Tricks of the trade: washing horses

  • Horses that fight to get away from the hose or panic at a wet sponge don’t have to stay dirty.

    With solid groundwork, and a couple of tricks, they can be taught to accept and even enjoy a proper wash down.

    To introduce or re-establish good behaviour with water, Equine Behaviour Specialist Jill Shephard recommends setting aside time in a safe area, preferably on a soft surface rather than on concrete.

    Wear a riding hat and gloves, and use a long rope or lunge line. Use a damp sponge and gradually increase the amount of water in it as the horse becomes accustomed to the water running through his coat.

    “Do not tie him up, so that if he moves away, you can bring him in a circle around you, keeping the sponge on him until he stands still. Then take the sponge away and praise him.”

    Repeat this until the horse doesn’t move, then progress to using a hose.

    “Make sure it is long enough that neither of you becomes tangled. Start with a slow trickle on the front foot nearest you,” Jill suggests. “If he moves away, bring him in a circle around you, keeping the hose on his foot. Take it away only when he strands still.”

    If the horse is really nervous, get him used to the hose with the tap turned firmly off. Lead him over it, and pull it across the ground, even around his legs, until he is totally unperturbed. A hose boom, which keeps excess length out of the way, might be a worthwhile investment.

    When you come to use running water, choose a warm sunny day. If you don’t have hot water, leave the hose in the sun, so that at least the first water contact isn’t a shock.

    Some people recommend, rather controversially, that you introduce the hose when the horse is a little uncomfortable with sweat and flies. The theory is that the water then offers relief. . If your horse enjoys drinking from a hose, as many do, this can be another positive association.

    Control nozzles are useful, but can make a noise and the jet can be too powerful. Some people prefer to regulate a weaker flow, putting their thumb over the pipe.

    Equine sports massagist Julie Churchyard swears by a Wash Wand. This attaches to the hose, releasing water through a line of small holes.

    “The pressure can be adjusted, so more sensitive horses can get used to it gradually, and confident ones can have a water massage as well as a bath,” Julie points out. “It is also invaluable for reaching big horses without having warm water pour back down your arm.”

    Ronnie Dawes, head groom for Tim Stockdale, regularly introduces water to her charges gradually, but builds up to washing all over with a hose.

    “Once they’re used to it, I always start with the head and neck. You have to be really careful not to get water in the ears, so I wash the forelock backwards. Then if the horse pushes its head up, the water runs away from the face.”

    This feature first appeared in Horse & Hound (9th September 2004).

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