The case for elbow grease vs. Cowboy Magic: grooming for shine in 4 steps
Anyone who embarks on horse ownership knows how confusing the multitude of seemingly shine and gloss producing products, spray, shampoos and gels can be that are the staples of any well stocked tack shop or horse/farm supply store. From detanglers – leave in and leave out – over lotions, potions and even specialized supplements, there is no end on how much money you can spend and how many different products you can apply to your four-legged furry friend in order to produce show-ready shine. Or is there?
Let’s just rethink and take a brief trip through time. When I got started in horses in the 1970’s and groomed 5-10 horses every day plus show grooming on weekends, there were two elements that determined how shiny and well groomed your horse would look: your determination and elbow grease and a good quality brush. The End. (Not) Admittedly, there is also a certain level of technique and skill that – while easily learned – is key to getting it right.
How to groom your horse to shine – chemical free – in 4 easy steps:
Grooming a horse includes more than just the coat, but for the purpose of this article, we’ll leave out the topics of hoof care, ear cleaning, nostrils etc. and just focus on the coat. When I talk about shine, please keep in mind that shine very much depends on the color of the individual horse. A dark bay or black horse can look real glossy, a white or grey horse will shine in a more subtle kind of way. Shine is the hair’s ability to reflect light. This can become very obvious when the horse moves and is harder to show on a static image. So, let’s get started:
Step 1 – Currying
A word of caution: Throw out your plastic or metal curry combs and replace with a good quality rubber massage curry and a cheaper regular rubber curry. Plastic curry combs can create micro abrasions on the hair, strip the hair of it’s natural oil coating (loosing that shine right there!), create micro scratches on your horse’s skin which leave him prone to skin infections and damage hair follicles. So, out with that cheap plastic curry at once! Metal curries are unsuitable to rub a horse’s sensitive skin and hair for the same reason. There is never a good reason to use either one of these monstrosities of grooming tools.
A massage curry increases the blood circulation of the skin, helps relax the tiny erector muscles that are connected to each hair follicle (aha! relaxes muscle = flat hair = shine…) and brings dirt and debris up from the skin in a gentle way.
You can be sure not to do any damage, even when used around bony landmarks like points of hip or hocks.
How it’s done: Start behind the poll and curry your horse in a circular motion from head over chest, shoulder, back, belly, hind end to hocks. Don’t work the curry from knee or hock down. We’ll get to that later. Do this on both sides of the horse. Your goal: Massage the skin and bring up all the dirt and move it to the surface.
Step 2 – Flicking:
Flicking is a sort of sweeping hand motion in short strokes to further bring up more dust, debris and dander from the horse’s skin up to the surface of the coat. It also serves to distribute the oils on the skin over the hair (shine alert!). In order to perform this flicking action properly, you need a proper flicking brush. This is a medium stiff brush made of NATURAL materials that does not bind the oils to the brush, but rather distributes them evenly. A synthetic brush will bind the oils to the brush, which then in turn bind dirt to the brush which you then reapply to your horse. (Defeating the purpose of grooming.) Synthetic brushes should be called ‘Anti Shine Brushes’ for this reason. Cheap plant based brushes will not flick properly. After some time of using them you will find the bristles bent to one side, making it impossible to perform the flicking action. So invest in a good-quality dandy brush.
How it’s done: Start behind the poll and brush the horse’s coat in the direction of it’s growth in a flicking motion in short strokes. This is a movement that resembles the type of sweeping you’d do with a corn broom. Remember, you are trying to bring up dirt and debris and distribute oils. See how the bristles of the brush in the picture flick elastically? That’s what you are looking for. Brush the whole horse this way on both sides. If desired, follow up with a second brushing with longer strokes, but still flicking. Your goal: bring up more dust, debris and dander from the horse’s skin up to the surface of the coat and distribute the oils on the skin over the hair coat.
