Winter Grooming Tips

By Cynthia McFarland, Courtesy of Farman’s Stable Talk

Look at any ad for grooming products and you’ll see shiny horses with slick summer coats.

Come winter, depending on where you live, your horse may look more like a woolly mammoth than a sleek equine.  But the truth is that grooming is just as important during the winter- although it does come with a few challenges.


Most of us rely on bathing to help keep horses clean when the weather is warm. But if you live where winters are harsh, bathing your horse at this time of year is a rarity – if it happens at all.

Of course, if your horse is clipped and / or you blanket him, you still might be able to bathe him now and then, but use good judgment when you do so.

“You  have to take into consideration the thickness of your horse’s hair coat and whether he’s living outside or in a warm barn, as well as the outside temperature,” says Tina Anderson, Director of New Product Strategy & Development – Equine for Farnam.  “It’s obviously too cold to bathe if it’s below freezing.”

If you have a heated grooming area and access to warm water, you may be able to fully bathe a horse with a short hair coat, even if it’s cold outside.  You’ll want to be sure to walk him indoors, possibly with a cooler sheet, until he’s completely dried off before you put his blanket back on.

For a horse who’s turned out most of the time and has a thick coat of winter hair, a full bath isn’t usually a good idea during the colder months.  Even if the weather is mild one day, it can be hard to get all that hair dry before the temperature drops again and the last thing you want is a cold, wet horse with a heavy coat!

Your best bet for this horse may be “spot cleaning” as needed, rather than washing his whole body.  Use regular horse shampoo and warm water.  Then rub the damp areas with a thick towel until dry.

“If you don’t have the luxury of warm water in your barn, at least bring a bucket of warm water from the house for spot cleaning,” advises Anderson.

“To remove manure and other dirty spots without giving a full bath, use a spray-on-shampoo product,” she say.  “This is really good for urine, manure and sweat stains; it’s especially helpful for horse with white points.  Because there’s no rinsing required, you don’t have to worry about using this product when it’s cold.”

If nothing else, many horse owners will wash their horse’s legs during the winter to remove dirt and mud.  Anderson likes to keep legs clipped around the fetlocks and pasterns year-round.  Not only does it make for a tidier appearance, it also allows you to clearly see the lower legs and to easily treat any scrapes, cuts or irritated areas without all that hair in the way.

“Turned-out horses are more prone to injuring themselves, so keeping legs clean and even clipped is a good practice through the winter.” she notes.

If you’re riding during the winter and your horse gets sweat marks, but it’s too cold to bathe (or he has a thick coat), you have a couple of options.  You can use a sponge and warm water and just rinse off the girth and saddle areas.  Or if you don’t want to use water because it’s too cold, grab a bottle of coat polish / conditioner.

“A really nice trick is to use a product like this on any sweaty areas because it will remove sweat marks, and also help repel stains, dust and dirt,” says Anderson.  (The spray-on shampoo product can also be used for sweat marks.)

Many people use a grooming block in the spring when horses are shedding out, and it’s also great for removing sweat marks when you can’t bathe the horse.

One benefit to bathing is that you’re likely to notice any scrapes, bruises or small cuts that you can then treat.  But when it’s too cold to bathe it’s easy to miss those little injuries, particularly if your horse has a heavy winter coat.  That’s why it’s especially important to groom your horse regularly during the winter months.

Use a rubber curry comb in a circular motion to loosen any dirt, dried-on mud or manure and loose hair.  Then brush it away with a stiff brush.  Use a soft brush or grooming towel on the face, legs and sensitive areas.  Run your hands up and down the legs to check for any heat, swelling, bumps, cuts or attached ticks.  Finish by picking out all four feet.

“Grooming keeps your horse clean and gets the oils to surface to help keep the coat healthy,” says Anderson.  “Getting your hands on your horse from head to hoof will also let you make sure there are no injuries, and if there are any, to treat them.” She recommends keeping a wound care product on hand just in case.

If you blanket your horse through the winter, regular grooming remains an important part of your routine.

“You always want to groom – even if it’s just a quick grooming – before you put the blanket on,” says Anderson.  “This helps keep the skin clean and makes sure the horse is totally dry before you blanket.  If you live where it’s warm one day and then cold the next, you may have to rotate between sheets and blankets.”

Before you know it, the weather will be warm enough for regular bathing again, but for now, a little extra diligence will keep your horse looking and feeling good – no matter how fuzzy he is.