Winter Horse Grooming Tips from Sydney Lewis

Grooming your horse in the winter is certainly a challenge. They’re hairy, it’s cold, and keeping mud and snow from their coat seems impossible. To help you keep your horse beautifully groomed this winter, we met with Sydney Lewis, a pro groom turned Schneiders employee, to answer some questions on winter grooming tips for horses.

Sydney and Nico-Grooming Tips

Q: Can you tell us about yourself and background as a professional horse groomer?

A: I first fell in love with horses at a family friend’s farm and my county’s annual fair. I started taking lessons at 7 and began competing in Saddle Seat a few years later. After a few years of competing, I took a break from horses, but that didn’t last long! Much to my father’s despair, I found horses at college and rode for Miami University’s IHSA team. The team rekindled my love for horses, and I eventually decided that working at the stables would be more fun than finding a Job in a dining hall. I really loved being part of the horses’ day-to-day care and getting to know them on a deeper level. I knew how much they ate, how they ate it, who they liked to hang out in the pastures with and so much more!

I spent so much time at the stables, one of my coaches suggested that I try grooming for a summer job. They put me in contact with one of their former employers, and the next thing I knew I was at the Great Lakes Equestrian Festival in Traverse City, MI. Keep in mind, this was my first ever A-Rated Hunter Jumper show. I felt a little bit like Dorthy getting dropped off in Oz. I had helped my childhood barn at local Saddle Seat shows, but nothing could compare to GLEF. I really learned the value of a good pair of waterproof shoes during those two weeks.

Once those two weeks were up, I thought, “That was fun. Exhausting, but fun. Great way to make some money and spend time with horses...but back to regularly scheduled programing”. I returned to school and graduated the next year with my B.S. in Marketing.

After graduation, I decided to take a “gap year” of sorts. There was a job listing for a grooming position based out of Columbus, OH with FEI rider Ali Wolff, and I just went for it. After a few trial weeks, they asked me to travel to WEF for the winter circuit, and the rest is history. I worked with Ali Wolff LCL and Copeland Sporthorses, traveling to shows up and down the East Coast for about 2 years. It was a great learning experience and I got to meet a lot of people within the Hunter/Jumper and FEI industry. I really loved being behind the scenes at some of the top shows in the country; to name a few: The Devon Horse Show, The National Horse Show, The New Albany Classic, Nations Cup events, etc.

Q: Why is grooming your horse in the winter so important?

A: Grooming in extreme weather conditions is twice as difficult as in normal conditions, whether it be high summer temps or freezing winter temps. There are horses out there that are more conditioned to working in their environment as the seasons change. Show horses might not be used to working in such conditions, and they may not be as well equipped to handle it. That is where we humans come in.

If we have decided to alter their routine, from hanging out in a pasture happily munching on hay to working and sweating regularly, it's our responsibility to make sure we care for them properly. That might mean anything from clipping to blanketing or adding more shelter to reducing turnout. There is not one right way to care for horses in the winter. Everyone has different methods and opinions.

What it comes down to is making sure your horse is happy, healthy, and able to work (or not) in the conditions they are living in.

Q: What grooming problems can occur during the winter months?

A: Sweat and being unable to bathe working horses properly are the two biggest I struggled with as a groom. Resulting in the age-old question, “To clip, or not clip, that is the question.”

Thrush is another big one. If you live in an area that gets a lot of rain or that nasty cycle of snow, melted snow, mud, frozen mud, and then more snow. If you’ve experienced this, then you know the struggle of keeping hooves dry and healthy.

As spring approaches and the rain really comes, rain rot it a big problem you face with your horses.

Q: How can you manage your horse's coat in the winter? What about a sweaty coat?

A: I’d like to start this answer by saying: every horse is different, every horse’s workload is different, do what’s best for your horse and its workload.

Personally, when I was grooming, we did full-body clips and bundled them up like a 1st grader waiting for the school bus. Now, this was for full-time working FEI level horses (and some tubby hunters, I’m talking about you Marshall). We had a heated wash rack and water heater to assist while grooming the “naked” horses, making the drying process so much easier.

For horses with a lighter workload that only get ridden a few times a week, I would suggest a trace, Irish, or blanket clip. This requires less blankets, better for staying warm during turnout, and prevents rubs if your horse is prone to them in certain spots.

