Bathing for Soundness

Bathing for Soundness

Bathing for Soundness

By Ruthann Smith
© 2010, Ruthann Smith, All rights reserved.
Originally Published in Equine Journal

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Keep those hard-to-reach places clean.

Keep those hard-to-reach places clean.

Bathing your horse may seem mundane, but improper bathing can lead your horse to be sore, insecure and even die. No kidding. The following are thoughts and tips to help you use bathing to establish a sound, confident and willing partner in your horse.


It is important to keep coats in good shape. Salt parches the skin, leaving it defenseless and easily irritated. Dirt under equipment creates saddle, girth and boot sores. It also carries fungus that can wreak havoc, especially on heels and in the folds between front legs.

Vigorous toweling promotes health.

Vigorous toweling promotes health.


It is a well-known fact that most people bathe horses too often. Standing in water can soften hooves. Water and many common shampoos strip the coat's natural defenses. You never want a horse's back to get cold. Dampness conducts temperature. Discomfort is stressful and can compromise body function. So, the cold, damp horse is apt to get sick and sore.

Horses do well to stay clean. On a daily basis, your best option is to curry, curry, curry. Vigorous grooming before and after work is the most beneficial, esthetically and health-wise. Good grooming before and after work promotes circulation, muscle tone, shine and skin's resilience. It also moves lactic acid out of muscles, reducing stiffness.

To prevent scratches, only put clean, dry legs into stalls.

To prevent scratches, only put clean, dry legs into stalls.


What happens when you get in a cold shower? All your muscles contract. So, the show routine of warming your horse up in the morning and then giving it a cold bath makes no sense. He'll not only no longer be supple, but he'll be stiff and prone to injury. Instead, either sponge him with warm water, or better yet, curry, curry, curry. A warm, damp towel can do wonders as well. Most importantly, keep his back warm.


Keeping in mind that stiff bodies get hurt, always begin at the hooves. Let the body get acclimated to the temperature. Never, never throw a cold hose right on the back. Slowly work your way up the front legs, then to the body and finally to the spine.


Never, never, never spray a horse in the face. You see it all the time, despite horses indicating it is a bad idea. Listen to them. I know two horses that died from this. One at Spruce Meadows flipped over and got a metal tent spike through its head. The other was in Wellington. Upset, the horse slipped and broke his pelvis, which ripped an artery. He bled to death. Spraying horses in the face is a bad idea. They don't want water in their ears. There is a reason for that, too.

Three ways to wash faces can instill confidence: using a warm damp towel, wet sponging and kinking the hose. Towels should be folded so ends do not slap the horse. Avoid water running down your arm by teaching your horse to put his head down. Done properly, all horses absolutely love to have their face washed by gently bringing the hose up over the crest and releasing the kink for a trickle down between the ears. The hose off the side of the crest can register as a snake to a horse. All horses instinctually shy from snakes. Since the horse has periphery vision, a hose up along the topline of the crest is not visible. If he is not head shy, your arm up near the eye should be no problem. Gradually you can open to full pressure. When the water stimulates points at both the poll and base of the forelock, horses drop their heads low in pure delight. The water gushes over the face and they all love it. I have never met a horse that did not thoroughly enjoy having his face rinsed this way, once he realized what I was doing. Feel free to share this face bathing knowledge with your friends.

Be sure to execute this technique properly. The idea is to give the horse a good experience, and then they can go to the ring levelheaded. A horse that knows his needs are taken care of can be confident.

Most importantly, wipe the ears and face well. That way, you'll avoid crud behind the tips and hair loss on the face. Bacteria can clog pores. To have shiny, rather than bald faces, keep them clear of sweat, salt and dirt that is drying.

To prevent scratches, only put clean, dry legs into stalls.


As long as the shampoo specifically states that it is pH balanced for horses and has no sodium chloride, soap in eyes is not a problem. Horses have a third lid that cleans them. That's why they can race in the mud.

