The mass of gleaming show hunters that step into the ring every year at top shows such as Devon (Pa.) don’t look that way by accident, and neither do the perfectly turned-out event horses in the jog at the Rolex Kentucky CCI****.
A lot of elbow grease and dedication goes into maintaining those gleaming coats and polished hooves under the rigors of the show circuit. Constant environmental changes can lead to a whole host of hoof, coat, mane and tail problems for the frequent competitor.
Take Care Of Those Hooves
Ever heard the old adage “no foot, no horse?”
Well, it’s true. With the demands placed upon a show horse these days, it’s crucial you do everything possible to keep your horse's hooves in tip-top shape.
As a past owner of dressage horses and a farrier for more than 30 years, James Gilchrist, owner of Wellington, Fla.-based Palm Beach Farrier Services, Inc., believes that the increased demands placed upon show horses contribute in large part to the hoof issues he frequently encounters.
“You take them to shows all over the world. They’re constantly in different environments, with chemicals on them, soap on them, two baths a day. The hooves constantly go from wet to dry,” said Gilchrist. “It’s tough with the never-ending horse show circuit. It’s not like it used to be—there’s never any time off.”
He continued, “Most of the problems we see are due to unnatural conditions. When horses are normally turned out in big paddocks, their feet are able to be more natural and have a natural biomechanical function.”
According to Gilchrist, the biggest cause of problems in show horse feet is going from wet to dry on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot that can be done to prevent the wet-dry cycle other than managing the frequency of baths. Gilchrist also added that packing hooves can help tremendously.
“Each horse is different,” he noted. “I don’t like to get caught up in overdoing supplements and chemicals on the hooves. You have to treat each horse as an individual. Nothing is set in stone in my mind. Some horses just genetically have great feet, and there’s no way you can do anything wrong.”
If The Shoe Fits…
Besides caring for the hoof itself, show horses also are subject to frequent changes in shoeing, whether it’s different shoes, different ways of shoeing, different farriers or using studs.
Fortunately, Gilchrist considers all of these issues minor, particularly changes in farriers while traveling.
“There are a lot of great horseshoers now, all over the world,” said Gilchrist. “It’s not like it was at one time when there were just a handful of qualified farriers.
“There are a small percentage of horses that may have a knack with a particular farrier, but for the most part, it’s an owner and trainer confidence issue. I think any of the horses I shoe could go anywhere in the world and be shod by a good farrier,” he continued.
Switching the type of shoes also used to be more challenging for show hunters than it is today. Certain hooves may not do well going from steel shoes to aluminum shoes, or vice versa, but the quality of aluminum shoes has improved significantly, decreasing the possibility of problems.
Hunters face the possibility of having their front shoes pulled for under saddle classes, a practice that Gilchrist is adamantly against.
“I don’t think it’s in the best interest of the horse. You take the shoes off of already shaky feet, and it breaks the feet down,” he said. “You put the shoes back on, and you can never really keep a healthy foot on any of those horses.”
While jumpers, three-day eventers and dressage horses may not have to deal with the rigors of changing or pulling shoes, they frequently wear studs in their shoes—a topic Gilchrist claims could easily fill a book.
“There’s a debate about injuries because of traction devices versus injuries because of not having them,” he said. “You have to use common sense; you don’t want to over stud them.”
The advent of synthetic footing has eliminated the need for studs entirely at some venues, particular for show jumpers and dressage horses.
“It’s not like in the old days when the grand prix jumpers were on grass a lot. You used to need them to keep the horse from falling down,” Gilchrist said. “Now jumpers in the International Ring at Wellington (Fla.) can go with no studs at all.”
Skin And Coat Woes
Ruthann Smith, a successful braider, turnout expert and owner of the Lucky Braids grooming products company, has spent more than 30 years in the business of keeping horses looking and feeling their best.
Smith identified scratches as one of the most common skin issues that plagues frequent competitors. This “crud” that is commonly seen on heels and fetlocks can be nearly impossible to get rid of once it takes hold, and the often wet conditions at horse shows are a prime breeding ground.
“Wet skin is soft. The texture of sand and bedding makes little scratches in the skin, where the fungus infiltrates. Scratches can make horses very sore,” said Smith.
The best way to prevent scratches is to thoroughly dry a horse’s legs prior to putting him away in his stall according to Smith. She also emphasized the importance of towel drying legs, as the increased circulation is important to soundness.
If scratches are already an issue, avoid using medicated shampoos that may kill the fungus, but further dry the skin, leaving it more vulnerable than before. Smith recommended products containing pharmaceutical-grade tea tree oil and aloe vera - both ingredients that will support the skin without stripping it. It is also important that the shampoo doesn't contain sodium chloride, which will only increase dryness.
“Tea tree oil is nature’s best anti-fungal and anti-bacterial,” she said. “It is effective yet gentle enough not to deplete natural defenses.”
Maintaining a show horse’s shiny coat can also be tough to do.
“It’s a bigger problem than it seems,” Smith said. “A sick horse can lose its shine. A stripped coat loses shine, which can indicate skin is vulnerable to irritation such as bugs, itching, sun bleaching and fungus.”
The best way to bring shine back to a coat and get that healthy “blossom” is simple: lots of currying!
“It not only brings natural oils to the surface; it also exfoliates to release oils, then carries them down the hair shaft for a protective shine,” said Smith. “It is the most important thing you can do for your horse on a daily basis.”
Good general grooming can also help, especially making sure that the horse is never put away sweaty, as salt will deplete the coat.
Picture Perfect Braids Take Their Toll
While perfect horse show braids may be gorgeous, the resulting mane and tail problems that come along with weekend after weekend of braiding are not nearly as glamorous.
Horses braided frequently will begin to show signs of thinning hair, which makes braiding more difficult in the future. Removing braids every day, even if the horse doesn’t rub, can stop the perpetual cycle.
Smith also recommended braiding in the morning, especially tails.
“To save the tail, braid it in the morning and never put an unbandaged tail in a stall or trailer. Wrap it with a cotton Ace™ bandage to take pressure off roots and help hair lie flat,” Smith said. “If the bandage slips, it breaks hair. Too tight, and it can cut off circulation and damage the tail or even amputate it.”
Facilitating hair growth is also tricky, but getting that elusive full tail is easier than it might seem if you follow a few simple steps at home and on the road.
Avoid silicon-based detanglers, as these leave hair brittle. “Dry hair has no resistance. Parched skin does not fortify or grow hair well,” said Smith.
She also emphasized that the idea of never brushing a horse’s tail in order to protect the hairs is a myth.
“What I have found is that when hair moves freely, it carries oils down the shaft to strengthen strands. It needs to be well organized to be floaty,” she said. “If the hair is not well maintained it kinks. Then, oils do not make it around the curves effectively either. Hair gets depleted.”
She recommended using a quality shampoo that contains tea tree oil and aloe vera but does not contain sodium chloride. Smith also suggested combing a clean tail while it’s wet, in order to get a fluffy tail upon drying.
“This may seem counterintuitive,” she said, “but wet hair stretches. Wet hair is actually more forgiving.”
Grooming & Hoof Care Checklist
- Regulate hoof wetness and dryness.
- Don’t leave braids in overnight.
- Never put a horse in a stall with wet legs.
- Always put the horse away clean, with no sweat on their coat.