Ashley's groom Lindsay Kellock braiding Edward

The key to getting your horse show ready? Start early!

Getting ready for a show or clinic can be overwhelming enough.  Add to that the job of getting your horse looking his best, and it can be enough to make you crawl in bed and pull the covers over your head.

So instead of trying to do all your grooming at once, here’s a little bit of a countdown to a show that may help keep the amount of grooming work to a manageable level, and will still get you sharp and shiny before the big day.

Brushing — Daily for 15-20 minutes minimum, even when you aren’t preparing for a show.

Are you ready to be a groom? Listen up!

The beauty/madness of grooming

I always start with brushing.  I start on the body with my shedding blade, which brings up a lot of the dirt that’s embedded deep in Charlie’s coat.  Then a soft brush flicks that off.  A soft curry is next.  The hard curry is just too hard for Charlie and he isn’t a fan.  Again a soft brush flicks off what the curry brought up.  Then the hard brush, and the soft brush to remove what came up there.

I have different brushes for the legs.  They’re a little smaller and a little stiffer.  And we don’t just go with the grain of the hair growth.  The point is to kick up all the gunk that’s deep in the coat.

I particularly check for any “scurf.”  That’s those little bumps on the skin, especially in the lower leg, and usually on the front of the leg.  They’re caused by a fungus, and you need to get in front of this before it gets nasty.  If I find any, I use the technique I learned from Cat Hill at the World Class Grooming Clinic:  spread baby powder or Gold Bond powder on the leg, and use the soft side of a jelly scrubber to scrub the powder into the leg.  You will see several small dots of blood appear.  Stop scrubbing when they number a dozen or so.  You won’t cure this in one treatment, so don’t try.  Repeat this every few days until the scurf is gone.  The key here is to do a little bit at a time.

If you aren’t preparing for a show, do this anyway, every day.  It’s an opportunity to bond with your horse.  Plus it’s a chance for you to gain an intimate level of knowledge about what’s going on with your horse’s body.  What bumps and kinks are always there, and which ones are new?  Are there cuts, bruises, or other injuries?  Evaluate what you can treat yourself, and what requires help from your vet.

Tail Pulling — 4 weeks in advance.

Jimmie Schramm demonstrates how to trim a tail

Jimmie Schramm demonstrating how to bang a tail.

As an eventer, I pull my horse’s tail.  I don’t do it as severely as some professionals do it.  But a pulled tail accomplishes two things for Charlie Brown (please notice I did not say for me, because this isn’t about me).

First, it provides an easier cooling mechanism for Charlie after a cross country course or just generally on a really hot day.  His normally bushy tail really covers his rear end, thus making it harder to cool off.  With a more reasonable amount of hair on his tail, cooling becomes easier because when the tail lifts, the air can actually get underneath and circulate to take away some of the excess heat.

Second, a less fuzzy, more groomed tail is easier to keep clean and free of fungi and bacteria, which is better for his overall health.

Plus, if it’s clean, the horse is less likely to scratch or rub it, thus destroying it’s aesthetic.  This is especially true in disciplines like hunters, where so much of the marks are about how well turned out the horse is.  I’ve watched people and horses struggle with rubbing.  It’s a vicious circle, and very difficult to stop.

My Thoroughbred friends think I’m crazy here, but they’re different.  Their tails are thinner, and thus don’t present the overheating problem that Charlie has.

This is a pretty intense process, and thus it needs to be done in stages so I don’t test my horse’s patience too much.  We start by pulling the thumnail width arc on the underside of the tail completely, to about half way down the dock.  Then we clip off the top “V” and thin the center section below it, keeping the shorter hairs and removing the longer ones.  Finally, we tackle the top “V” itself by removing the shorter hairs so the remaining longer ones can lay flat.

Right now, our pulling of Charlie’s tail is a bit of a work in progress, so if you run into us at a show, don’t judge by our tail alone.  When it’s finished, from a distance, the shape of the tail will look much like a braided tail.  But for the moment, it’s kinda half done.

Mane Pulling — 3 weeks in advance.

Manes grow back relatively quickly, but not so quickly that you risk looking unkempt if you pull three weeks ahead of your show.  Also, manes are desired to look natural, not like you took the horse to the hairdresser who just lopped it all off with a pair of scissors.  So the time between pulling and showing allows the mane to regain a bit more of the natural look.

However, if your horse protests at your pulling his mane, do NOT stop!  If you do, then you have just taught him that protesting gets him out of having his mane pulled.  I’m not saying do the whole thing.  But keep pulling for about 10 more minutes, and make it clear that he’s getting his mane pulled, regardless of the protests.  Then stop short of being completely done, and live to pull more mane another day.

