Thursday, July 23, 2009

Show Grooming and Prep Tips for You and Your Horse

Well, it's been a long day and I did not have an opportunity to finish the post I was working on for today, as life got in the way :) however, I decided to once again dig into the LTF archives and grab up another older offering, this time about show preparation. Hope you all enjoy it! Read on:

"Ever get that feeling you’re just not coming across as being polished enough in the show ring to compete with your peers? Much of that “polish” comes from paying a little attention to detail and being meticulous about your turnout. You will get far more satisfaction in knowing you did your very best to look the part, not simply throwing a few things together and running a brush across your horse before loading him up in the trailer -- going the extra mile can make a world of difference.

Let’s start with you. So you wanna be fashionable in the show ring this year, do you? For women and girls, the basics are always your show wardrobe and understated makeup. There are many suitable looks for every discipline, and likewise many manufacturers who make beautiful clothes that look good on most people. This isn’t going to be an advertisement for any one in particular.

Some people have a big closet full of show attire, with a variety of shirts, vests, jackets and accessories. They’re the lucky ones! Others aren’t so fortunate, so I’ll pay more attention to those folks. Begin with a few basic staples, such as a hat and chaps for Western, or your Hunt coat. Be certain the colors match your horse and don’t clash.

I personally prefer black with accents, and that looks good with about any horse -- but for the youth exhibitor you can be a little more daring with bolder colors and patterns. The largest array of choice has always been in the Western divisions, simply because exhibitors are able to choose more in the way of color, but beware: Many colors are not flattering to you -- or your horse!

For the men out there, you can get away with a lot less, but you don’t want to neglect things that are important to your appearance, either. First things first, SHAVE, please! Be sure your shirts are starched, pressed and well tucked in. Nothing is worse than a sloppy looking rider.

One of the most important factors in choosing what you want to wear while presenting your magnificent equine specimen is the rule book of the breed or discipline that you show in. Different rules apply to different types of horses and events, so be sure to check before you plan your outfits.

As I stated above, good old basic black is a color you can almost never go wrong with as a foundation, but unfortunately most of your competition thinks the same way. Making sure you stand out in a crowd is your number one priority. Naturally, you’ve made sure your horse is perfectly trained for what you want him to do, is in the best condition of his life and his coat glows because of all those hard working hours you put in rubbing on him, right? If not, put the darn magazine down, get out to that barn and get busy!

Remember one thing: Your competition will most likely have their horses in tip-top shape, so don’t let yours stand there in his stall just because you’re too busy putting together a wardrobe. More on that later...

When riding Hunt Seat, dark conservative colors like navy blue and hunter green are always in style, paired with beige or gray breeches. If you want to try something different, opt for a rust or deep aubergine purple for your coat. Some “traditionalists” may frown upon you for your unconventional choice, but you’ll be sure to get noticed! There are also accents you can utilize like a soft pink or pale blue ratcatcher with the navy coat, and you might opt for canary, light lavender or another subdued alternative to white.

In the saddleseat arena, a trend that has been followed since the mid-1990’s has been toward lighter (or brighter) colored “day coats” that accent your underlying dark suit, though that has been waning of late once again. While showing in informal events such as English Pleasure or Country Pleasure, navy, dark gray, dark burgundy and, of course, black all look good on most horse colors. Trends come and go, but the classics will always be in style! Riders of chestnuts can get away with a little bit more flexibility in the way of color, by choosing beiges and green tones, but make sure your color choice flatters you, too! Try to stay away from anything too overbearing, such as bright red or vivid teal, unless you’re absolutely certain your horse is always going to be a perfect lady or gentleman -- the more you stand out, the more likely you’ll catch the judge’s eye when your horse goes galloping past him sideways trying to crow-hop! Raw silk is always a stylish choice for your coat, but there are also a number of different fabrics available to choose from when purchasing your attire. Small houndstooth checks, stripes or plaids in a variety of textures are growing in popularity, as are soft paisleys and brocades.

Also, if you compete in Dressage you’re probably aware that you haven’t too much of a choice, however, navy coats and hats are steadily becoming more acceptable on top of your snowy white breeches!

One other important thing to remember -- dressing a child for the show ring is different than dressing an adult. Kids can get away with far more. However, since it’s so expensive to outfit a child (with their wardrobes sometimes costing as much as your own!), try to stay away from any look or color that might be considered a little bit too radical for another parent to buy from you when your little darling outgrows it.

Hopefully you’ve got your pen in hand and are taking down a few tips on what you like, because, most important of all, you have to please you. Keep your eyes open for what’s attractive to you in the show ring and ask the exhibitors whose clothes you like where they shop.

