How to Wash a (Mostly) White Horse

Legend has it that the only way to get a white horse perfectly clean is with your own tears. However, after years of frustration, experimentation, and going through way too many bottles and brands of whitening shampoo, I have finally found a way to get my mostly white Paint horse clean without any crying – although occasionally, tears of anger and disappointment manage to work themselves into the equation anyway.

First, you will need the proper materials. Something to scrub with is one of the most important tools – and I’m not just talking any regular old sponge. You need something capable of getting to the dirt and poo the horse has managed to get ground deep into his skin just to make your life more difficult. My weapon of choice is a rubber two-sided livestock massage/grooming scrubber (in purple, preferably, but that’s just for aesthetics). In addition to your scrubber, a good whitening shampoo is crucial. I have found that Quic Silver Whitening Shampoo and Cowboy Magic Shine In Yellowout are the best options. I prefer Quic Silver, because the soap is purple, instead of blue-green like Cowboy Magic, and if you leave it in slightly too long you’re likely to get a gray/silver tinge to your horse’s coat instead of turning them yellowish. If you plan on washing the face, you will need baby shampoo as well.

You will also, of course, need a hose, a nozzle (preferably one with multiple settings) and a water source to hook it up to. If you have access to a hose boom – awesome! If not, be prepared for your horse to step on your hose as many times as he possibly can, and possibly poop on it as well. The final item you will need is a livestock squeegee or sweat-scraper, to remove the excess water when you’re done to help the horse to dry faster. I prefer squeegees, because they are easier to grip.

Before getting started, make sure you have plenty of time for the task ahead. You want to leave time to scrub your entire horse from nose to tail and let the soap sit for a few minutes, not once but twice, in case you miss some spots. Never try to bathe your horse if you need to be somewhere in an hour; horses can sense when you’re in a hurry and will always do their best to make you nice and late. Once you’ve calculated the amount of time you need (if it’s less than an hour and a half, it’s not enough), go ahead and add another half hour at a minimum. You will always need more time than you think.

Now, it’s time to get started! First, wet one entire side of the horse. Let’s say we’re starting with the left side. You want them to be soaked, not just damp, as more water will help the shampoo cover a larger area and last longer. Next, get out your shampoo and scrubber. You want a couple of good sized globs of shampoo on the scrubber, but not too much – less is more. It’s a good idea to start scrubbing the rump (hind end) or hind legs first, since these are typically the most heavily stained areas, and starting with them will allow to the soap to sit longer. Don’t forget to scrub the inside of their hind legs! It can be easy to miss a manure stain on the inside of the hock, the somewhat elbow-like joint on the hind legs. The upper part of the inside of the hind legs is particularly sensitive, so be gentle with this area.

When scrubbing the horse, make sure to use enough pressure to work up the dirt and crud that is ground into their coat and skin, but be careful that you aren’t scrubbing so hard that you will make their skin sore and tender. Make sure to work the shampoo up into a foamy lather – there shouldn’t be any purple spots left from the shampoo. If you see a purple spot, scrub until it disappears! If it sits on the horse’s coat like that for too long, it can stain them purple.

After you have finished scrubbing the rump and hind legs, move to the next part of the horse. I personally prefer to go to the neck, chest and front legs next, since my saddle covers most of the barrel (the side, back and belly of the horse) so the soap doesn’t need to sit there as long. When washing the horse’s legs, you want to be especially careful – there is very little fat and padding on the majority of a horse’s leg, so it’s mainly just bone, tendons, and skin. Scrubbing this super hard would be like taking a rough scrub brush to your knuckles or knees; it doesn’t feel great. The horse’s knees and withers (the top part of the shoulders) get grass and manure stains easily, because they dig into the grass when they roll, so pay special attention to those areas when working on the front section of the horse.


Now, it’s time to work on the barrel of the horse. It’s quite easy to forget to do the underside of the stomach, since it is not visible most of the time, but you should still give it at least a quick scrub. On a black, brown, or tan horse, the judge most likely won’t be able to see a poop stain on the belly, but on a white horse, they are noticeable from certain angles. Be careful when scrubbing the flank and the area of the stomach that is farther back – these are tender, sensitive areas, and if you scrub too hard, the horse might inform you of his displeasure with a kick or nip.