Charlie’s mane is very thick, so for us, this is a week long process.  We do a little bit at a time so that we don’t test each other’s patience.  About 6-8″ of his mane is all we look to pull at a sitting.  Neither his neck, nor my hands, are up to doing it all at once.

Plus, I’m shortening him from a super long mane that really proved he’s part Friesian.  When we first got him, he looked like the horse from the movie Zoro.  So we shorten some, finish that, and then go back to shorten some more the next time.  Again, a work in progress, but it’s getting there!

Body Clipping — 2 weeks in advance.

Let me say up front that I don’t body clip.  If you do, you will need to build time for that into your pre-show grooming schedule.  Emma Ford recommends body clipping a couple of weeks in advance.  This will give your horse’s skin time to calm down after a clip.  It will also give you time to get a full body clip done, in case your horse is particularly short-tempered about it, and you aren’t able to get it all done in one session.

And you’ll always miss a spot.  Having the extra time allows you to see your horse in the sun, and find those places that you’d like to do a little touch up clip.  Otherwise you’ll likely discover those spots on your way to the warm up ring, when there’s no time to do anything about it.

Vanity Clipping — 1 week in advance, doing one item each day until completed.

This is my own term for the little bits of clipping that are needed:  bridle bath, goat beard, and whiskers (if you do them).  For those who do clip whiskers, do these last because they grow back the fastest, and you don’t want your horse to look like Don Johnson on show day.

Whatever you do, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER clip your horse’s eyelashes!

I also clip my horse’s feathers off his fetlocks.  He’s not entering any breed classes, so they aren’t cosmetically necessary in our case.  Plus, if you don’t keep those feathers pristinely clean, then they’re a prime breeding ground for scratches, and other fungi and infections.  And when you’re eventing, you just never know what’s in that water complex.

Bathing and Conditioning — the day before.

Do this last, before the show.  Be thorough on this one and don’t skimp.  I use two jelly scrubbers and do my best Karate Kid immitation of “wax on, wax off” to scrub up all the gunk that Charlie has managed to work into his coat.  We start at the top and work down, beginning with his face, then his neck, then his body in quarters, and finally each leg separately.  We work through a process of wetting, soaping, scrubbing, and rinsing.

You don’t want the soap to dry at any point, so working in sections helps avoid that.  And by starting at the top and working down, gravity works in your favor.  Plus you don’t have to re-rinse areas you’ve already finished washing.

Charlie actually likes getting his face cleaned, but we still go very slowly and deliberately to avoid getting soap anywhere uncomfortable.  If your horse doesn’t like getting his face washed, use a wet washcloth and a bucket of water.  It’s not worth fighting over or freaking your horse out about bath time.

When we’re done, I park him in front of the fan to insure he is completely dry.  As my friend Cat Hill says, “Wet legs and shavings are the devil!”  And since we bed on shavings, I take that very seriously.  A dab of Fungasol or my home made mix of one part sugar-free Listerine and one part white vinegar in a spray bottle also help keep any fungus at bay.

When we first get under the fan, while his mane and tail are still wet, I put a leave in conditioner in both, and work it in thoroughly.  Then I pick the mane and tail with my fingers, and finally brush them out with a brush.  I’d rather take out any major tangles with my fingers, instead of just plowing through with a brush and either annoying my horse, or yanking out too much hair.

When the mane and tail are conditioned, since he’s standing in the cross ties anyway, I take the opportunity to rub down his entire body and his legs with a towel, using my hands.  The point is to dry off his coat a little quicker, but it also gives me the chance to feel for any tight muscles or sore spots he may have.  And if I do find a spot that needs some work, I can give him a little massage.

Then put on a light sheet to keep the dust off.

Braiding — either the day before or the morning of your show.

If you’re competing in a discipline that requires braiding, you’re going to want to do this last.  Some braids can be done the night before, while others shouldn’t be left in overnight.  If you braid the night before, remember to put a split pair on pantyhose over your finished braids to keep them intact.

If your ride times aren’t too early, or if your horse tends to rub out braids overnight, then you’re going to want to braid the day of the show.

I can braid.  But if I’m showing, I don’t want the added pressure of getting that done too, on top of everything else that has to be done on show day.  I’m not showing at Saugerties, so my braid jobs aren’t $100.  If they were, I might feel differently.  Then again, if I were showing at that level, I’d probably have sponsors to help defray that cost.  But at my level, a local braider is a resource who is worth every penny of my paying for them to take that job off my plate.

Now you’re ready to go in the ring, and show your stuff!