Grooming Secrets to Show Like the Pros

A strong grooming game starts in the months and weeks leading up to a show. Try these tips from the pros to have your horse shining in the show ring.

First impressions matter. When your horse steps into the show ring, before he even has a chance to show off his talent, his athleticism, or his meticulous maneuvers, judges will notice the time and care you’ve invested into his grooming. But achieving show-ring shine starts long before you step into the arena.

Practicing daily and weekly maintenance, and implementing a grooming routine before the show will help keep your horse looking his best.

Taking time to ensure your horse is well-groomed before a show isn’t just a matter of vanity. It speaks to your level of dedication and commitment. Meticulous attention to grooming reflects a commitment to excellence and professionalism, setting a high standard that distinguishes both horse and rider in the competitive arena. And a well-groomed horse not only has a coat that shines but will radiate health and well-being that can immediately capture attention.

We talked with two experts about their grooming routines that keep their horses at the forefront of the judges’ attention, and what you can be doing in the months, weeks, and days leading up to your next show to groom for success.

Elizabeth Knabenshue recommends that tails be neatly trimmed about fetlock length to keep them from dragging the ground. Photo by Nichole Chirico

The Mane Event

Achieving the ultimate show ring shine starts with daily maintenance at home.→ The winning results are in the little details that will make show-day prep a breeze and keep your horse looking good year-round. For many of us, a long mane and tail are the dream. Although part of this will be chalked up to your horse’s genetics, care and maintenance of the mane and tail will help it grow and remain healthy.

[Read: Maximum Mane Care Tips]

Heather Young, a professional horseman and judge who specializes in ranch versatility events, suggests washing your horse’s mane and tail once per week with a good quality shampoo and conditioner and following it up with a healthy application of moisturizer and detangler to lock in moisture, detangle the hair, and maintain shine.

She then proceeds to let the mane dry before attempting to brush through it to preserve hair health and avoid breakage. “I let the hair dry first; this is the key to not pulling out a lot of hair when brushing. I then brush with a good quality hairbrush starting at the bottom working up,” she explains.

Band Carefully

Elizabeth Knabenshue, a multiple AQHA World and All American Quarter Horse Congress champion in trail and showmanship, echoes this sentiment. “We wash manes and tails once a week, using a moisturizing shampoo,” she shares. “When we are headed to a horse show, we might forego conditioner and detangler in the mane because we band our horses’ manes. When the mane is short and too clean, it can make it hard for the bands to stay in place.”

Pro Tip: If your horse has a long mane that tangles easily, you might opt to keeping it braided. A braid that is tight at the top can cause breakage and pull at the mane crest. To avoid this, keep your braids smaller and looser at the top on the mane, increasing tightness as you braid.

Be sure to scrub the crest of the mane and the tailhead to remove buildup and residue, then rinse thoroughly to avoid itchiness and irritation from leftover product. Photo by Nichole Chirico

Let’s Talk Tails

On top of washing tails regularly, Young also prefers to keep her horses’ tails braided and in a tail sock when she’s not at a horse show to help avoid unnecessary breakage.

But don’t be pressured to spend big money if you opt to bag your horse’s tail. According to Young, you can find a cheaper option in the sock aisle of your local store by grabbing a pack of men’s tube socks. But not all socks are created equal. Young suggests avoiding nylon socks as they can be much harsher on the hair and cause unnecessary breakage.

To use a sock in place of a tail bag, take a pair of scissors and cut down the center of the sock starting at the opening of the sock. Make your cut long enough so that you can tie a knot with the two straps once you put your horse’s tail in the bag.

Trim Them Up!

At Knabenshue’s barn, she chooses to not to braid or bag tails, and instead focuses on keeping them washed and trimmed.

“A general guideline for trimming a tail is to keep it about ankle length. Don’t let the tail drag the ground and be aware if you’ll be doing a lot of backing in a pattern as this can determine how much to keep a tail trimmed,” Knabenshue says.

Young also emphasizes the importance of keeping your horse’s tail neatly trimmed as part of a maintenance program. “I keep their tails cut off blunt at the fetlock. This provides plenty of length yet is short enough the horse doesn’t step on it when stopping or backing up.” she says.

Pro Tip: To thoroughly soak and wash long tails, fill a bucket with shampoo and water, and dunk the entire tail. By submerging the tail, you ensure you’re evenly distributing product, and giving it a chance to permeate stubborn dirt and dust. Be sure to thoroughly wash out shampoo and conditioner from manes and tails to avoid itching and product buildup.

Feed for Shine

One of the most important daily considerations when trying to achieve a shiny coat is as simple as what you feed. No grooming routine is complete without looking inward. How you feed your horse, the quality of your hay, and attention to gut health will reflect in his outward appearance as well. A healthy horse has a healthy coat.

For Knabenshue, this means feeding a healthy diet of high-quality alfalfa and coastal hay. With an overload of information available thanks to social media and the internet, you might feel the need to throw the kitchen sink at your horse to get the shine you’re after.

However, Knabenshue specifies that sometimes a less-is-more approach is best when it comes to nutrition. “If you’re feeding good quality alfalfa and a good grain, you will see the results in everything,” she says. A quality diet reflects outwardly and will keep your horse’s coat healthy. A dull coat is often an indicator of nutrient deficiency or subpar feed, and no amount of grooming will counteract a poor diet.