Now back to that horse of yours. Earlier I mentioned the training, conditioning and daily grooming you need to put into him so you can be on the same level as those you’ll be competing against, but we’re getting to the nitty gritty of prepping him for the show ring itself. There are three major things I consider mandatory before that horse is ready to set foot in a class: Bathing, clipping and hooves. Those are the rock bottom basics I want covered.

My horses are generally bathed each week to keep them basically clean, but that’s pure maintenance. A show bath is unlike a standard one because that horse has got to be spotless and shining. I’ll start by carefully combing out the mane, tail and forelock so there’s no trace of hay, shavings or similar left. When hosing the horse down, I want to be sure I cover every inch of him, so I’m going to begin at his front feet and work my way up, then back, getting the entire underpinning wet before returning to his shoulder, then up and back again. Last I will turn down the water pressure and douse his face.

The body should be scrubbed with a good rubber curry or a longer bristled large scrub brush, and I’ll use a more stiff brush for the legs, while washing his face with either a towel, sponge or a soft brush. Be sure to rinse thoroughly and make certain no soap remains in his coat! There are specially formulated shampoos for sorrel/chestnut or bay horses, black horses and greys or horses with white markings. For my own use, I just go to the local beauty supply and purchase gallons of the normal human stuff, but I do religiously use whitener products like QuicSilver® and Shimmer Lights®. Finally, after the bath I’m sure to spray the entire horse with Farnam®’s Show Sheen, paying special attention to the mane and tail, yet being extra cautious not to concentrate too much around the back area on performance horses.

When I’m ready to clip (and I like a clean horse for that job), my goal is for the horse to look as closely like he’s naturally shedded out in the manner in which he’s shaved. Here I won’t get into body clipping, which is a must for some horses, especially sometimes during the year, and something you have to be very meticulous about, but my focus is on six key areas: Ears, eyes, face, jawline, muzzle and legs. The ears are the biggest single challenge on each horse when clipping, and that’s twofold when you’re talking about those horses who are difficult to clip. It’s imperative that my horses’ ears look like a masterpiece when I’m done. They have to be perfectly shelled, then rimmed and outlined. If there are longer hairs on the outside of the ear, they need to be smoothed off but remember, make it look NATURAL and blended.

The eyes need to have all long “feelers” sheared off, top and bottom, while leaving the eyelashes. Few things look worse than a horse sans lashes, and in some circles that’s prohibited anyhow. For the face and forehead region itself, my own preference is to completely shave what we call a “diamond pattern”, from the ear to the eye on each side, then from the eye down along the cheekbone, and well blended. Some folks don’t like this look, and it all depends on how short and sleek of a coat the horse has, but many can pull it off beautifully. You want any long hairs growing along the jawline to be shaved off, being careful to blend there, too, especially for a horse with a longer coat. By the time you get to the muzzle, if you’ve shaved the face itself and along the jawbone, you’ll have only the longish whiskers to clip, but don’t forget to remove the fuzzies INSIDE his nostrils, too!

Last but definitely not least are the legs. In the ‘old days’, we used to either completely shave the leg from the fetlock down, or if the leg was white we’d take off the hair all the way up to the knee. No more -- Today I only shave the coronet band, then I blend downward on the pastern. I’ll also be sure to blend the back of the fetlock, all around the knees and the chestnuts, too. One thing I’ve got to touch on here is to remove those chestnuts and the ergots! Makes clipping so much easier. Check to make sure you’ve covered all your bases, and that there’s no stray hairs flying about. Anything that looks suspect to you, blend it away and insist on perfection.

Finally come the hooves, and I’m very picky there, too. I’d sure love to shake the hand of whoever came up with the idea of using electric sanders for horse show grooming, what a coup! Years ago, our only method of hoof preparation (once someone came up with the concept of sanding) was to do it all by hand. Many hours, and downright bloody fingers, later we now use power tools. A note of caution, your farrier probably won’t be too thrilled with the idea, but if you’ve been showing for any length of time and especially if said shoer is familiar with show ring practices, he’ll more than likely turn a blind eye.

