Heavy Horse Grooming and Rugs

Some suppose that grooming is merely a matter of prettying the animal. It would be more appropriately termed ‘cleaning the skin’, essential to the general health and condition of the domesticated horse. In fact, if grooming does not play its important role in maintaining condition and promoting health, then the horse’s superficial appearance will leave much to be desired.

Overall, the reasons for grooming heavy horses, and the general principles and practices, are much the same as for other types being worked and shown. However, certain factors associated with heavy horses, such as the tradition of wintering out, their size, and the working and showing regime, require owners to have a thorough understanding of grooming if they are to produce horses in the peak of condition.

The first point to consider is the differing regime of the horse at grass as compared to the stabled horse in work. Heavy horses normally and advantageously run out from the end of the showing season sometime in autumn until into the New Year. Horse’s running out at grass are not routinely groomed. To do so reduces the coat’s weather-resisting qualities, for the naturally produced grease unwanted by the showman helps keep out rain and bad weather.

However, as the days lengthen, the time comes to bring them in for the early shows. Both Shire and Clydesdale breed shows are held in late winter or very early spring, so the grooming for these breeds starts as soon as they come inside. At this point, we address an apparent conundrum: if grooming is connected to health and condition, as well as appearance, why can horses wintering out do without it? And if horses wintering out can do without it, why (other than for the sake of appearance) does the stabled horse require constant grooming? The answer to this lies not in the bare difference between living out and living under cover, but in the work being done and the food being taken.

In simple terms, the amount of grooming needed depends on the amount of food and exercise: the more arduous the work, the greater the care expended on getting the skin into perfect condition. Grooming the stabled horse may be limited when the horse is only lightly exercised, but it must be increased as the show season gets under way, to aid the pores of the skin to work at full efficiency. This applies particularly to horses that will appear in Turnout classes.

In order to understand this correlation between grooming and work more fully, we should look briefly at the structure of the horse’s skin, and its relationship to the horse’s overall metabolism. The skin has two main distinct layers, the inner being called the dermis and the outer the epidermis. The dermis contains blood and lymphatic vessels, nerve fibres, heat sensors, hair follicles and sebaceous and sweat glands. The epidermis consists of a layered arrangement of cells, through which the hairs rooted in the dermis penetrate to form the coat and through which the sweat glands pass to reach surface pores. The sebaceous glands are closely associated with the hairs, and secrete an oily substance called sebum into the hair follicles. This lubricates the hairs and the surrounding skin and can penetrate to the skin surface. Since the hair is so closely associated with the skin, it is no surprise that the appearance of the coat reflects the health of the skin and of the whole animal. A harsh, dry coat is a sign of unhealthy skin, and very often of poor health in general.

Since the outer surface of the skin is subject to ‘wear and tear’, the top layer of epidermal cells is constantly being shed. To compensate for this, new cells are formed and the lower layers of cells move up to replaces those that have been lost. As the cells move further away from the nutritional sources of the underlying dermis, they degenerate and die, forming scurf. This has the capacity to ‘block up the drains’ of the sweat and sebaceous glands and must therefore be removed from the skin surface in order that the glands and pores can operate effectively.

When turned out at grass, the horse is in a more or less natural state and will, generally speaking, take only as much exercise as grazing demands, and will feed on a laxative diet. These two factors mean that, compared to the working, stabled horse, the horse at grass will produce low levels of sweat and (although its production increases naturally in cold, wet weather) relatively low levels of sebum. Furthermore, the turned out horse can remove a significant amount of skin debris by rolling, rubbing against various surfaces and, to some extent, self- or mutual grooming.

Working horses, by contrast, are kept under artificial conditions. They receive a quantity of feed considerably in excess of what they would require in a natural state, in order to provide the extra energy to produce the work required. Also, the type of feed given places more demands upon their digestive system and overall metabolism than does grass, and it introduces to the body increased levels of proteins and carbohydrates. These changes in regime trigger the production of greater quantities of sebum and increase the activity of the sweat glands which, in addition to cooling the working horse through perspiration, also have a role in excreting some of the waste products of metabolism. It will be evident that, unless the pores of the skin are kept free of debris and the increased secretions of the glands are removed by artificial means (i.e. grooming), the pores will clog, the condition of the skin will deteriorate and the horse’s general health must suffer in consequence.

Further to this, the importance of grooming as a preventative of skin disease should not be underrated. Although mange and most other skin diseases are not induced solely by dirt, it is equally true that they occur most frequently, spread more rapidly and are more difficult to eradicated where dirty conditions prevail.

It can be seen, therefore, that grooming helps to keep the body fit as well as clean. Grooming, and massage of any sort (Strapping), is very beneficial to a horse’s general condition. This aspect has always received attention from professional horse trainers. The racing trainer does not pay his staff to spend hours and hours grooming just for the fun of it. Heavy horse owners must thing in the same way, whether they are full-time professionals or amateur one-horse owners. Perhaps one reason why amateurs are generally less successful than professionals in the show ring is that some tend to ‘give a better grooming tomorrow’.

