by Delynn Uttecht
There’s a sense of pride that comes when a horse you got ready wins a class and looks beautiful because of you. I know this first hand. Whether you are at the World’s Championship show or one in your local town, the process is mostly the same. Here is a simple how-to guide to getting an American Saddlebred horse ready. Depending on the breed, techniques and products may be different. The main reasoning behind this process is to make the Saddlebreds look their best, so they can live up to their reputation as the “peacocks of the show ring.”
I came to learn the process of prepping a horse at a show about four years ago. The owner of the barn asked if I could help out and from there it has become a trade I am accustomed to. The process is engrained in my brain, as it is a part of my job as a horse groom.
First, whether you are at home or at a show, you need a horse. The horse you are working with should be fed. This makes a happier horse. All horses get some kind of grain with either hay or alfalfa. If needed, give the horse his proper medication (that is not illegal while showing). Common medications that are illegal when showing include acepromazine (ace) and phenylbutazone (bute). These medications allow a horse to calm down or not feel pain, enhancing performance or making the rider’s job easier.
Find yourself a working partner. While the horse is in the wash rack or in the aisle way, having a person hold is a time saver. When in an aisle way or stall, the horse may be put in cross ties. Cross ties are chains attached to the wall, and the end of the chain has a clip to be attached to the halter. Your partner is there just in case of any emergencies that may show up.
After feeding, the horse should be washed. The horse may have white marking on legs that will need to be cleaned. If the horse has no white on the legs, still wash. To wash the horse’s legs is simple. You need a scrub brush with Soft Scrub or shampoo. Cheap Suave shampoo and original Soft Scrub work the best to make the white legs and hooves come out clean. Since you are already near the ground and have cleaning supplies, it will be easier to wash the hooves. If you wash the hooves now, they will be easier to paint later. The second step is to wash the tail. You do not want a dirty, sticky-feeling tail. Again, Suave shampoo and conditioner work great. Washing a horse’s tail is the same as washing your own hair. First, start with the shampoo and really scrub the tail bone to get rid of flakes. Rinse and repeat if necessary. Condition the tail with a liberal amount of conditioner, making sure to get the ends of the hair. Let the conditioner soak in for about five minutes, then rinse out.
To dry a tail, you can use one of two methods. One method is blow-drying. For this you need to lay a towel on the ground under the tail, this is to keep the ends of the hair from getting dirty, and you will need to grab a blow-dryer. Blow-dry the tail until it is no longer damp, making sure that the tail bone is also dry, in case the horse rubs his tail on the wall or when its hair gets braided up at the end of the night, so its hair will not get damaged. The more time-consuming method of drying is called picking the tail. To pick a tail, hold all the hair in one hand and with the other, pick a few hairs out at a time, and allow them to air dry. When done with either method, the tail should be dry and fluffy with volume. To keep the tail clean until show time, you may use a bobble, shoe string or use a simple knot. Make sure the knot can come out. A bobble is a hair band that had two plastic balls that is used to hold the tail up off the ground.
Besides having a pretty tail, the horse must also have good-looking hooves. The hooves must not be dirty. It is helpful to wash the hooves when the horse is in the wash rack. The hooves are clean and dry, find sandpaper and begin sanding each hoof until smooth. It is important to also pick out the hooves so they are clean on the inside as well. When the hoof is smooth, you may decide to paint the hoof or let them be natural. If the horse has no white on his legs, then the hooves may be painted black or clear, depending on preference. There is no rule stating how the hooves must be painted, but there seems to be an unwritten law. The paint is called “Absorbine Super Shine Hoof Black”, it is specifically used for painting hooves. Just like a girl wouldn’t put house paint on her nails, you shouldn’t on a horse either as it can damage his feet. If the leg has white, then the hoof can be painted clear or not painted at all. Allow hooves to dry. Check dryness by placing a finger on the back of the hoof, somewhere a fingerprint won’t be noticeable. I have accidentally checked for dry feet with the palm of my hand, learn from my mistake so you won’t have to redo a whole hoof because of a giant palm print. After painting you may wish to give the hooves some shine. This may be done by a product called Hoof Enhancer. After Hoof Enhancer is dry, put baby oil on to make the hooves easier to clean off before the class.