Now that the entire left side is covered with shampoo and scrubbed, it’s time to move to the right side. Let’s say this particular horse’s mane is on the right side. Let the soap sit on the side you started with while working on the other side, to give the whitening shampoo time to work its magic. If your horse has a long mane, now is the time to work on it. Soak the mane thoroughly. It will dry more quickly than the rest of the horse, so you want to wet it immediately before soaping it up. Dump a fairly generous amount of your purple shampoo into one palm and rub your hands together. Work the soap into the mane, starting with the roots at the top of the neck, just behind the ears.

After you’ve shampooed the entire mane, you are going to want to go back to the crest of the neck, where the roots grow, with a little extra soap. You will need to really massage the soap into the crest, as dirt, oils and other crud builds up rather quickly here. A small mane comb may help you separate the mane into chunks so you can see every section. After you’re satisfied that you’ve gotten the roots clean, flip the mane over onto the other side of the neck so that it’s not in the way when you wash this side.

Wet and scrub the body of the horse the same way you did the other side – starting with the rump and hind legs, then the neck and forelegs, then the barrel. Again, take caution when scrubbing sensitive areas. Once you are finished scrubbing the right side, you can begin rinsing the left side. Start at the top of the neck, just behind the horse’s head, and work your way towards the back end. Be careful to not let the water spray or run down the other side of the horse – you don’t want to rinse that soap off before it’s had a chance to sit for a few minutes. You don’t have to rinse 100% of the soap off yet; you will rinse the horse’s entire body again once you’re done washing every single part of him.

After rinsing the left side, you can let the soap on the right side sit for a couple more minutes while you shampoo the tail. If you’re lucky enough to have a horse with a dark tail, like I am, you can just use Cowboy Magic Rosewater Shampoo, or Mane and Tail Shampoo. If your horse has a black tail and goes outside a lot, you may want to use black hair dye to cover up any sun bleached hair. However, if your horse has a white or gray tail, you’re going to have to get a little more aggressive. White tails are very susceptible to pee stains, which are possibly the most difficult kind to get out, especially if your horse is a mare. Quic Silver Whitening Shampoo works well for tails, but you may need to try a few different things to get the tail completely clean. With Quic Silver or any other whitening shampoo, you will need to work it through the entire tail, paying special attention to the tailbone, which can get dirty and greasy, and to the ends, which typically have the worst stains. Something else you can use to get the tail (and the mane) clean is – wait for it – ketchup. That’s right, ketchup. The vinegar in ketchup helps whiten the tail. You could also just use straight vinegar, but with ketchup you can actually see where you’re washing, while vinegar will blend right in with the tail. Use the ketchup just like you would any whitening soap, but don’t leave it in for any longer than 3 minutes – it will stain your horse’s tail pink. Another option for getting a white tail clean is with bleach for human hair. A good one to use is L’Oreal bleach, an over the counter product used to lighten hair. You don’t want to do this too often, because it will damage the tail hair. Just use it on the worst stains, and follow the directions on the package.

Now you can rinse the rest of the horse. Once he is are fully rinsed, you may need to wash the mane again, and possibly the knees and hocks as well. Make sure to check for any additional spots you might’ve missed. Once the body, mane, and tail are all rinsed, you can start on the last part: the face. You will want to use baby shampoo for washing the face. It typically doesn’t get very stained, so whitening shampoo is not usually necessary. Your horse will also most definitely not appreciate getting whitening shampoo in his eyes or up his nose. The face is sensitive, so the ideal way to wash it is by pouring some baby shampoo in your hands, rubbing it into a lather, and then scrubbing his face with just your hands. Gently rub down his forehead, under his chin, his cheek bones, and his nose, and massage some shampoo through his forelock as well. If you are able to, you can try to wash his ears, but horses hate getting their ears sprayed with the hose and they don’t usually get dirty enough there to require it anyway.

After you’ve worked the shampoo on his face into a nice lather, you can rinse it. Start with the hose between his ears, pointing down his nose, to avoid getting any water in his ears. Rinse his entire face, and then rinse the whole body one more time to make sure you’ve gotten all the shampoo off – any soap residue left over can irritate the skin. Gently scrape any excess water off with a livestock squeegee or a clean sweatscraper. Now, step back and look at your horse. Is he a gleaming white or light gray, with no dirt or manure stains to be found? Look down at yourself. Are you soaking wet and covered in dirt, hair, and god knows what else? Yes? Great! You’re done! Congratulations, you got your white horse clean with no (or minimal) crying.


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