Important: This is where your regular rubber curry comes in! After every two or three strokes clean the flicking brush on the rubber curry. Every couple of times knock your rubber curry against the wall or ground and see the dirt fall out! You will not want this dirt to remain in your brush, otherwise you’ll just reapply it to your horse. When finished flicking, thoroughly sweep the brush against the rubber curry several times to clean the brush before putting it away. Make this a habit and you will keep your brush nice and your horse happy!
Step 3 – Brushing:
After you thoroughly curried and ‘flicked’, you are now ready to brush off the dirt and debris you lifted to the surface with a good softer brush. A real horse brush is a natural bristle brush with a high bristle density. These brushes are usually made of horse hair. Cheap horse hair brushes are not only much too soft, too loose and not durable enough. Horse hair used to be a precious raw material and I think it should stay that way and not be treated as a ‘throw away’ material. Cheap brushes that need to be replaced often, also contribute to a ‘throw away’ attitude towards the animals that provide this precious material: horses. When I buy a horse hair brush I am aware that it comes from a horse and I want it to last for a very long time, not wanting to fuel a demand for horse hair.
How it’s done: Move in the same direction as with the flicking brush, always with the direction of growth. Here you don’t need to flick, but work in even, long strokes to remove all surfaced dirt from the coat. Clean the brush against the rubber curry every couple of strokes! This is very important, you don’t want to reapply the dirt to a different area of your horse’s body. Give the horse a second brushing with this finishing brush, if needed.
Step 4 – Bring on the Shine (and not the Magic…)
By now you should have a reasonably clean and good looking horse with some shine to it. You will now want to take it up a notch. My favorite tool to remove fine dust particles and smooth the hair is a soft, large goat hair brush, followed by a cloth diaper or a lambskin mitten such as the ones used for washing cars.
How it’s done: Again, work in the direction of hair growth. Your goal is to move all fine dust off the surface of the horse’s coat and smoothen the hair flat. Brush the entire horse, several times if needed, with the goat hair brush. Then follow up by wiping with a good amount of pressure in the direction of hair growth, either with a cloth diaper or a lambskin mitten.
Last Step: Stand Back and Enjoy!
A note regarding face and legs: I use all steps on the face, except currying. I don’t know one horse that would mind being brushed in the face with a medium stiff brush, if you do it carefully, especially around eyes and muzzle and move with the direction of hair growth. On the legs, I don’t use a curry, but rather a stiff leg brush (NOT a synthetic material, which can be harsh and scratchy!).
About shampooing and applying chemicals:
Your horse has a natural skin protectant, natural oils that keep his skin soft and moisturized, protected from micro organisms and the hair shiny. Don’t remove these oils by shampooing your horse just to reapply them artificially with moisturizers and shine sprays. Less is more. Nature provided all your horse needs. If you need your horse to shine and look his best for a show, for instance, make it a habit to groom him regularly and you will find it easy to create that extra shine before the show. Only shampoo mane and tail and hose off the horse’s body with clear water, if needed. One exception: It can be a good idea to shampoo your horse once in the spring to thoroughly wash out excess dirt. Be sure to use a natural horse shampoo that will be gentle to your horse’s skin.
Note: It takes a few days of good grooming after each shampooing for your horse’s coat to shine again! Reason: The horse’s skin and coats was stripped of most of the natural oils. If preparing for a show or event, shampoo your horse 3-4 days before the event.
About grooming tools:
After reading this article, you may suspect that I had suffered a fair amount of frustration with the grooming tools available in most tack stores. In my search for better brushes, I first came across some Swedish brushes, which were of much better quality than anything you could find here in the US at the time (2010). During a trip to Germany the following year, however, I went into a tack shop in Aachen, where I stumbled upon Leistner™ brushes. The quality is so exquisite that I decided to sell these brushes here in the US. Artisan brush makers since 1882, this company specializes in equine brushes and the products surpass any expectations.
When comparing prices online you will notice that my prices are lower than the prices these brushes retail for in Europe. I’d simply like to make these brushes available to US horse lovers and hope you’ll love them as much as I do.
Enjoy your horse and happy grooming!