Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Three Reasons - Grooming and Tack Cleaning

When my daughters were young and learning about horses, I tried to teach them the benefits of grooming and cleaning your tack. I've tried to do the same with the girls who share-boarded or did some learning on our pony Norman. For some reason, I ended up doing this in threes - maybe it's easier to remember or perhaps my mind just works that way. What made me think about this today was watching the horses out in the pastures getting rained on - we're supposed to have rain for most of the day so there may be no riding - we've already had about an inch since last night.

Seeing the horses get so wet made me think about grooming. Here are my three reasons for grooming my horses as often as I can:

1. For the health of the horse. Cleaning up your horse - even if it's just knocking the mud off with a curry or picking their feet - can really contribute to their health. Skin problems can develop as a result of insufficient grooming, and if your horse is prone to such things, frequent grooming (with brushes that are cleaned frequently and not used on a bunch of different horses) can help. The motions of grooming, particularly currying with a rubber curry and brushing, stimulate the skin and underlying tissues, improving circulation. Grooming also - and this is where the rain got me thinking - brings up the natural oils in the horse's coat, improving their weatherproofing. I like those very soft small rubber curries for this - when we were showing our horses never needed any Showsheen because they were shiny already from the groomings and a wipe-off with a soft cloth. Frequent hoof picking can head off some abscesses - would you like to stand all night with a rock in your shoe? - and are a must for horses that are prone to thrush. I also pick feet before and after every ride, for the horse's comfort and health.

2. To assess the horse's health and mental/emotional state. When you groom your horse, you have a chance to look at every square inch of your horse's body, and assess any lumps, bumps, scrapes or other ouchies. I've also found that the horse's behavior during grooming may tip you off to other issues, such as soreness or cramped muscles, or ulcers or poor saddle fit, or even impending colic. One thing I like to do during grooming is to run my hands over the whole horse, including the legs - sometimes our hands will pick up things our eyes miss. If you do this frequently, you'll know what's "normal" for your horse, which can allow you to more quickly detect a problem and can avoid alarm if a bump has been there all along and isn't a problem. If I feel a tense muscle or the horse tells me they want an area massaged, this gives me an opportunity to do this as well - although sometimes this isn't enough and the horse will tell me we need to call the chiropractor. Grooming time is also a great way to tell how the horse is feeling inside - you can tell if their behavior is normal for them or if they are worried about something - it's often a good predictor of how the ride is going to be and what you may need to work on.

3. To build a relationship with the horse. I just love grooming - I think I actually may like it even more than riding. When we groom, we're on the same physical level as the horse, and they can look at us and interact with us. Many horses enjoy grooming as long as we're not too rough or in a hurry - a horse that is concerned about grooming or doesn't like certain areas touched may have some health issues that need addressing - soreness that may require veterinary or chiropractic attention, saddle fit issues or ulcers. Grooming provides a calm space before you ride or do other work with your horse, and can set the tone. It also can provide great training opportunities for you and your horse, such as your horse learning to stand still and you learning to really focus on your horse and what the horse is trying to tell you.

And here are my three reasons to clean tack - which includes cleaning/laundering saddle pads and cleaning anything else that touches the horse, such as boots:

1. For safety. If you don't clean your tack frequently, you may miss that rein, stirrup leather or latigo or billet that's about to break - frayed stitching or stretched holes mean it's time for repairs or replacement. I've seen people have tack break, and believe me it can be ugly - you can end up on the ground or under your horse, and a broken bridle may be even worse. I try to wipe down my tack frequently - I only use a sponge dipped in water and squeezed out and bar glycerine soap - and try to take apart my stirrups/leathers and bridle completely on a regular basis to thoroughly clean them, and really clean the saddle - lifting up all the flaps and getting into all the crevices.

2. For the comfort of the horse. Any part of your tack that touches the horse - particularly girths, saddle pads and bits, needs to be clean. How would you like to have to wear a bit that is crusted and filthy - horses have extremely sensitive mouth tissues - or a girth that is covered in sweat and hair - a great opportunity for girth sores - or a saddle pad (think your own t-shirt but with weight on top of it) that is stiff with sweat and dirt? I religiously rinse my bit and clean my girth every day - it's takes only a couple of minutes but it's worth it for my horse's comfort. I also clean my saddle pads frequently.

