We all spend a great deal of time and effort grooming our horses and ponies, but very often we forget to pay attention to his face, perhaps out of fear of annoying him by fussing with those sensitive areas of ears, eyes, nose and mouth.
Just as you wouldn’t dream of going out to start the day without washing your face, your horse will enjoy having a clean visage … and that means more than a “lick and a promise”!
Even on a short hack, or stamping around in the barn or field in a halter, your horse’s face accumulates sweat, dirt and debris in the hair of his face, especially behind his ears and across his crown, and while grazing his soft muzzle and whiskers can become ingrained with green stains and slimy grassy juices. All that can cause itchy skin – particularly under the bridle or halter – and a build-up of bacteria which might result in infection.
Yes, it’s true many horses resent having their faces brushed and when washing there is the danger of irritating his eyes, but it could be this very reluctance is because his face is irritated by the dirt and sweat you’ve failed to clean off. Also, horses have a long memory and if he’s ever had a bad experience while having his face groomed, or when bridling, he’ll be afraid this might be repeated if you approach his face with a brush or sponge.
Like everything with horses, patience, gentleness and perserverence is required to overcome his aversion to face grooming. Your best chance of success is to try brushing his face after a ride, when he’s especially sweaty and therefore uncomfortable. If he’s face-shy, he’s not likely to be willing to dip his head down so you can reach it, so use a step ladder if necessary to reach his poll and crown with a soft facial brush, starting by just holding it against him so that he can rub his head against it.
Most horses enjoy a scratch behind the ears, so begin with that and gradually introduce the brush instead.
Always brush in the direction the hair grows, concentrating on the bottom of his ears and above the eyes (avoiding them at all costs), gradually moving to beneath his jaw and below his cheek bones where sweat and dirt has likely gathered.
Once he realises the pleasure to be gained from a soft brushing with gentle motions, you can try a soft rubber curry comb in circular motions on his forehead, cheeks and jaw to break up the waxy deposits that have probably built up there.
Unless he’s very laid back it’s unlikely your horse will ever be totally happy with having his face washed with a hose – he won’t enjoy having water in his nose, ears and eyes. But with patience you should reach a point where he’ll tolerate a sponge, or soft, warm, wet cloth to wipe around those delicate areas, and even inside his ears, cupping the back of his ear in one hand. Horses’ ears are extremely sensitive and if you cause him any distress or pain you will lose his trust.
If you want to use a shampoo, make sure it’s good quality, conditioning and non-irritating. Be sparing with it and rinse thoroughly, then carefully dry his face with a towel.
Hopefully you will eventually reach the point where face cleansing becomes a part of your daily grooming routine, and your horse will appreciate and enjoy the experience.
It helps to keep your tack clean – after each ride wipe off the sweat and grime and store it away for next time.
Many horse owners, particularly those who show their horses, prefer to keep their horses’ whiskers shaved off, purely for the aesthetic value.
While many consider a soft, smooth shaven muzzle as more attractive than a hairy one, this is a contentious area of horse grooming, because it is becoming increasingly proven that many horses are disadvantaged by losing their whiskers, which help them to find their way in the world.
Horses eyes are situated on each side of their faces, which means they have trouble seeing directly in front of them and below their noses. Whiskers help them sense where their food is, identify any obstructions in the spots they cannot see, and find their way around the stall in the dark. In Europe clipping whiskers is banned for competition, but the practice is still traditional (but not for native breeds) here in Britain and in the United States.
If you decide to clip those whiskers off, you can use a small cordless clipper, or even a razor – but take great care because the muzzle is usually lumpy and bumpy. Scissors can be dangerous, particularly if your horse is inclined to spook.
Here at Totally Tack we’re all about happy horses – and that includes facing up to keeping his countenance clean and kissable! If you’d like any grooming advice, don’t hesitate to contact us or pop in to the shop for a chat.