Show Grooming Solutions

Seasoned competitors share advice for stress-free show prep.

Halter and showmanship horse and handler
Photo by Leslie Potter

Horse show competitors know all too well the grooming disasters that occur right as you step up to the in-gate. It can be the green stains on your white horse, a braiding blowout, or a horse that smears baby oil down your sleeve while preparing for a halter class.

Horses are messy and all too often, the products that make them look great do the opposite for the owner. With these tips from seasoned competitors, you’ll be prepared to solve any horse show-day disaster, or better yet, keep it from happening.

Be Prepared

Show Kit: Part of this preparation is a well-stocked show kit. Before heading to the show, be sure to pack grooming essentials. Even a horse that is washed and clean prior to getting on the trailer can manage to find dirt. The same goes for clothing and tack. Bring backups and plan for touch-ups. A checklist is helpful to make sure you have everything you need, from shampoo to safety pins.

Rulebook: One more thing to check is your rulebook. Holly Spooner, Ph.D., show mom to 7-year-old Grace and a long-time breed show competitor herself, is an associate professor of Horse Science at Middle Tennessee State University. She reminds people that understanding the association’s grooming rules is an important part of proper show grooming and preparation.

“Know what’s permissible in your breed and association,” she says. “For example, you can’t use hoof black [in Pony of the Americas events], and fake tails are not allowed in ranch organizations.”

Here are some tips to get you and your horse looking show-ready—and how to stay that way.

1. Clean Tack

Some events promote competing in working tack, and others showcase horses shining in silver-covered saddles and headstalls. No matter what tack you compete in, it should be clean.

If you forgot to break out your leather cleaner at home, keep a spare in your trailer’s grooming kit. Leather wipes offer quick and convenient touch-ups, while a no-water leather cleaner cuts down on cleaning time.

“I use a creamy leather cleaner to wipe down all of my tack, boots, and the outside of my horse’s hard-shell boots before going in the ring,” says Nikki Littrell, an eventing competitor who also comes from a background in breed shows. “It doesn’t require any water to use, is extremely quick-drying and doesn’t make your tack slippery.”

More tips for cleaning your tack >>

2. Get Brighter Whites

Keeping a chromed-out horse clean can be a full-time job, but there are a number of ways to brighten white stockings and clean the green from white coats. Spooner follows the strategy of keeping the “ick” from ever having a chance to stick.

“Even in warm weather, we use a sleazy or slinky cover. There’s so much white on our POAs that I do everything I can to keep them clean,” says Spooner. “I’ll use a nylon sheet over a full-body sleazy. I spray the outer layer of the sheet with waterproofing so that if the horse lays in a wet spot, it won’t seep through and stain him.”

If Houdini horse does manage to thwart your efforts to keep him from finding dirt, every white-horse owner has a favorite method to get that sparkle back.

From green-spot removers to whitening shampoos and touch-up color enhancing sprays, there are many fast-fix options. Spooner always keeps corn starch and baby powder on hand. Mixing the two together and rubbing on the area will brighten the hair.

For Littrell, ketchup is her secret weapon.

“For white tails, ketchup is a great secret for getting stubborn yellow stains out,” she explains. “Just grab a bottle from your local grocery store and slather the whole thing in the tail. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes and rinse, followed by a quick wash with blueing shampoo.”

Pony with a clean white tail at a horse show
Photo by Leslie Potter

3. Over Oiled

Putting the shine on a horse’s eyes and muzzle is a double-edged sword. Too much goop is not only uncomfortable for the horse but also makes a mess for the rider. Littrell walks the line between oil and shine with her favorite coat polish spray.

“I spray a bit on a rag and wipe [around] my horse’s eyes, ears and nose before going in the arena,” she says. “This puts a lovely sheen on a horse without looking greasy. I also spray it on the tail for shine and detangling.”

One word of caution from our experienced show grooms is to avoid putting anything slippery or shiny on the saddle area. Spooner also advises against going too heavy with oil on your horse’s face.

“Any grease will get slimy as it warms up, and that makes it more likely to get on your clothes,” she says. “We use a baby oil gel that has a little thickness to it and cuts the mess of straight oil.”

Spooner also recommends a trial run with this grooming technique on your horse at home before the show to prevent grooming disasters. A horse that’s never worn highlighter before may take offense, and this could affect how he carries his head, she explains.

4. Bring Braiding Backup

For many show circuits, professional banding or mane-braiding services are common. Having someone band or braid your horse’s mane can save tons of prep time. However, even if you aren’t doing your own braids or bands, it’s smart to keep those supplies on hand.

Here’s how to band your horse’s mane >>

“If you pay someone to band your horse, you should have extra bands,” Spooner advises. “Even if you use a stretchy hood overnight to keep the bands straight, one can break. You don’t want to be running around looking for the right color band on show day.”

Littrell braids her own horses but ensures her braids are show-ready in the morning with this trick to prevent grooming disasters.

“I use yarn to braid manes. It takes slightly longer than bands, but knowing my braids won’t come undone before I trot down the centerline is worth it,” she says. “To save myself time in the morning, I do the down portion of the braid the night before and wait to tie them up in the morning. This way, they look nice and fresh. Instead of taking 40 minutes in the morning, tying them up only takes 10.”

Knowing you have the supplies to fix a grooming goof saves time and reduces stress.

5. Rider Repairs

It’s always a risk to keep horse show attire near a horse covered in oil, hoof black and coat shine spray. Yet, it is a risk riders take. When dirt does happen, Spooner whips out a baby wipe to save the day.

“I live for baby wipes,” she says. “They’re fantastic because you can wipe your horse’s nose with them, clean your hands, wipe off your boots and clean any dirt. Baby wipes and a Tide pen are always in my grooming bag. My daughter wears button-down shirts, and if she gets a mark on one, the pen gets it out.”

The other staple kept in her grooming bag is safety pins. From fixing a back number to pinning together a shirt, the uses for safety pins are too many to list.

With these tips, pack your own horse show-savvy grooming bag. You’ll be well-prepared the next time dirt or slime tries to derail your show day and prevent any and all horse show grooming disasters.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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