3. To preserve the tack. Frequent cleaning of the tack helps preserve the leather and keep it supple and more rain-resistant. I've tried lots of different tack cleaners, and some of them have a tendency to make the tack, well, "tacky" to the touch. I keep it simple now, and only use, as noted above, a small sponge, some water squeezed out and bar glycerine soap. It works for me. A seriously stiff or moldy piece of leather might require more that that, but 99 percent of the time the glycerine bar works - it's cheap and it lasts a long time.

If there are young people in your horse life, I hope they learn the benefits of grooming and cleaning tack - and for that matter, cleaning stalls! These reasons are a big part of why I'm not a big fan of full-service barns where the riders don't groom and tack up their own horses and don't have responsibility to ever clean tack or a stall. I think they give a distorted picture of what it means to own and care for a horse, and can lead to thinking of the horse as just another piece of equipment - I'm sure all riders at full-service barns don't do this but it can happen. I also think riders at these barns miss out on some of the most interesting and useful aspects of being with horses and also miss out on some learning opportunities. That said, there are certainly valid reasons for full service, such as a rider with disabilities or recovering from an injury, and sometimes horses on full service get better and more consistent care than they would from their owners.

Enjoy your day with your horses!


  1. All good points and something I am in total agreement with. We do the same grooming regiment and tack cleaning at our barn too.

  2. Been a bit lax with the heat. No excuses, but I agree with you on all fronts.

    I actually like just kind of hanging out and handling the horses better than riding a lot of the time too. It makes for a special relationship.

  3. You are so right! I am enjoying the bonding time. It's not all about riding for me.

    I'm terrible about taking care of my tack. I also hate laundry. And sweeping. And...

    Well, let's just say my domestic gene is severely lacking.

  4. I totally agree. Great post. There are many people I ride with that probably couldn't even put on a bridle, let alone even own a brush! Although having help is nice, they are really missing out on a big part of horsemanship.

    Since I ride after work when all the staff is gone, I do everything myself. I really value the time I get to spend grooming my horses. I know every inch of their bodies and grooming gives me the opportunity to notice any changes or problems, bumps, scrapes, etc. I love the bond I have that I don't think you can get by just riding alone.

  5. Excellent post. I love the time I spend grooming the Boyz, and it's obvious they do too from the contented sighs and sleepy, sleepy eyes.

    Before I knew better, I slathered my cheap old saddle with neatsfoot oil in my hurry to soften the unyielding leather. Eventually, that breaks down the leather. I only use glycerine-based cleaner and conditioner on my new saddle. Takes longer, but better for the leather.

    My girth and saddle pad are real fleece (wool), and both are quite dirty. Do you know how to clean them? I've been afraid to do anything to them for fear of ruining the wool.

  6. Leah Fry - Woolite or some other gentle hand-wash detergent, perhaps - soaked and rinsed in a tub? I don't really know since I ride English and most of our stuff is leather (girth) or synthetic/machine washable - saddle pads. Maybe the same stuff one would use to wash wool fleeces or wool for spinning?

  7. I enjoy grooming and spending time with the horses. I will admit that I hate cleaning tack and don't do it often. I also don't have a lot of extra time for tack cleaning, it just boils down to how many hours are in a day sometimes. I prefer grooming time over tack cleaning myself.

  8. I'd like to add a fourth reason to groom -- to assess my own mental/emotional state! Far too often I arrive at the barn stressed out from work or other things almost to the point of tears. I'd be a disaster if I got on my horse that way. But after half an hour of grooming and goofing around with my horse, I am 180 degrees different and ready to ride. It's like my transitional time between lives....

  9. Marissa - that's a really good point! Grooming as people therapy!

  10. Kate, what a wonderful post! I particularly liked the part about why you should groom frequently, because those are the same reasons I love to groom Panama. I think it's also interesting to see the difference it has made in him -- when I first rescued him, he'd never been groomed, and was quite nervous about it. Now, however, he loves it! Although he gets quite relaxed when I groom him, he doesn't go to sleep -- he seems to enjoy interacting with me during this time as much as I like interacting with him.

  11. I'm guilty of not cleaning my Equine Tack regularly too. I also prefer to groom as I think it gets you closer to the horse and is a lovely bonding exercise.


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