Bathing your horse is a regular part of caring for your horse, but knowing when it’s too cold to bathe- and how to give a horse a bath if it is very cold outside- is an important part of horse ownership. Mostly winter baths can be avoided, but if you compete in shows during the winter (the typical “off season”) you may need to know how to decide if it’s too cold to bathe your horse.
This article has three parts, jump to the section you need:
First, know that “too cold to bathe” is relative to your horse and your equipment. With the right equipment and a healthy horse, you can safely bathe a horse when temperatures drop well into the teens! So what do you need in order to be able to safely bathe in cold weather?
Factors to consider include:
- Is my horse generally healthy and tough?
- Do I have warm water available to bathe?
- Is my horse slipped or wearing a full winter coat?
- Do I have a cooler (read on for alternate options)?
- Do I have sufficient time to dry my horse’s coat?
- Do I absolutely need to bathe my horse?
A healthy horse should be able to handle a bath with no special treatment into the 50’s. Generally, unless we have a show or demo we try not to bath horses in temperatures below the upper 60’s. However healthy, cooled out (not overheated from exercise) horses can be bathed into freezing temperatures if you ensure they stay warm throughout the bathing process and until they are completely dry.
Drying a horse with a full winter coat can be a long process, and you might get nearly-as-good results by an alternative cleaning method such as a deep head to toe grooming with standard grooming supplies or a bath alternative described below.
Step 1. Use Hot Water
When you bathe your horse in winter, use the warmest water you have access to that is comfortable for your horse. Hot water cleans better and dries faster (at least, according to the University of Illinois). If you only have access to cold water, work to complete the bath as fast as you can- preferably with a helper so you can soap and scrape excess water off of the horse twice as fast.
If you don’t have a partner to help speed the bath- work in small sections sudsing, rinsing, and scraping each section before moving to the next.
Step 2. Soap and Scrape
Winter baths probably won’t be as thorough, so shop around to find a shampoo that will safely biodegrade if left on the coat without leaving a residue.
It’s important to use a sweat scraper to scrape the coat thoroughly after a winter bath- preferably with a rubber-edged scraper as this type will conform to the contours of the horse’s skin and remove more water.
Step 3. Actively Dry your Horse
After you’ve rinsed thoroughly and scraped well, you’ll need to help your horse dry. This is a not-complicated process if your horse is clipped, but if your horse has a full winter coat expect this drying process to take hours.
First, use old towels or any scrap fabric to towel dry as much moisture off the body and legs as you can.
Next, lay a few old towels across the horse’s back, then carefully place a cooler over the horses back. I prefer irish knit cotton coolers with a second wool cooler layered on top if possible. DO NOT USE A BLANKET at this point. Blankets protect a coat from rain and show- with means they won’t be able to vent moisture on the coat away from the body.
Once wearing a cooler, walk your horse around in the warmest area you have access to- an indoor arena, up and down a barn aisle, or even just up and down a windbreak outside.
After 10 or 15 minutes, remove the towels under the blankets. The towels should be damp and will expose the dry cooler to the fur so it can wick more water out of the coat. Your horse doesn’t need to walk constantly during the drying process, but keep a close eye to be sure the horse does not become chilled. In very cold temperatures, offer your horse a hay bag so they use the natural warming process of digestion.
Depending on the thickness of your horses winter coat, drying will take anywhere from 1 hour to several hours. After a while, you can place your horse in a clean stall, but stay nearby until your horse is fully dry- you can gauge this by testing if, when you ruffle his coat, the hair next to the skin is dry.
So you’ve got a big winter show and a really dirty horse? You’ve still got non-bath options. In the world of Bashkir Curly Horse Breed Shows, winter shows are common- in order to exhibit the horses in their curliest coats- and as the owner of a nearly-white grey horse, this is a familiar scenario.
One Bath Alternative that works very well to clean coats is the equine equivalent of a “birdbath”
Grab some old towels, a bucket of warm water, and a non-bath bathing product like “waterless shampoo” or “bath in a bottle.”
Mix the waterless shampoo with the warm water in your bucket, then dunk your towels in the cleaning solution, wring them out, and use the wrung out towel to scrub your horse’s coat. You can apply lightly all over the body to help get a “surface clean” while keeping the skin mostly dry, or you can use this method to do a deep clean of problem areas.
Avoid introducing horses to baths in cold weather. The “too cold for a bath” temperature goes way up if you are working with a horse who has never been bathed. Not all horses like being bathed but every horse should learn to tolerate baths. Most horses learn to enjoy baths if introduced when they are still young and during very hot weather, when a bath is a welcome respite from the heat. If taught to tolerate baths when they are comfortable, your horse is more likely to be docile and tolerant when being bathed in cold temperatures.