Most of us choose to let our horses grow a long, shaggy coat over the winter. It's natural for the horse, and it's easier for us. There are no blankets to mess with, and no worries about monitoring body temperatures underneath heavy clothing. But, when spring arrives and we want to get back into work, we're faced with the dreaded shedding season-flying hair that makes our noses itch and sticks to everything. What do you do?
That's simple: Arm yourself with a grooming box full of tools that can get the job done and add lots of elbow grease.
You're probably thinking shedding blade. A shedding blade is usually a long, straight flexible stainless steel tool with handles on each end. The blade is usually serrated on one side and flat on the other, with the serrated edge used for removing hair and the flat edge as a sweat scraper. (Note: Some shedding blades have two different-sized serrated blades instead of one smooth side, for use on different coarseness of hair.)
To properly use the shedding blade, you either grasp one handle in each hand or fold the blade so it forms a loop, which you can use one-handed. Gently, run it across the horse's coat, so it pulls out the loose hair. Be careful not to run the metal blade across any bony parts on the horse, such as his legs and head.
While the shedding blade works well, we think a far better choice for both you and your horse is a good, old-fashioned rubber curry comb. These oval curries have nubs in the bottom that stimulate the horse's skin and remove the loose hair. In fact, used properly, you'll find it removes hair much more quickly and in larger quantities than a shedding blade.
Place your hand through the curry strap and grasp the outside edges. Then, rub the horse with the curry, using a circular, massaging action. You'll find it brings up hair, dirt and dead skin cells to the surface of the coat. The horse's winter hair will come out in bunches, especially by mid shedding season.
Shed a Little Light
• Wear clothing with a slick finish, such as nylon, so hair doesn't stick to you.
• Keep barn lights on for 12 hours a day to promote earlier hair loss.
• Deworm your horse to help jumpstart shedding.
• Exercise prior to grooming to warm the skin and loosen the hair.
• Use a rubber curry to bring dirt and dander to the coat surface.
• Whisk away dirt and hair with a finishing brush or horse vacuum.
Be sure the curry comb you choose is flexible. It should bend a bit in your hand. If it's very stiff and hard, you will need to be cautious about its use and restrict yourself to the larger areas of the horse. You also won't want to lean into the curry session too heavily for fear of bruising. A flexible oval curry can be used safely on most of the horse's body, except the head.
Alternatives to the traditional rubber curry include the smaller circular curries, which are more hand-sized and have no strap. Some are small and gentle enough for use on the head and may be an easier choice for areas below the horse's knee than a traditional curry. There are also rubber mitts with nubs that will be just the right thing for the head and below the knee on the bony areas.
Sarvis curries-rather long plastic curries with very long teeth-will stimulate the horse's skin and remove hair from the coat rapidly. The drawback is that they can be a bugger to get all the hair out, and you may have to remove the hair several times during your grooming session. While we think they're a better choice than a blade, we still prefer the rubber oval curries.
You may also find round metal curries, but we would not use them on our horse's body. Save these for cleaning dirt and hair from your brushes, if you have any around the barn. If you don't, we'd skip even buying one.
We suggest you skip wearing your fleece barn jacket during shedding season. Ditto on donning hats or gloves made of any cloth that attracts and holds loose hair. Consider nylon outerwear and gloves or even raingear, assuming your horse doesn't mind the sound of the fabric as you move about. Add a cotton kerchief around your head and you'll keep most of the hair and dust off of you and on the ground for easy sweeping. If you're really bothered by flying hair, you can get an inexpensive disposable face mask at the dollar store to keep hair out of your mouth and nose.
Once you have the hair loosened and dirt sitting on the coat's surface, you'll want to use a stiff dandy brush or hard/medium brush to remove the debris. Choose a brush with relatively short stiff bristles that feel firm but are comfortable to you if you brush it on your jeans. You want hard bristles that will flick the dirt and hair away from the horse but still be comfortable on his body. Avoid using a dandy brush on the horse's face, as it's usually too harsh.
