Even in warmer areas, horses grow some sort of winter coat. Nature protects them from the elements, usually with a coat to match the climate. But you may want to hurry the shedding process along, for your horse's comfort and your own. Fortunately, with the currying, shedding and clipping equipment available today, you can take your horse from woolly mammoth to sharply turned-out spring mount.
While your horse will begin to shed as the weather warms, sudden cold snaps can surprise anyone so keep that horse blanket handy.
"That happens to us probably two or three times each spring," says Debbie Griffiths. She and her husband, Ollie, operate Autumn Rose Farm in Plain City, Ohio, just west of Columbus. They train or give lessons to about 400 people a week, as well as coach the Ohio State University equestrian team. With 52 horses of their own, primarily Quarter Horses, Thoroughbreds and Paints, they find themselves busy throughout the year.
"We try to shed the horses out naturally," Debbie says. "We'll often see the horses start to shed a lot, and then they'll stop shedding because the weather changes."
Ohio usually gets its first snow in November, sometimes 10-12 inches in a day near the Griffiths' farm, and the snow can continue into April. Horses will grow fairly heavy coats there, unlike places such as Rusty and Sarah Hill's The Riding Academy in Menifee, California. The Hills train and give lessons to adults and children, including Girl Scouts, home-schooled kids in conjunction with charter schools, and as part of a day camp program.
"I have a horse that came here from Colorado," Sarah says. "By two winter seasons, she had a California winter coat. When she first came to us 15 years ago, she looked like a complete fuzzball."
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow
- Shedding blades and currycombs will take off dead winter hair, but be gentle with them especially around or over sensitive body parts.
- Blanketing as spring approaches can jump-start the shedding process.
- Trace clipping will keep a horse from sweating excessively during exercise, while his topside winter coat still keeps him warm.
- Leaving some hair on fetlocks and inside of ears can protect a horse from dirt, insects, brush and rain.
A Little Elbow Grease
No matter what kind of winter your horse experiences, you're probably going to want to help the shedding process, especially as you increase his exercise and as the crocuses and daffodils begin to show themselves. That long hair will cause him to sweat easily, and if the weather is still chilly, he won't dry quickly. The simplest-and many feel the best-way to help a horse shed is hard work with a currycomb.
"We spend a lot of time currying," says Debbie Griffiths, "and we use a lot of elbow grease. Also, whenever we look at feed, we consider what that will do for their coats."
In California, the Hills do the same. Both couples teach youngsters how to groom horses as part of their lessons. For example, the Hills offer several Girl Scout badge programs, most of which include basic grooming as part of the instruction.
A good currycomb, usually made of rubber or plastic, is essential, though if you want to get fancy, you can invest in grooming stones and even an animal vacuum with currycomb attachments. Most people are familiar with the traditional black rubber currycomb that has small ridges in concentric circles, though newer styles feature round currycombs with individual rubber spikes and ergonomic handles.
Whatever style you choose, the principle remains the same: Use the currycomb in a circular motion to loosen dead hair. Follow that by using a good body brush, and you'll find much of your horse's coat will come off in just a few sessions.
Shedding blades also help. These metal devices have teeth on one side-some looped with a handle for use with one hand, others as a long, straight metal piece with handles on each end so that you can use both hands and cover more of the horse's body quicker.
"You don't want to use a shedding blade on the bony parts of the horse," Sarah Hill cautions. "Don't use it at the point of the shoulder, the point of the hip, on the knees, the hocks, or the face."
In fact, you probably don't even want to use a currycomb in those areas. Keep a couple of brushes of varying stiffness handy, saving the softest one for the horse's face. You might even prefer a rag for the face and head. Many disposable, pre-moistened grooming wipes are also on the market.
A bath can speed the shedding process, but consider the cold weather. It may be best to bathe a horse with warm water. Sarah Hill suggests toweling a horse dry or even using a hair dryer if he has been desensitized to it. Some products available are designed for cleaning without water, such as a green spot remover.
Continuing to blanket your horse as spring approaches can jump-start the shedding process. "It gets the horse to thinking that it's time to shed that coat," says Debbie. Though the Griffiths stable their horses indoors, Debbie said that they are careful to blanket a horse with a thin coat.
What to Clip
When you just want that excess hair gone, however, nothing beats a good pair of clippers. You can choose anything from a full body clip to a trace clip or simply ears, bridle path, fetlocks and pasterns.
If you choose a full body clip, be sure to blanket while the weather remains cool. Body clipping takes time, a good, large set of clippers, sharp blades, and a sure hand so that the hair is clipped to the same length overall. Many people prefer to let a horse shed naturally instead of body clipping.
"Except for our show horses, we try to let the horses shed out naturally," says Debbie. "We find that it's easier for the horse and is a more natural progression."
Sarah Hill notes that with the milder California winters, clipping can make more sense, though she prefers trace clipping in the winter and early spring. She clips only the areas where sweat usually accumulates during exercise, such as the chest and under the neck.
"We have to be careful in this area because it goes from 100 degrees down to 30 degrees," she says. "If we take off too much hair, we have a problem. We trim for cleanliness, convenience and for the safety of the horses."
Sarah also suggests using the clippers with the blade section upside down and clipping in the direction that the hair grows. This will thin out the hair, but leave enough of the coat to provide protection from the cold. With a show clip, on the other hand, you would use the clippers right side up and clip against the grain of the hair to get a shorter, neater clip.