That being said, we never clipped the horses at my saddle seat barn growing up. If you prefer to go the more natural route, a cooler, towel, and time are what I suggest. A good cooler or one with Tekno-fleece fabric will help wick away any moisture and speed up the drying process. Wipe your horse off with a towel and walk out (or let stand) with a cooler on.

Liniment spray can also help with drying sweat.

No matter what, do not put a blanket on a wet/damp horse.

If you decide to clip, make sure you have the proper weight of blankets to keep them warm. Many retailers have charts to help you determine the appropriate weight to coat length and temperature.

Q: What are your tips for bathing (or lack there of) winter?

A:Hope for a warm-ish day once a month. Just kidding (sort of).

Nothing is better than a thorough bath with your favorite shampoo. But, when times are tough, I like to use bath oil to help remove dirt and sweat. The oil helps lift the dirt off their coat. I was first taught to do this with Avon’s Skin So Soft. But any bath oil or hot oil treatment should do the trick. We used to call it a “Skin so soft bath”.

*The following steps are best performed under a heat lamp if your facilities have one, for the sake of you and the horse.

  • Fill a bucket with hot water.
  • Add some bath oil to the bucket.
  • Dunk a towel in the bucket (hand towel size if you have one).
  • Rub one side of your horse with the wet towel. Do not get them too wet, that defeats the purpose of not bathing them.
  • With a clean large towel, rub over the wet hair to remove the dirt. Check your towel, it should be a brown/black color now.
  • Repeat with the other side of the horse.
  • Q: What are your best tips for dealing with snow and/or mud in the winter?

    A: For the human, wear layers, invest in a good pair of snow boots with traction, have multiple pairs of gloves.

    For the horse:

  • If you are blanketing, make sure the outer layer is waterproof. If it is not, they would be better off naked.
  • Pick hooves and keep them as dry as possible. Watch out for their ice skates when bringing them in from turnout.
  • Make sure they have a solid pad of some kind where they tend to stand the most during turnout. I’ve seen some new mats on the market that people have begun to use for walking paths. Nothing is worse than losing a boot in the mud while catching your horse.
  • If you do not have a pad in their paddock, spread out where you put hay, so they are not trampling the same spot all the time and standing in deep muck.
  • Make sure you have a plan. If you cannot get out to the barn, who is going to be able to care for your horse? I had to drive out to the barn during many snowstorms and there were times I didn’t think my little sedan would make it. Make sure there is someone else that can get to the horses and that knows your plan for caring for them in a snowstorm.

    Q: Are there any common winter horse grooming mistakes?

    A: I’m not sure if these counts, but this seems like a good time to bring it up.

    DO NOT wash your waterproof turnout blankets with regular detergent! I actually didn’t know about this one until I started working for Schneider’s. Regular detergent will remove waterproofing, and I’ve had this happen to me. The one time we put one of the show horses out in the rain, their sheet was not waterproof anymore because we had washed it with regular detergent.

    Many companies make a special blanket detergent, *cough cough* Schneider’s Blanket Wash. I highly recommend investing in some and following the directions.

    Also, blankets are not 100% waterproof 100% of the time. If they were, your horse would be a sweaty mess. Blankets that are worn in heavy rain and snow fall for extended periods of time will become damp eventually. This is not limited to a specific brand; this goes for all blankets. Please arrange for turnouts to have time to dry out after significant amounts of precipitation.

    If possible, make sure your horse has shelter available during turnout. I know we can’t make them use it, but hopefully they will make good choices if it is available to them.

    Q: Do you have any additional tips for winter horse grooming that you can share?

    A:Yes, a few more tips for clipping:

  • Using a body spray like Vetrolin Shine or Ultra Nourishing Hair Moisturizer can help you get a smoother clip.
  • If it’s no longer warm enough to bathe before clipping, try to do a “Skin So Soft Bath” to get the horse as clean as possible first.
  • You can get your clipper blades sharpened! They won’t be brand new, but you should be able to get a few more body clips out of them. A tack store may know someone that sharpens blades.
  • I like to wear a rain jacket when I clip, it helps keep the clipped hair from reaching your skin. Those fancy sun shirts are great for UV protection, but they do nothing against horsehair. I learned that the hard way and was itchy for the rest of the day.