Be sure the brush fits your hand, meaning it's not too wide to hold for longer periods of time. When you grip it, you shouldn't feel as if your hand is stretched out. You want to be able to flex and be able to put a little strength into your brushing effort. You can choose among natural or synthetic bristles. It's a matter of preference, although the synthetic bristles may last longer.
A soft brush is basically your finishing brush. It often has slightly longer bristles than the dandy brush and they will feel soothing to your touch. They're more flexible, too. Some soft brushes, especially if designed specifically for the face, will have very short bristles. Others have very long bristles, although most people find these awkward to handle.
Regardless of bristle length, look for texture. Think "dust cloth," as you want this brush to lift the last of the dust off the coat and give it a finished look. Synthetic brushes, again, will last longer and there are a surprising number of good choices. However, for the most luxurious soft brush, consider one made of horsehair or other natural material.
You'll find both types of brushes available with and without a strap. While we believe a strap is a necessity on an oval curry, with a brush it's entirely up to you. Choose whatever style you're comfortable using. The newer contoured brushes, with a thinner area in the middle, fit a variety of hands well. You will also be able to find brushes designed specifically for children's hands and ladies' hands.
If Your Horse Won't Shed
If your horse doesn't shed out evenly, usually starting in late winter/early spring (plus or minus a few weeks depending upon your location), talk with your veterinarian about possible health problems. This is especially the case if you find your horse retaining patches of very long hair as late as May or June.
Ask your veterinarian about the possibility of Cushing's disease (if your horse is over 12 or 14 years old), hypothyroidism, or severe parasite infestation. Any of these causes may contribute to slow shedding. While the possibility of worms may make you just reach for any old dewormer, a horse who is having trouble shedding due to parasitism may have an accumulation heavy enough to warrant involvement of your vet. Veterinary intervention will help prevent any type of reaction if a large number of worms are killed at once. Your vet may medicate your horse before deworming, and may perform tests to be sure the deworming drug administered targets the most likely parasites.
Rounding Out Your Toolbox
A hoof pick, of course, is a necessity, and should be used regularly. Look for one that has a long pick end and be sure it's comfortable in your hand. Some come with a brush on one end and a pick on the other. This is fine, but you may find the pick end leaves something to be desired. We prefer to use a traditional hoof pick, then follow with a brushing with an old dandy brush.
Mane and tail combs/brushes are great to have around. A hard brush will get debris out of the horse's mane and tail, but it may not separate and untangle the hairs as well as a comb. For best results, choose a comb or brush that looks somewhat like a human hair brush. In fact, there's no reason some human brushes won't get the job done for you, if it's strong enough. Look for long, gentle bristles that won't break the hairs-they may even have rubber-covered tips. You're trying to untangle without breaking any hairs. (Note: We've seen some folks use a sarvis curry comb on the mane and tail, but this style of curry is likely to break the hairs, so we would avoid it.)
For trimming up and thinning manes, we like to use a Mane Master or Solo Comb as often as possible. It won't completely replace the task of mane thinning on really thick-crested animals, but (with practice) it will do a good job shortening a mane. It's also much less painful for the horse and easier on your own fingers than using a small pulling comb.
Rub rags were used more routinely years ago as part of everyday grooming sessions, but the old-timers will tell you that nothing will put a glow on your horse's coat faster than a natural-material rub rag. Most horsemen now give a last-minute rub-over with the cloth after spraying on coat polish, but if you put some effort into it, you'll be surprised at how quickly the coat's natural oils will come to the surface.
You can use an old cotton terrycloth towel (hand size towels are perfect) or choose to purchase a good grooming rub rag. The horse-specific rub rags often have some silk threads in them that help soften and glisten your horse's hair. We've found they're worth the extra $5 or $6.