Sarah uses the upside down method for particular places on a horse's body as well. "I do that with the face, the girth area, the elbows, between the forelegs, and the sheath area," she says.
If you do give your horse a full body clip, "make sure you have a good blanket," Sarah says.
The Hills keep their horses outdoors in paddocks with sheltered overhangs on one end. "Out here, when it rains, it gets warmer," she says. "The horse is not going to stand underneath the shelter. It's going to stand in the rain because it's hot. You've got to make sure you take off the blanket." She points out that this often isn't convenient for people who are gone to work all day.
A trace clip will keep a horse from sweating too much when exercised, but the remaining winter coat on his topside will protect him from the cold.
The Hills find a trace clip especially convenient for their horse Hutch, who has Cushing's disease. They can control the disease through medication, but Hutch grows the longer coat associated with Cushing's horses.
Using black duct tape or electrical tape, the Hills mask off the area that they want to clip, such as the chest. They clip the chest area, remove the tape, and then blend the edges so that it looks neat.
Turn on the Lights
Winter not only brings colder temperatures, it brings shorter daylight hours, indicating to horses that it's time to grow a winter coat. You can reverse that effect and hurry in the spring by using lights to extend a horse's daylight hours. Not only can that trick a mare into cycling earlier for breeders who prefer early foals, it can trick the body into shedding that winter coat.
Becky Hendrickson of Painted Visions Farm in Mansfield, Ohio, northeast of Columbus, puts her horses under lights from March until about June. She shows Paints primarily in western pleasure disciplines.
"I extend the daylight hours to 9:00 or 10:00 p.m.," Becky says.
"I put the horses under lights and blanket them, which makes them shed out well. After the show season, I've let them grow their coat naturally, so I get them ready for the next season's shows by putting them under lights."
Debbie Griffiths of Autumn Rose Farm in Plain City, Ohio, also uses lights for show horses. "We put them under lights for the whole winter," she says. "We start in the fall and continue through April, giving them 15 hours of light a day. We use a light that's brighter than a normal stall light."
Cindy A. McCall, an extension horse specialist with Auburn University in Alabama, suggests using a 200-watt incandescent bulb or two 40-watt florescent bulbs in a 10' x 10' stall, or enough light to read a newspaper easily in all areas of the stall.
Should you opt for lights to accelerate spring, be sure to blanket your horse so he stays nice and warm as he begins to shed his naturally thick coat.
Nicely Turned Out
Those who prefer to leave a horse's coat to nature and forgo a body or trace clip will still find clippers handy. Bridle paths, ears, eyes, muzzles and fetlocks are the most popular areas that benefit from regular trimming.
"We trim bridle paths, muzzles, ears and around the eyes monthly," says Debbie Griffiths. "We do the fetlocks in the spring."
Whether to trim fetlocks may depend on how much trail riding you do with your horse and in what terrain.
"If you're trail riding, you want to keep the hair on the legs for protection," Sarah Hill says. "If you take off too many feathers and take it down too short, you're going to have issues. That doesn't mean that you can't clean them up and make them nice."
Southern California has foxtails in the spring, which can work into an animal's skin, causing pain and even infection. By keeping feathers trimmed, the Hills can minimize the stray hair available for foxtails to catch on. Mud during the rainy season can cake on a horse's legs during a trail ride, something that trimmed fetlocks can minimize.
Yet, by keeping some hair on the fetlocks, the Hills protect their horses from the brush, chaparral and weeds on the trails that could cut into legs. "There is also a fungus in the soil," Sarah says, "so this also can help prevent the horses from getting things like scratches and greased heels."
Most people like to trim horses' muzzles and the long eyebrow hairs above and below the eyes for neatness. Sarah says that keeping muzzles trimmed will avoid hairs getting caught in a bit, especially as the horse is being bridled. Sarah even had one horse whose eyebrow hairs would grow into his eye and bother him.
However, horses do use those muzzle and eyebrow hairs as part of their sensory system, so you may want to give some thought to whether they really should go.
"They're used to feeling with their whiskers," Sarah says. "They use them to separate food from dirt. Sometimes if they haven't had their muzzles trimmed, it freaks them out for a little while. But they soon get used to it."
Sarah recommends that you cover a horse's eye with your other hand to protect the eye when trimming in that area. Though you would naturally be gentle when using clippers there, this will avoid accidents in case someone jars your clippers or your hand slips.
When trimming ears, decide whether you need a clean, show look with the hairs inside of the ear trimmed back or if you want to leave the inside hairs intact. The latter is the best choice for a horse kept outside or taken on trails because that hair protects the ear from dirt, insects and rain.
Sarah uses a "taco method" to trim ears so that the inner hair remains but isn't so long that it gets caught on fly masks and bridles.
"You put the ear together like a taco and you clip downward along the edge of the ear," Sarah says. "It takes off all of the hair that is sticking out and does a nice job."
The ear is also a useful measurement for bridle paths, unless you have a breed of horse, such as an Arabian, where bridle paths are kept longer to accentuate their neck. For Quarter Horses and similar breeds, the general rule is to lay the ear back along the mane, put your finger where the ear ends, and then trim the bridle path to that point.
When thinking about what to clip or how much and how quickly to shed out your horse, consider all the variables. How is he housed, how will he be used, is he naturally thick- or thin-skinned? By putting his safety and welfare first, you can make the right decision for you and your horse come spring.