To determine comfort level of a clothed horse, feel the ears, at the shoulder and kidneys (over the flank, behind the saddle). You want kidney's warm, so feel the loin.
Keep in mind that flanks are ticklish. Let the horse know you are there to avoid getting kicked.
Keeping a horse comfortable is coat-contingent. Adjust for the amount of hair as well as body temperature. Horses feel different, just like some people are always cold. Stallions tend to run hot. Mares can vary.


In the cold, grooming without bathing is your best option. If you are showing in the cold, curry lots and wet and dry towel them. Keep kidneys covered. If you are wearing outerwear, pay mind. Keep your horse warm and comfy. Heads up: a horse that is too hot from clothes can easily stress enough to colic.


Many shampoos strip coats. They actually make horses get dirtier by leaving hair parched and porous. So, it attracts dirt, which can penetrate strands to stain. I find the most common and drying ingredient is sodium chloride (salt). You want a shampoo rich in aloe vera and vitamin E. A good all-in-one shampoo should actually condition by nourishing and moisturizing rather than just coating the hair. Shampoo needs to be pH balanced for horses. Otherwise, it is difficult to rinse, leaves a film that at- tracts dust and depletes the skin.

Many medicated shampoos dry out the coat, ultimately leaving it more susceptible to fungus. Plus, they don't treat fungus unless stipulated. Tea tree oil is nature's best antiseptic and antifungal. But, it is a compound. So, it can vary greatly in quality. You want to be sure to use a shampoo that specifies “medical” or “pharmaceutical-grade” tea tree oil. You also want the source to be Australia rather than China.

If you are respectful of your horse's bodily and seasonal needs, maintaining a clean coat will also be a means to promote well-being. That always keeps things easy and cost-effective. Be mindful of all elements to enjoy sound, confident horses with gorgeous coats.

Warm Water

It is a good idea to have an undamaged water heater. Even if you never bathe in questionable weather, someday you may need to clean a wound or soak a foot.

Water conducts electricity. If a frayed or broken cord touches the water, it can be lethal. So, don't put your hand in the bucket of water when the heater in it is plugged in.

Dressing to Dry

If you do bathe in cool weather, scrape the water off and cover them with a holey cooler and a couple of wool coolers. The Irish knit and holey coolers create an air space between the body and cooler, to act as insulation. Wool wicks away the dampness to keep their backs dry and toasty.

A cold back makes for lameness and illness. The most important part to keep covered is the loin. Cold kidneys can make horses sore and sick. Keep this in mind as the horse cools down after working in brisk weather. His kidneys should be covered with a cooler. Don't compromise comfort. It is a soundness issue.
Leave a cooler over his back while on the ties and as you are walking to the ring. There, put it on the rail or fence. While cooling down, throw it over the loin and croup as you walk him out. Likewise, when it is cold and a horse comes out of the ring at a show, throw a cooler over his back.

Bio Pic

Ruthann Smith has spent a lifetime studying sound horsemanship- both as a groom for top international horses and as a renowned braider. Quietly twisting manes atop a ladder, she watched and learned in some of the best stables in the world.

As her passion for great grooming grew, Ruthann became focused on researching, collecting and sharing the best practices of the world’s keenest horsemen. Ultimately, Ruthann used her vast experience to develop exceptional equine grooming products to help raise the bar of horsemanship.

The knowledge she dispenses and the products Ruthann developed solve age-old grooming issues. Making quality horse care easier, they have received the highest honors in the equine industry*. Her Lucky Braids for Top Turnout coat care and braiding products are the best, most versatile, cost-effective and easiest solutions available on the market today.

Now Ruthann offers her LOVE, LOVE Guarantee. If not totally thrilled with a product she developed, Ruthann will refund you in full, regardless of where you purchased it.

It’s her life’s mission to empower horses by educating, motivating and equipping their people to be true horsemen. You can access Ruthann’s tips at: The Grooming Resource on, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest and her Horsemanship Clinics.

*After testing 350 products, Lucky Braids All-In-One Horse Shampoo was named product of the year by Horse Journal, the “Consumer Reports” of the industry. They also named Lucky Braids Shampoo and Top Pick for greys and whites. Lucky Braids specialized braiding yarn also got stellar reviews.