To start, I use a coarsely ground sandpaper, and go through the grits as follows -- 80, 150, 220 and 400. Move with the grain of the hoof, back and forth across the front in a smooth motion, or from side to side. With each finer grit, you’ll feel a smoother hoof until you have the illusion of glass. Then I top it off with three varying degrees of steel wool, each finer than the last, to bring out even more lustre. My second to last step in doing show hooves is to use a coating of Kiwi® shoe wax to help seal any tiny cracks which can diminish the end result, then I use Absorbine®’s Super Shine hoof polish. Ultra®, from Schneider’s Saddlery, also has two exceptional hoof products, their long lasting shine spray (which acts like a sort of sealer) and hoof polish remover, which can be a Godsend. Another of my little “tips for the day”: Only use black polish on dark hooves, utilizing clear polish on the light ones. Although many people, particularly those who show Quarter Horses and other stock breeds, just stick black on any and every old hoof, I have one word for that. Tacky! Makes the horse look cheap and tawdry.

Now that your horse is almost ready, it’s time for the finishing touches. Using a highlighter creme or oil, I rub across the muzzle (and up inside those nostrils), around the eyes and thoroughly inside the ears. We used to use baby oil or a similar oil, but these days I prefer Alto Light® or Silverado®, as they’re thicker, heavier products which don’t dry up as quickly and don’t tend to drip into the poor horse’s ears.

For that whole body sheen, to enhance the coat, I’ll use the aerosol spray Grand Champion® (though others like Pepi® or Ultra® better). Not too much, because you don’t want your horse to look greasy, just enough for that world beating shine, and a quick soft brush over it. Then for a touch of styling gel (just like we human people use on our hair) on the top of the forelock -- or the whole forelock, depending on your horse -- and along the crest of the neck to help those flyaway hairs at the top of his mane. With that, you’re about ready to head on out into the wide world of showing, looking like the best of the best do.

A couple of things I did want to touch on -- braiding, banding, mane pulling (or trimming) and false appliances/enhancements.

For Hunter-seat English horses, including those jumping and in-hand, Arabian Show Hacks and some Dressage mounts, braiding is a necessary evil. Various ways and means exist to braid manes and tails both, and it’s a classy, elegant final accent on your presentation. Unless you’re skilled with quite some experience in it, though, I’d suggest you find a friend or acquaintance who knows how and ask them to do it for you, or you hire a professional. There are books and videos out on braiding, and some of them may be worthwhile to you.

In the Open Hunter/Jumper world of Thoroughbreds and Warmbloods, as well as with breeds like Quarter Horses and Paints, the horses’ manes are shortened. The old school way was to pull the mane using a special comb, but because that causes irritation and even pain to some more sensitive horses, some folks today simply cut or trim the hair another way. Shorter manes on English-type horses are generally used for the small knot braids you’ll see. In stock breed horses, today’s trend seems to be what’s called “banding”, where small sections of mane are made into what essentially amounts to numerous tiny “ponytails” all down the neck.

Another thing you’ll see often among the legions of Paints and Quarter Horses is the ever-popular fake tail, which is against the rules in various other organizations, including the Arabian breed shows. Some stock-type horses are also shown with dyed manes and tails, while Arabians are not only prohibited from using any product which alters the natural color of the hair or skin, but as of 2004, hoof black is illegal in Arabian Halter classes due to shenanigans caused by folks out to win at any cost, who would use Bondo® and other unique substances or methods to alter the natural shape of the hooves on some horses.

Basically, each breed has it’s own standards, trends and rules. To reiterate from above, look into those rules carefully.

Okay, it seems you’re now finally ready. No matter what, always try to have fun, since that’s supposed to be the number-one name of the game!"



  1. Wow, I am so glad I am out of the whole "showing" scene. When I was a kid I rode and showed Saddlebreds and Morgans in English Pleasure, Country Pleasure, Equitation, etc. I loved riding and showing, but the prep was always SUCH a hassle! Endurance prep is way easier: got biothane breastcollar, bridle/halter combo, reins? Check. Got awesome RP saddle (that you clean once/year)? Check. Water bottles, hoofpick, EasyBoot, map, rider card & cell phone in cantle bag & vest pockets? Check. GO!

  2. Oh, Gawwwwd! I'm so glad I'm an Eventer. My horse hates grooming--I know, unusual--he just wants that saddle on right away so we can get out and ride! He is more receptive to being fussed over after we ride, so I try to limit pre-ride grooming to basic dirt-removal, hooves, mane and tail, and save bathing, show-sheen, bridle-path-clipping, hoof products etc. for after we ride. He gets a full, thorough bath maybe twice a year!
    But his coat stays glossy, dappled, and tends to repel dirt, probably due to his diet and regular vet care, like you spelled out.
    I do so hate braiding--I'm not very good at it, due to lack of practise, due to the fact that I hate it--so I'm going to take your advice and pay someone else to braid my horse next time. Every Event in my area is crawling with Pony Club kids who are willing to braid horses for $20, and do a far better job at it it than I can!

