Grooming for Competition: How to Get Your Horse Ready for a Show

You’ve circled the date on your calendar. There’s a show coming up, or maybe it’s the annual trail ride with your saddle club. Either way, you want to arrive with your horse looking his absolute best.

Conscientious owners know you can’t wait until right before an event to focus on appearance. With balanced nutrition and regular grooming, your horse’s coat should stay in good condition year-round. Then you can fine-tune the details of hooves, mane and tail in the two weeks before an event.

For “in the trenches” advice, we checked in with Alyssa Barngrover and Julie Hoefling, marketing managers with Farnam, who have extensive show experience.

“You need to keep your horse well-groomed all the time because there’s only so much you can do last minute to make a difference. You may up your game a little right before a big horse show, but there’s no mad rush because everything you do on a daily basis is prepping for this,” says Julie, who shows her quarter horse gelding at the national level in AQHA All-Around Western events.

If you already have an effective grooming routine, it’s time to focus on the pre-show details.

Time That Shoeing

Whether you’re going out of state or competing locally, the ideal time frame for shoeing is one to two weeks before a show.

“You don’t want your horse done the week of the show just because there’s always the potential for a ‘hot’ nail or sensitivity. Two weeks out should have your horse’s feet in perfect condition,” says Alyssa, who competes in dressage both regionally and nationally with her Hanoverian mare.

“Work with your farrier to find the best time and plan your shoeing so your horse is not getting shod right before a show, so you don’t risk tenderness,” says Julie. “I do it about a week out, but it also depends on how long your show is.”

Come Clean

Even though you don’t want to use shampoo more often than once a week to preserve the hair’s natural oils, hose off your horse if he’s sweaty after riding. “If you leave sweat to dry, it makes the coat look dingy and dull,” says Alyssa. “It also makes horses itchy, so it’s important to get the sweat off to keep the coat shiny and healthy.” The week before a show – and at the event – a color-enhancing shampoo is ideal. This is especially helpful if, like Alyssa, you have a gray horse or one with lots of chrome.


For a polished turnout, do your clipping close to the event.

“We clip muzzles, ears, bridlepaths and fetlocks a day or two before the show,” says Julie. “Clip when your horse is clean. Otherwise it will dirty and dull your blades faster.”

Follow the basic guidelines for bridlepath length in your breed and discipline.

To tidy up the ears, Alyssa recommends holding each ear in your hand and gently folding it “taco style.” Then trim the edges and any hair sticking out. Leaving hair inside the ear offers protection from insects.

Alyssa notes that dressage competitors don’t shave any whiskers, so she skips the muzzle when clipping.

Finish the head by trimming any long throatlatch hairs.

For a sleek appearance, clip any overgrown hairs along the backs of the legs, fetlocks and around the hooves.

Julie recommends taking a hand razor to the event for touch-ups, especially if you have a long show. This way your horse stays looking freshly trimmed.

Tame The Tail
In between shows, the horse’s tail is typically braided and kept in a tail bag to protect it. Julie explains that the tail is left down after shampooing close to a show.

“We want the hair to be straight. You don’t want any kinks from the braid or tail bag,” she says.
Tail bags are not standard in dressage barns, but a flowing, tangle-free tail is desirable in both Western and English disciplines

This shine spray is an indispensable tool for every grooming session to keep coats shiny and conditioned.

“In addition to removing any last bits of dirt and dust, it also helps prevent stains,” says Alyssa, who finds a shine spray excellent for banishing static after vacuuming the coat to eliminate dust and dander.

Tidy Up Manes

Many riders competing in Western disciplines “band” their horses’ manes. The mane should be pulled and thinned as needed for a polished look, but not right before a show.

“Pull or thin the mane one to two weeks out so it settles and lays flat; then you’ll only need to do finishing touches right before the show,” says Julie.

To simplify the task, pull the mane before bathing when the hair is dry, not wet. This ensures you get the right length and it’s easier to pull when hair is not totally clean.

Dressage riders usually keep their horses’ manes about four to six inches long for ease of braiding, and often use dressage buttons, not plaits.

“If you keep it about this length, it only requires a quick tidy-up before a show. If you need to shorten the mane to a good braiding length, do this two to three weeks out,” says Alyssa.
She adds that braiding the mane is easier if it’s not shampooed right before. A clean mane is a slippery mane and is therefore harder to braid.

Don’t Forget…

Keep in mind that any preventive health care and necessary paperwork – vaccinations, Coggins, health certificate – should be scheduled in advance so you’re not scrambling close to showtime.

And to avoid potential side effects, such as stiff or sore muscles, don’t vaccinate your horse just before an event. You don’t want him to feeling “off” or cranky when you’ve done everything in your power to help him put his best foot forward.

Courtesy of Stable Talk by Farnam