Routine Grooming

‘If you’re not in a sweat when you’ve finished grooming, you haven’t done a proper job!’ That is the old-time horseman’s adage that remains as true today as ever. No modern gadgets have as yet really reduced the time and effort spent in grooming. In fact, to the usual set of grooming tools – body brush, dandy brush, curry comb, sponges, leather and hoof pick – the heavy horse groom can simply add a stout box. This is because the spine and haunches on a heavy horse are so far from the ground that the groom needs some such object to stand on, since these areas cannot be adequately brushed from floor level.

Grooming A Heavy Horse For Showing

The following are some pointers for the routine grooming of a horse being made ready for the show ring.

Grooming entails use of the headcollar, and even fastening and adjusting this calls for care, since the forelock and mane are being prepared for showing. These must be adjusted under the headcollar, the forelock free and the mane swept up to its appropriate side, and not simply roughed up anyhow.

Start at the head. Clean the eyes and eyelids with a sponge, or wipe them with a clean cloth, and sponge the insides of the ears as necessary. Next, give particular attention to the face. Facial grooming tends to be neglected, but a bold, clean face takes the judge’s eye as soon as it enters the ring. Spend five to ten minutes brushing downwards on that part of the face below the eyes then, holding the forelock to one side, brush upwards to the near ear, taking in just the front of the off side ear. A very soft body brush is useful; a particular favourite retained for the face may last several years, whereas a brush used repeatedly for sweeps along the body may need replacing after two months. In the earlier stages of preparing a horse for the show season, a rubber curry comb may help remove some of the scurf.

Now take the near side from the ear downwards. Brush in long sweeps of the left hand, following the lie of the hair, and cleaning the brush from time to time on the curry comb, held in the other hand. Proceed down to the chest, and between the front legs. Like the face, this is often a neglected area. Any judge worth his salt is well aware of the fact, and may inspect accordingly, so don’t be caught out. After the chest, proceed to the near flank, the belly and the near hind-quarter. The back – especially around the loin area – often accumulates dirt and scurf, and the grooming box mentioned earlier will assist in ensuring that this is give proper attention.

The legs down to knees and hocks may be groomed, but it is not usual to brush any lower than that. The feet and lower legs may be washed. It is also traditional to treat the lower limbs of the feathered breeds with oil. Various types of oil are used. Pig oil as used by the exhibition pig fraternity is a traditional horseman’s favourite, but a well-tried recipe is white oil mixed with flowers of sulphur into a fairly pale yellow paste of creamy consistency. At one time waste tractor oil was used, but modern engine oil detergents make them completely unsuitable. The oil applied once a week throughout the year. Lift the long hairs at the back of the foot and gently work in the mixture so that it reaches the skin. This helps keep the feather correct and clean, but it does tend to run down onto the hoof, which should be guarded against.

After completing the near side, the grooming process is repeated on the off side.

The main and tale must also be brushed, and the former swept onto its correct side. It is often better to not use a mane comb on the mane and tail until the time comes to plait; its action is too severe and it pulls out a lot of hair – exactly what the exhibitor seeks to avoid.

The final act of grooming is to sponge around the dock, with a sponge kept separately for that purpose. Picking out feet is not necessarily part of the grooming process, usually being done before and after exercise and last thing at night. It is, however an essential procedure, since it can give early warning that a shoe is loose, and helps prevent lameness from being caused by foreign bodies or accumulated dirt in the foot.

The time required for routine grooming is fully half an hour in a morning, and perhaps an hour and a half later on, giving a total or two hours a day at least, and more during the height of the show season. A young horse unaccustomed to the grooming process will need to be handled with a mixture of firmness and patience. It will have certain sensitive and ticklish spots, which may vary between individuals, but the belly, sheath area, and under inside aspects of fore and hind legs may need approaching with extra care. However, while impatient and rough grooming can spoil a young horse’s relationship with humans, grooming with consideration can have the opposite effect, bring horse and groom closer together than any other operation. Therefore, talk to your horse whilst grooming, let it become accustomed to its name, and give an extra brush or rub to those parts where it obviously appreciates attention. When properly carried out, this regular close contact between horse and groom forms a bond that cannot be bettered.

For all horses, a definite routine is best for grooming. The detail may vary from person to person, but the process as outlined is based on years of experience, and horses as well as grooms will become accustomed to it. It also helps to ensure that no part of the horse’s body is missed out.

Camaraderie in the heavy horse world is such that volunteer helpers keen to learn the art of grooming will be welcomed at the big stables. Practice may also be gained at shows, but if so it is better to approach the stable staff after their class, when there is less pressure on time. A few sessions will yield a surprising amount of information. It will be fun, and with the brewery teams especially there is always the chance of a sample of the firm’s products by way of reward for energetic work!


Strapping is a separate operation, additional to grooming, although the criteria of practising and establishing a routine are equally applicable. It is a vigorous workout for horse and groom – effectively a fairly powerful massage – and there’s nothing like it to tone the muscles. It also stimulates the blood supply to the horse’s skin, gets rid of unwanted lumps of subcutaneous fat and puts a final shine to the coat. It is far more beneficial than a lot of washing.

