day of the show.)

First, I apply Quic Silver to the legs. I rub the Quic Silver full-strength into all four legs, scrub each for about thirty seconds, and then rinse all four. The whole process takes less than three minutes.

Next I wet the whole body with water and scrub with Orvus paste shampoo, which gets out dirt better than anything else I've used. After I've rinsed out this first shampoo, I put Quic Silver full-strength on any stains still remaining. Then I pour about half a cup of Quic Silver into a bucket of warm water, making a slightly sudsy solution; I sponge this over his whole body, leave on for a minute or two, and then rinse very thoroughly. (I'm especially careful about rinsing the mane if I'm going to braid it -- soapy manes are very slippery.)

As a final touch, after the horse is dry, I use ShowSheen on his tail. It works a little like floor wax, helping to keep dust from settling on those clean tail hairs. If the tail doesn't get braided, I comb the ShowSheen through the whole tail; with a braided tail, I just use it below the braid.

Daily Routine
To minimize the amount of stain removal you have to do and the energy you have to expend, pick up your horse's stall frequently (the less manure in his bedding, the fewer manure stains he'll have), and check for grass stains when he comes in from turnout (the longer they set, the harder they are to remove).

Groom your horse daily with currycomb and brush, finishing off with the towel.

As you curry, use extra elbow grease (or your vacuum) on any manure, mud or grass stains you find. Especially if his coat is toward the darker end of the "gray" range, that may be enough to get most stains out. But if, after currying, he still has a stain or two, what you do next depends on whether you've bathed him within the last couple of weeks.

If you have bathed your horse recently and he's still clean, put warm water on the stain, apply about a teaspoonful of baby shampoo (more if the stain is large), scrub the area with your scrub brush (back and forth on the body, up and down on legs), and rinse. But if he's dirty or hasn't been bathed in a while, such spot-cleaning will leave him looking streaky; instead, you'll need to work on the stain as part of a full bath.

Cold-weather modification: Substitute hot toweling for spot cleaning.

Weekly/Biweekly Routine
Ideally, you should bathe your gray horse with baby shampoo or other mild soap at least every other week, following the procedure described below. But if your barn is cold, your water is cold, you don't have bucket heaters, and you can't bring yourself to do a full bath that frequently, at least shampoo the spots where stains tend to build up and set: hocks, elbows and tails on most horses. Be careful to scrub the tail all the way down to the roots of the hairs-because when you braid, any lingering dirt will be obvious.

If a stain won't come out, or if the tail doesn't look really white when you've finished shampooing, apply Quic Silver full-strength and leave on for two to three minutes. Two to three minutes is plenty for removing most stains; with a really stubborn stain you can go to four or five, but I wouldn't leave it on any longer.)

Cold-weather modification: In the very coldest weather, your horse may object strongly to your washing the base of his tail, in that case, concentrate on his legs and the bottom of the tail, where most stains tend to happen.

Regular Bathing
Wet your horse's whole body with warm water. Put about half a cup of baby shampoo in a full-size bucket and fill with warm water; then sponge the liquid on and lather his whole body. Use the scrub brush to remove ground-in dirt-and don't forget his ears and the base of the mane, both places where dirt builds up, and where left-on dirt will really stand out against a sparkling white coat. (To clean the ears, wet them first with the sponge; then apply a small amount of shampoo to the outsides with your hands and scrub with your fingers. Be careful not to get any water inside the ears when you rinse.)

Rinse your whole horse thoroughly-if you let the shampoo dry on his coat, he'll look dull instead of shiny. Treat any stains that haven't come out with Quic Silver; apply full-strength, rub in, leave on for two to three minutes, and then rinse off.

If your horse has dry skin, after you've rinsed him off put a few drops of bath oil in a bucket of water and sponge that solution over him. (Just a few drops; don't overdo. An oily coat attracts dust.)

Cold-weather modification: Take advantage of any unseasonably warm days to bathe your horse. If you must bathe him on a colder day, wash just one area at a time. Start with the legs, tail and hindquarters; when they're finished, cover the quarters with a cooler. Next do the neck and mane, and finally the midsection (the most important part to guard from getting chilled); when you're finished there, cover his whole body with several dry coolers and walk him to help his body temperature stay up.

Pre-Show Preparation
The two-bath routine I use is a modification of my regular bathing technique. (If you're not bathing your gray horse regularly in cold weather, I suggest you do this variation a week before any show he may be going to, so that you get out most of the built-up dirt, and again on the day of the show.)

First, I apply Quic Silver to the legs. I rub the Quic Silver full-strength into all four legs, scrub each for about thirty seconds, and then rinse all four. The whole process takes less than three minutes.

Next I wet the whole body with water and scrub with Orvus paste shampoo, which gets out dirt better than anything else I've used. After I've rinsed out this first shampoo, I put Quic Silver full-strength on any stains still remaining. Then I pour about half a cup of Quic Silver into a bucket of warm water, making a slightly sudsy solution; I sponge this over his whole body, leave on for a minute or two, and then rinse very thoroughly. (I'm especially careful about rinsing the mane if I'm going to braid it -- soapy manes are very slippery.)

As a final touch, after the horse is dry, I use ShowSheen on his tail. It works a little like floor wax, helping to keep dust from settling on those clean tail hairs. If the tail doesn't get braided, I comb the ShowSheen through the whole tail; with a braided tail, I just use it below the braid.