One main point in getting a horse ready is grooming. This is the process where dirt gets taken off. Grooming entails using a curry comb, hard and soft brush, hoof pick, and a hair brush. The dirt must be brushed off and tangles picked out of the mane. The curry comb is a rubber circle with teeth that loosen dirt. To use a curry comb, insert your hand through the slip and move it in circles around the horse’s body. A hard brush is a brush with plastic bristles. This allows you to flick the dirt off. To use, simply grab the brush in your hand and move with the direction of the hair. The last brush to be used is the soft brush. This is a brush with bristles which are normally made out of horse hair from the tail. This brush is used to shine the coat, and is used in the same fashion as the hard brush. Last part in grooming is to use a normal hair brush, to get tangles out of the mane.
Since you want to make your horse look his best, there are ways to help enhance the look through devices. To make legs look whiter, you can put some baby powder on the legs. This will make the legs look instantly brighter. If you do not have baby powder, regular corn starch will do the same trick. One other helpful device is called a tail switch. This is used for horses that don’t have enough hair of their own to make their tail look full. A tail switch is matched to the color of the horses’ tail. To put in, you place the switch about four inches above the end of the tail bone, and then tie in. Make sure to wrap the string around tight and use black tape for extra security. Nothing is more embarrassing than your switch falling out at a show. I have seen many tails fall out and many trainers not go to retrieve the tail for the embarrassing factor.
Depending on the type of class your horse is entered in, he may or may not need a braid. Most braids are red or maroon, but some barns go with their barn colors. A horse cannot have a braid if shown in country pleasure division. This is a rule set by the American Saddlebred Horse Association. The braid is placed at the start of the mane and uses a small amount of hair. You need three pieces of ribbon, which are a bit longer than the mane length. Another person is helpful in the process. You put the three pieces of ribbon and stack them on each other. Then place the ribbon stack on top of the start of the mane. Push the stack up by a couple of inches so it is sticking out like a rooster’s feathers. Proceed to braid the small section of hair into the ribbon. When you reach the end of the mane, take one piece of ribbon, wrap it around other two pieces and knot it. Repeat at the top of the braid. To finish off the braid, take one of the three ends, fold it in half and cut a diagonal line so that there is a triangle in the middle. The end should look like a snake’s tongue. Repeat with the rest of the braid’s end and the top pieces that are sticking out.
At this point, the horse is almost ready to be shown. Next, you may take baby oil or a special grease to shine the horse’s muzzle, ears, bridlepath (the part of the mane that is shaved in front) and the area around the eyes. After this step, place a saddle and girth on the horse. Put the horse back into the stall, if you have not already done so, and place the bridle on. Make sure the tack is clean. Tack cleaning is usually done before the show, along with clipping.
When the horse is ready and tacked, wipe it down with a towel to take off any dirt that has accumulated. The rider should be ready by this point. Take the horse out of the stall and put it on the right side of the step stool so the rider may mount on the horse’s left. Make sure the rider has her shirt tucked in, tie straight, hat on straight and straps under her boots. When the rider is on the horse, grab all you essential items in case of emergencies.
Your emergency items are scissors, a hair brush, string, black electrical tape, and a towel. The scissors are for any strings sticking out on a suit or tight tongue ties. Tongue ties hold the horse’s tongue under the bits in the mouth to prevent injury. The brush is for brushing the mane or tail in case the horse has messed it up through swishing or another movement. String is in case a tie-down breaks, tongue tie comes out, the rein breaks, or anything else that could happen. Black electrical tape is helpful in many ways, just like duct tape. The towel is to wipe off boots, slobber, dirt or for earing a horse if it wins. By earing a horse, I mean to wave a towel or another object so a horse will put its ears forward, and make an expressionable face. The ears forward will make a great photo and presence to the judge. As a horse with ears back look unpleasant. Earing the horse can make you do a funny dance, throw dirt, make interesting noises and other normal things you would not do in public, so beware.
After quick warm-up laps at any gait, the horse will enter his class. Before the class, the horse should look shiny and presentable. Also, put down the tail and fluff it up. While the horse is in the ring, all you can do is watch. When the horse and rider enter the lineup and wait for the results, the groom and trainer wait as well. If your horse wins, you feel a sense of accomplishment because you know you helped him win the class, even if all you did was make him look pretty. From the shiny hooves to a polished rider, the combination of horse and rider will look picture perfect. If your horse does not come out on top, remember it was all about the ride, not the ribbon. The hour-and-a-half preparation for the ten-minute ride is always worth it.
I have been learning this show prep process since I was eleven. To this day, I am still learning new techniques by working for different barns at horseshows. If you want to learn the process, starting at home is always a good idea, so you don’t make mistakes at an important show. To get the prep steps down, practice, and practice more. Through show prep I learned appreciation, responsibility, and patience. Prepping a horse can be time-consuming, but in the end, like everything else you work for, it’s worth it.