With the cold weather and snow firmly in place many horse owners are finding that they are now tasked with additional responsibilities when it comes to caring for their animals. Most horse owners would agree that adequate shelter, proper nutrition, access to clean water and medical attention are among the most pressing areas to focus on. While it might seem small in comparison to the other areas, horse grooming is one additional task that should not be neglected during the cold weather months.
In order to better manage a horse’s winter coat, it is first necessary to understand how and why their hair changes with the seasons in the first place. According to Michael Ball, an equine veterinarian from New York, a horse’s hair does not grow continuously, but instead it is produced in cycles. The hair growth cycle in turn is heavily influenced by hormonal, nutritional and environmental factors. A balanced diet helps ensure a shiny coat but environmental factors and hormones play a major role in hair shedding and growth.
Contrary to popular belief cold temperature is not the environmental factor that is responsible for a horse’s winter coat growth rather it is caused by the changing length of daylight that occurs throughout the year.
For horses this process starts in the fall when the days start getting shorter and there are fewer hours of daylight. The reduction of light causes the horse’s body to begin producing the hormone melatonin, which in turn induces additional coat growth. In the spring, when daylight increases again, the melatonin production will drop which causes the horse to shed its winter coat.
A horse’s winter coat is very effective in keeping it warm during the winter. The reason that it works so well is because horses have the ability to fluff out individual hairs so that they stand out rather than lying flat against the skin. This action creates an insulating layer of warm air around their body.
This innate ability is quite effective against cold temperatures but when winter precipitation such as snow, freezing rain or ice are added to the equation a horse’s winter coat quickly becomes compromised and loses its ability to warm the animal. This ultimately means heat loss out to the environment, which increases the horse’s chance of becoming chilled. A well-conditioned animal may be able to overcome a chill but horses that are old, very young or health compromised are more liable to get sick and possibly die.
Weather related precipitation is not the only form of moisture that can negatively affect a horse during the winter months. According to barn manager and riding instructor Sharell Hunt of Wildfire Farm in East Granby, CT, sweat on a horse is another area of concern.
Sweat usually forms on a horse’s coat after a long or hard workout session. This moisture then attracts dirt and grime which causes the horse’s hair to get matted, mussed and tangled when it dries. Hair that is left out of place in this way reduces the insulating value of a horse’s winter coat. To prevent this from happening, Hunt recommends a thorough cleaning and grooming session following a workout.
“After exercise of any kind, but most importantly if your horse works up a sweat, it is important to groom,” Hunt said. “In the winter brushing keeps the hairs separate from each other helping to keep your horse warm. Regular grooming also brings the skin’s natural oils to the surface which gives the coat a healthy beautiful shine.”
In addition to this Hunt says that grooming provides the perfect opportunity to check the horses overall skin condition.
“Horses can get cuts, sores, and small wounds that don’t show at a casual glance,” Hunt said. “These injuries could end up [becoming] a larger problem if they remain untreated or with mud and dirt caked on. I think that in the winter, especially when you blanket your horse, you are apt not to see rubs and problem areas that you would see and catch when grooming. When you brush and curry, you tend to look closer and in this way see more.”
From a human perspective it is easy to see the benefits that grooming can have but when it comes to horses this task can sometimes be a stressful experience, especially if the animal is not used to it. Hunt says this shouldn’t be the case if grooming is practiced on a regular basis.
“Horses that have little or no experience being handled or groomed may find it scary at first,” Hunt said. “Horses are creatures of habit, so they appreciate routines. Consistency in routine and expectations is key to establishing good habits of mind in a horse. We like to groom our horses at least once a day but everyone has different responsibilities and lives, so if daily grooming is not possible at least a few times a week [will suffice].”
According to Hunt, another way to alleviate any tension that may occur in a horse during grooming is to make the experience as calm and relaxing as possible
“Just like we enjoy a calm and pleasant experience when we have our hair styled, horses too enjoy a calm and relaxing grooming experience,” Hunt said. “Even if it is just a quick grooming you still want it to be a pleasant experience for the horse and yourself.”
One way to make the grooming experience more pleasant for a horse is to use soothing tones while working around it because various studies have shown that this can reassure a nervous horse. With this in mind Hunt recommends talking to a horse in a slow and soft manner while grooming it.
Horses are known to get startled by sudden movements or loud noises, particularly if it happens outside of the animal’s field of binocular vision. To help prevent her horses from getting spooked during grooming Hunt recommends moving slow and always letting the animal know where you are. Hunt does this by guiding her hand along the horse’s body as she works her way around them.
A final way to ensure that a horse receives a positive grooming experience is to use the right tools in the right manner. A curry comb is one grooming tool that that can often be misused due to lack of knowledge. Curry combs consist of short rubber or plastic teeth which are used to help loosen dirt, hair, and other debris. They are also helpful in stimulating the horse’s skin to produce natural oils.
Not every horse responds the same way to a curry comb grooming. Some horses enjoy the rubbing sensation over their muscles while others are more sensitive and require a certain type of brush. Whenever this is the case a soft rubber or jelly curry comb should be used rather than the more rigid metal version.
The brush should be rubbed in vigorous, small, circular motions which go in a direction opposite of the hair growth. The amount of pressure applied depends on the horse’s sensitivity and the amount of debris that is on the horse’s coat.
It is important to watch the horse’s reaction as the curry comb goes over different areas of the body because certain places can me more sensitive than others. This is especially true when it comes to bony areas of the body such as the forehead, shoulders, hips, and legs. Horses can experience considerable discomfort and pain in these areas because there is a lack of underlying tissue and the presence of nerve endings here.