Strapping is carried out along the neck, the shoulders and tops of the forelimbs and on the hindquarters and thighs. A leather strapping pad, available from any good saddler, is used for the purpose. It is applied with the lie of the coat, in a rythmical flapping motion, gently at first, but building up to a more positive action. Time taken is from about twenty minutes minimum, possibly up to one hour.


At one time heavy horses were never washed. Even mud on the feather of a Shire or Clydesdale was left to dry and then brushed out, although horses might be led through a pond to clean them. Even now, washing of manes and tails is seldom routine in most heavy horse stables (although it may be done in preparation for a show), but washing horses’ bodies all over seems to have spread from the cattle lines at shows. Hose pipes have been used there for years, and now hair dryers make it easier to dry stock afterwards. While washing is much quicker than thorough grooming, it does not give the benefits to skin and circulation afforded by the later. Also, comprehensive hosing has a different, more drastic effect than does rain. Other than in exceptional circumstances, rain does not penetrate right through the horse’s coat to the skin, nor does it affect the coat under the belly.

Thorough washing with a hose does both, rendering the horse unusually cold and leaving him vulnerable to the effects of cold for a considerable time. For these reasons, there is a considerable risk attached to all-over washing, especially during the weather conditions often associated with early spring shows.

If washing becomes part of your routine, be very wary, and take the greatest care, otherwise you may bring on chills and colicky stomach upsets. As a minimum precaution, once horses have been washed, they must be suitably rugged up and walked immediately afterwards.

Obviously, localised washing to remove stable stains is a different matter, and the sooner these are removed, the better. It is notable that bedding on Irish moss peat, rather than shavings or straw, tends to reduce the level of staining.


In common with wild horses and most native ponies, most non-working heavy horses thrive perfectly well outside without rugs, but this depends on the individual rather than the breed. Some will grow much heavier winter coats than others. However, as we have noted in our grooming guide, any horse in work should be groomed, which depletes the coat’s natural oils. To redress the balance, some form of protection must be provided, hence the need for winter rugs.

The all-weather canvas rug will provide protection for horses turned out in winter, or during other times of particularly inclement weather. It is waterproofed, with a warm underlayer, and with fastenings designed to combine security of fit with safety. These benefits notwithstanding, it is still good practice to check on a regular basis that these rugs have remained properly in situ since some horses, perhaps aided and abetted by bushes, trees or companions, have a Houdini-like ability to effect total or partial escape from their rugs, possibly tearing them in the process.

When measuring for rugs, the measurement should be from the centre of the horse’s chest to the furthest point of the hindquarters. The actual width of the chest has a bearing on overall fit, so a broad-chested heavy horse may require a bigger (longer) rug than casual assessment might suggest. This is especially significant in the case of canvas rugs which might be worn for days on end, since an over-tight front fastening may chafe the horse’s chest quite badly.

Furthermore, too short a rug may leave the hindquarters inadequately protected, with the consequent risk of chilling.

Heavy Horse Stable Rugs

If a horse requires rugging in the stable, then stable rugs of various weights are available. One point to bear in mind is that, while horses enjoy being adequately warm, they neither need nor like to be unnecessarily hot. Many people nowadays feel a need for sky-high central heating and Arctic-rated duvets, but such practices do not translate well into the stable.

A day rug is, essentially, a light form of stable rug, often used for special occasions. So far as heavy horses are concerned, day rugs are most likely to be used when travelling to shows, to keep the coat reasonably clean before final grooming and to provide such warmth as may be necessary. At the show, clean and smartly coloured day rugs, embroidered with the owner’s initials or sponsor’s name, can play their part where advertising is involved.

Rugs in various forms can have uses other than to provide warmth. The summer sheet, or fly-sheet, is a very light cotton rug designed to give protection from flies. Some horses are very susceptible to the attentions of these pests, and may not only get bitten excessively, but may even bite or rub themselves out of irritation, none of which adds to appearance in the show ring. Apart from providing a measure of protection, a summer sheet also helps to keep the coat smooth and clean after grooming.

Heavy Horse Anti-Sweat Rugs

Anti-sweat rugs and cooler rugs are used to cool down a sweating horse safely, without risking a chill. In the heavy horse world, they may be used if a horse has sweated up during the fitting process, or after protracted work pulling a turnout vehicle or ploughing. The anti-sweat rug is similar to a string vest, and is usually made of cotton mesh. Placed under another light rug – preferably a woollen rug or old-fashioned jute rug – it creates air pockets next to the skin which, warmed by the horse’s body heat, help to dry the coat. This arrangement can also be useful in minimising the effects of nervous sweat, as in horses that ‘break out’ when travelling. A modern version of the anti-sweat sheet and its supplementary rug is the cooler rug, a single rug made of ‘wicking’ material, that allows sweat to evaporate steadily through the rug, whilst maintaining the horse’s body heat.


Heavy horse feeding information.

Pasture / Field

Heavy horse pasture and field management.


Grooming & Rugs

Heavy horse grooming and rugs.


Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.