Shedding, just like the growth of a winter coat, has as much or more to do with sunlight than it does actual weather temperatures. You can hurry the shedding process a bit if you increase the amount of light your horse gets by leaving on a 100-watt bulb in your barn for up to 12 hours. The additional light may help stimulate your horse's body into thinking the days are getting longer more quickly. Note: If you have a mare, the longer light-period may bring her into season more quickly. Be sure the light source is set up safely in your barn, of course.
Exercise will also increase the speed of losing hair. The additional work and body heat acts in your favor, as hair comes out more readily when the horse's body is warm. You'll find if you give your horse a really thorough grooming after exercise during this time of year, you'll get more hair out faster than by simply doing the usual intense pre-ride grooming and a quick brush-off after riding.
Adding a lightweight stable sheet to your horse while he's in the barn will also help warm his body more quickly. Plus, the constant natural movement of the sheet against the hair may help loosen the longer hairs. In addition, you'll find your horse has more of a slick look after wearing his sheet. You will need to be certain it fits correctly to avoid rub marks and discomfort. You also must keep the blanket clean, so you may want to have more than one available. While we stated that the sheet will help loosen hair as it moves over the horse's body, we don't mean that it should shift a lot or visibly move around on him. It's closer to how your sweater moves when you move your arm.
Although we think a set of clippers is the best way to trim your horse's bridle path, whiskers and fetlock hairs, you can get the job done with good blunt-end scissors (get stainless steel, if you can). You'll need scissors designed for cutting hair, however, or you may find the task tedious.
If you go with clippers, the easiest to use are a cordless set. The power will be virtually the same as a corded set, but you won't have to stay close to an electrical outlet or watch to be sure your horse doesn't decide to "taste" the electrical cord. Most cordless sets will have ample power to do the necessary trimming for a finished look.
The average stable-size clipper will do most of the routine grooming tasks. These should be found for under $125. Larger, heavier duty clippers are usually corded for longer sessions and are geared toward body clipping the horse. These can be very expensive, however, so be sure you need them.
If you've never used one, a horse vacuum might seem like an outrageous luxury item for your grooming kit. However, if you've had the opportunity to groom your horse with a good vacuum, you know that nothing can suck the deep down dirt and hair out of the horse's coat as quickly, comfortably and effortlessly. You'll need to train your horse to accept the noise and feel (and the little machine dragging around on the floor behind you), but once you do, you'll find nothing else can get that job done that fast.
Check to be sure the tools that come with the vacuum are comfortable and allow for good suction, which means that they can get close to the coat, like a household vacuum does on a rug. We prefer a vacuum-like nozzle over a curry-style nozzle, because we find it better for the horse if we curry first (therefore stimulating the skin and lifting off loosened hair) and then vacuum out the leftovers with the nozzle.
Theoretically, you could use the vacuum to do your horse and skip the currying and brushing. But you'll both miss out if you do that. We recommend that you go through your regular currying and dandy-brush sessions, vacuum, then run a soft brush and rub rag over your horse for the finishing touches.
We tend to have a renewed enthusiasm this time of year, and it can be fun to do a few extras to get your horse looking even better faster-even just for your own enjoyment. Alcohol and witch hazel can be great stain removers (avoid the eyes), and a spray bottle with water in it can settle some of the outside dust that just doesn't seem to want to come out.
Coat polish can do double duty as a detangler on manes and tails, while making the horse shine. Be careful to spot test for sensitivity if it's a new product, and don't overdo the spraying by using it every day or mixing different polishes before the prior one has worn off. The whole process can backfire on you and cause the mane, tail and horse's coat to become dry and brittle.
While you might be tempted to put some hoof polish or conditioner on your horse's hooves, we wouldn't recommend that you do this routinely unless there's a specific need for it. Hoof sealers are available to seal out moisture, especially in very wet/muddy conditions. Hoof conditioners add moisture, which might be helpful if his hooves are very dry. You can also get hoof hardeners to help with too-soft hooves or those very prone to cracking/chipping. However, your best bet is to consult your farrier. Putting these products on your horse's hooves willy-nilly may upset an otherwise healthy foot.