Less is More

For the horses under Young’s care, she also turns to diet as the first line of defense to achieve a healthy coat. “The key to coat health is what you feed them; opt for quality,” she notes. Young also monitors gut health as part of her daily maintenance to stay show ring ready and makes sure her horses have access to feed that is packed with probiotics and prebiotics.

Pro Tip: If you have a dark-colored horse, be wary of sun bleaching. Keep him out of direct sunlight during peak hours or utilize UV-blocking sheets and a sunscreen spray designed for horses to protect his coat and keep it from bleaching.

Stay on top of your daily maintenance, and a good grooming session and final touch-ups on show day are all you’ll need to make your horse shine in the show ring. Photo by Nichole Chirico

The Days Before

Daily maintenance cuts down on your prep time in the days leading up to a show, but here are a few things you can do to step up your week-of grooming game before a show.

If you have his diet dialed in, you’re keeping up with weekly mane and tail maintenance, and taking steps to protect his coat, pre-show prep becomes much easier. Knabenshue advocates for the importance of a proper clipping job to cut down on time spent scrubbing out stains. If your horse has abundant white points, she stresses the importance of clipping him to keep him clean.

“If he’s clipped properly then for the most part, the hair is short enough to not pick up much,” she shares. “You may have a stain or two on him occasionally, but you save a lot of time scrubbing out stains when you keep him properly clipped.”

When prepping for a show in colder weather, Knabenshue utilizes a vacuum and hair moisturizing sprays to help improve coat condition. And a good currycomb session in the days leading up to a show can increase circulation, improve shine, and be a relaxing way to bond with your horse.

When showing a horse with lots of white, Young opts for a full-body slinky a few days before a show. Although you’ll still need to bathe your horse the day before, or day of the show, this cuts down on manure stains.

Pro Tip: Keep your horse’s stall as clean as possible all the time, but especially in the days leading up to a show. By minimizing a dirty environment and keeping his stall dry and clean, you cut down on time spent scrubbing out stains from his coat.

Brighten Those White Points

A day before the show, spend some extra time brightening up his white points. Along with keeping him in a clean stall, and utilizing a barrier like a full-body slinky, try out a green spot remover for quick fixes.
When removing stains, Young turns to Cowboy Magic’s Greenspot Remover, an instant fix for pesky manure stains. On white manes and tails, a pre-rinse of household white vinegar can be really helpful in loosening dirt and stains. After wetting the mane and tail, pour vinegar straight from the bottle on the hair and allow it to soak for a few minutes, rinse, then shampoo as usual. You’ll be amazed at the difference you’ll see on your light-colored horse’s tresses.

Simple Tricks

According to Knabenshue, another household ingredient that’s helpful to have on hand for touching up white points is cornstarch. Pat a little cornstarch on white legs to brighten them up and achieve a whitening effect.

“This also holds better when your horse is clipped properly”, says Knabenshue. “Staying on top of daily grooming maintenance will pay off the day before a show and cut down on your last-
minute prep.”

When at a multi-day event, Knabenshue usually washes legs every night, although the footing determines how often. “It depends on what the dirt is like at the show,” she shares. “If we’re at a show where horses tend to get scratches from sandy footing, we’ll wash legs more often. Sometimes we just need to rinse off mud.”

Pro Tip: A clean, dry towel works well to absorb moisture around your horse’s legs. While he’s drying, have your horse stand on a clean surface, such as a rubber stall mat, or a clean barn aisle. If you dry him in his stall or in a dusty environment, he’s likely to get shavings, dirt, and debris on his damp skin, which can trap in bacteria.

It’s Show Time!

The hours in the saddle, late nights in the barn, visualizing your pattern over, and over again, is all about to pay off. Show day is here! All of your hard work has led up to this point, and if you’ve been staying on top of your grooming maintenance, these last-minute touch-ups should go quickly.

Many competitors opt to bathe their horse the night before a show and use a slinky overnight to keep their horses from getting dirty. By following this approach, you can ensure your horse time to dry fully, and you can avoid the stress of a show day bath that can have you running behind. The day of the show is time to apply the finishing touches on your grooming routine and have him looking his best to head into the arena.

Right Before

Before she competes, Young follows a strict routine. “I will make sure my horse has been bathed, and wash his mane and tail,” she says. “And before going into the class, I brush my horse, wipe his face down, and brush out the mane and tail one more time. I also liberally spray him with fly spray.”
As for Knabenshue, she follows a similar routine while applying the final touches on horses heading in for showmanship, trail, or halter classes. “We apply a detangler like ShowSheen to tails right before going in the arena, and rubbing alcohol on a horse that gets really sweaty,” she shares. “The rubbing alcohol helps dry any sweat marks and doesn’t leave behind residue.” In classes where hoof polish is legal, Knabenshue prefers to use a black spray at smaller shows, as it is quicker, easier, and less of a mess, and sticks to hoof black at the bigger shows.

Pro Tip: Don’t forget to clean your fake tail! In events where you might use a fake tail, bring your fake tail with you to the wash rack when you go to bathe your horse so that you can shampoo and condition it while you have your bathing supplies out. Wait for it to dry and then brush through it with your fingers to avoid tangles and ripping out any hair. When it’s time to head home from the show, braid your fake tail and keep it in a bag designed for tail extensions to avoid major knots.

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