  3. LOL endure, hehehe...I actually like the prep work, though I enlist students to help with their own horses. My problem is I'm really picky about clipping, grooming and general prep/presentation. So, usually I go over each horse with a fine toothed comb before loading them onto the trailer or sending them into the ring!

  4. There are pretty much always some great braiders out there at events littledog, who I am sure would be happy to braid up your horse for you!

    I am not that fond of braiding myself these days, but only because after doing more than a couple of horses my hands start hurting. :( So, sometimes I have to re-do them a couple of times before I'm happy with how my braids look. Which, of course, causes my hands to hurt even more. Sigh.

  5. Back when I was a Pony Clubber, we had to braid before each of our mounted meetings. We all learned to do it, and do it well in about 20 to 50 minutes. That being said I love the shaved neck of a 3 gaited horse. Probably because I don't have to braid them
    I haven't looked recently, but when I was riding pony club we all wore canary breeches, white shirt, stock, and a black hunt jacket. ALL of us. My dad used to complain that we were identical kids on identical horses, jumping identical fences in identical rounds. He was right, chestnuts and bays with the occasional gray. Even the riders hair was smoothed out of sight in hair nets.

  6. In my breed of choice (Arabians, though I take in all breeds when I have room and availability), the only classes we can compete on a horse with a roached mane is Cutting. :-/ Otherwise, we're supposed to have a "long, natural, flowing mane and tail". Unless the horse is braided for one of the Sport disciplines or is a Hunter Pleasure or Show Hack horse, then it is allowed.

    We never did Pony Club, though I have heard some very good things about it! We have a 4-H club, and I really love that program. I LOL'ed about all the kids wearing the same attire!

  7. Kaede, yeah, Pony Club! Most of the way I handle and care for my horses goes back to what I learned in Pony Club, about 35 years ago! Not that I haven't learned other ways of doing things since then, but whenever I'm uncertain, I go back to those lessons and even drag out the old PC Manual once in awhile.

    Even back then, my braiding skills were messier than the other kids'. My current horse has a really thick mane that tends to fall to both sides, plus his daytime turnout pasture is full of sticky burr plants. I got tired of adding 1 hour of grooming time to remove the burrs, so finally I bit the bullet and roached his mane.
    Kind of sad, his mane could be so thick and beautiful. If I were competing in half-Arabs (which he is) I would spend the hours necessary to take better care of that mane. But roaching it has really turned out well! My horse likes that there's no more mane pulling, that mane maintenance takes only 5 minutes. Plus, the way it sticks up kind of forms a border to highlight the nice shape of his neck muscles on both sides.

  8. I find it horrifying that anyone would go to such lengths with hoof prep for a show ribbon. No matter how much, how hard, how many grits you are using, you are removing the protective hoof wall. Sorry, but a simple clip of the coronet band for a neat hair line, a good cleaning with a stiff brush and soap and the use of a good hoof polish is all that is necessary and not harmful in any manner.

  9. I hope to GOD you're not actually serious about sanding a hoof that way... but you must be. It's such a Godsend aferall for someone to have thought of it. If you got to 2 shows a month and go through that routine... you just compromised your horses hoof stability in a MAJOR way.

    I horses hoof (and it varies per horse is only about a 1/4 inch thick. The thinner the more less stable the hoof. A power tool can grind 1 cm or a 1/4 of an inch in nooo time.

    I don't see why using a fine grit polishing sand paper by hand would cause you to bloody your poor 'ittle fingers. Nor do I see, if you care for your horses feet properly on a regular schedule WHY they would need THAT many levels of sanding grit to get them smooth.

    I'm appalled. All for a ribbon? Really?

  10. nccatnip and autumnblaze, I understand your concern.

    The practice of hoof sanding has been in existence for at least 25 or more years within the Arabian breed, and it definitely is one of those "finishing touches" we do in order to be competitive. As there are thousands of horses who have this means of hoof preparation done without harm, over the course of so many years, I am not going to be an alarmist. :)

    All that is removed of the hoof wall is the rough outer layer, and finishing is very minimal. Actually, this article was written back some ten or so years ago, and at that time we did go to further lengths in sanding. These days, we go through far fewer grits and it's much less intensive than many years back.

    Also, if we attend more than one show per every few months with any specific already prepped horse, there is extremely minimal additional sanding/prep done to the horse's hooves.

    I do thank you both for your comments and appreciate your concern, as well as voicing your opinions as advocates for the horses.


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