2010-04-10 / Columnists

Horses Shedding Out Their Winter Coats Is a Sign of Spring

Horses can be seasonal indicators, as well as robins. Spring is here, and this is the time of year when horses really start to lose their winter coats. It has been an early spring all across Michigan this year, and for once, that includes Mackinac.

While I was on the Island in March last month, I noticed a pair of dark draft-crossed breeds who were hitched to the winter taxi driven by George Wellington. The horses had thick coats and the typical heavy shaggy hairs on their lower leg area (fetlocks), as well as long chin whiskers. Nature enables this hair growth for the animals’ protection in harsh climatic conditions. I could also see where the hair was starting to loosen. And, when they shook their heads while in harness, the hairs started to fly. Although we keep our equines blanketed and indoors at night in Grass Lake, our fellows always manage to grow winter coats. Some breeds are heavier than others, but it seems as soon as the days lengthen, they begin to shed.

Candi Dunnigan brushes her horse, Caspar, getting large tuffs of hair. Candi Dunnigan brushes her horse, Caspar, getting large tuffs of hair. Back in Grass Lake, we’ve taken off the horses’ blankets and allowed the fresh air, sun, and mud to add to their new comfort and warmer temperatures. No matter how much brushing one does this time of year, the first thing a horse wants to do, once he has a blanket off, is to roll. It also seems the more ooze he can find in the pasture, the better. We keep those wraps off as long as possible, for the air and vitamin D from the sun enrich their coats. When it gets cold, breezy, and wet, we use the lighter, waterproof turn-out sheets that also are windproof and breathable.

Actually, shedding out horses is one way to promote their health. Since man’s equine domestication, horses rely on us for feed, shelter, and grooming. In the wild, during this transitional phase from winter to spring, horses will roll, run, and use other horses to help pick, nip, and bite off old pieces of their winter coats. Not all at once, but rather over a gradual six- to eight-week period.

Shedding a horse out requires patience, time, and wearing something like a nylon jacket to help repel the horse hair. You don’t tackle such a project in one day. I normally go about it in sections, and no more than 15 minutes a day per animal for about a week. Take one section of the animal at a time for deep shedding, such as the rump or shoulder area. A shedding blade looks like an aluminum loop with a small, ragged-tooth edge. It can have a smaller blade inserted so that it looks like a double-handed loop. The blade is held in one hand or opened for two-handed to shed out a larger area. The other side is smooth. It differs from a metal currycomb in that it is larger, and more flexible. When using it, it’s best to follow the natural body lines of the horse.

Horses seem to appreciate having their necks shedded out more than anything. The neck is one of the most important areas of touch that horses will respond to. Sensitive areas that often have the densest hair are the chest and girth sections. Those can also be the dirtiest, and many horses don’t like hairs roughly brushed there, but often that is the area that needs it most. Horses’ faces have a surprising amount of heavy hair that grows in over the face for the winter. Don’t use a shedding blade there, but rather a flexible brush. Be firm, but not rushed. The area of foreheads, right about the eyes, and the cheeks can seem to “snow” when they’re brushed. You will be surprised at how long this can take. It also seems the older the animal, the more facial hair it will grow. Some of the longest winter hairs on a horse are all under the chin and into the throatlatch area. Even the hair in and around horses’ ears is thicker. Normally, I leave that alone until summer.

Since sunny spring days can be fickle, it normally is still too early to bathe horses, but one can wash out tails and manes. This is a good practice to get into, as the cleaning will stimulate hair growth. If tails are crusted with mud and manure, take care to get as much dry material out by hand as possible. Then, begin at the top of the tail with a plastic comb and work down into the dock, loosening up material. The long tail itself can be wetted down with warm water and then soaked. After that, add a cleaning shampoo and proceed to wash the whole tail. Pick out the debris by hand. Follow through with a tail brush, and towel dry.

Manes can get an early clean-up, much in the same way. Dirt and burdocks should be cleared by hand, the mane then wetted, washed, and pulled clean by fingers, and afterward, combed through. A good early spring-cleaning solution of diluted Listerine helps to cleanse away old dried skin. You can then proceed with a razor or electric clippers to trim the horse’s muzzle.

Early spring is also the ideal time to pay attention to proper hoof care. Pastures may be patchy with snow and mud, and horses standing around in that need to have their feet checked for signs of thrush and white line disease and also a bacterial condition known as “scratches.” While you’re shedding out your horse, take time to look over each foot. It’s a good idea to start a bi-weekly application of hoof oil to help enrich the feet and hooves. If your horses have been just standing around unshod all winter, schedule an appointment now to get their feet trimmed. This will enable stronger hoof growth prior to putting shoes back on later in the spring.

Without much cost, just elbow grease (and not even a bath), your horse will look 100% better, and feel it, too. You will, as well, because you’ve gotten a jump on seasonal grooming. It won’t be long before that horse will be ready to come back to the Island.

Until next month, happy trails!

Candice Dunnigan is an active member of the American Equestrian Association, the Waterloo Hunt, and Mackinac Horsemen’s Association. Seasonally she resides at Easterly Cottage.

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