Cold Weather Bathing Best Practices for Horses in Winter
To bathe, or not to bathe?
Updated June 20, 2023
Bathing is a regular and essential aspect of your horse-care routine. Throughout the warmer months, most of us rely on bathing to keep our horses’ coats clean and healthy—and to obtain that pristine show-day shine for competition. If, however, you happen to live in an area plagued by harsh winters and compete during the off season, or the calendar indicates spring but there’s still a nip in the air, you might be questioning whether it’s too cold to bathe your horse.
No matter the reason you need a clean horse during the colder months, it’s important to know when it’s too cold to bathe and how to safely and effectively do so when the temperatures are less than ideal. In this article, we’ll explain the factors and precautions you should consider when determining if you should to bathe your horse. Plus, we’ll provide you with step-by-step instructions on how to bathe him during the chillier months and offer “dry” bathing/grooming options.
When is it Too Cold to Bathe a Horse?
Horses are more tolerant of cold weather than humans. Even when it’s moderately chilly outside, you can hose most horses off from their elbows down without causing them discomfort. A horse who is completely wet to the skin, however, can get chilled very quickly when the temperatures drop.
In general, a healthy horse should be able to handle a bath without special treatment in temperatures as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have a heated grooming area that provides protection from the elements, access to constant warm water, and/or heating lamps, you likely can give a horse with a short or long hair coat a full bath even when it’s between freezing and 50° F.
If you only have access to cold water and your horse has a thick winter coat, a full bath is not a good idea during the colder months, especially if he’s turned out most of the time or you don’t have access to an enclosed wash area.
Factors to Consider Before Bathing in the Cold
Determining whether it’s too cold to bathe is also relative to your horse’s age and general health. There are several factors to consider in making this determination:
- If his health is compromised in any way or he’s advanced in age, determine whether it’s absolutely necessary to bathe him or if a thorough grooming session would suffice. (We’ll discuss non-bathing options in more detail below.) The combination of chilly weather and a declining body temperature can further exacerbate existing health issues or create new ones.
- Is your horse clipped, or does he have a full winter coat?
- Do you have an enclosed wash area with warm water? Or do you only have access to cold water?
- Do you have sufficient time to ensure your horse’s coat is fully dry before turning him out or stalling him? And/or do you have coolers to help him dry faster?
It is not safe to bathe your horse outside in cold temperatures. Even if the weather is milder one day, you might not be able to get a horse with a thick coat fully dry before the temperatures drop again; with a wet, heavy coat, your horse could very easily get chilled. In this situation, spot cleaning would be the safer option. If temperatures are warmer for several consecutive days during the winter, you might be able to safely bathe him, but do so with caution.
How to Bathe a Horse in Winter
The key to bathing your horse in cold weather is to ensure he stays as warm as possible throughout the process and is completely dry before turning him out or stalling him. If your horse is clipped, the drying process may be relatively fast; if he has a full winter coat, it can take several hours for him to fully dry.
Cold Weather Washing Needs and Supplies
- Source of warm water (preferably)
- Heated or enclosed wash area that provides protection from wind, rain, and snow
- Bucket and sponges
- 3 or 4 thick towels
- Sweat scraper
- Plenty of time to fully dry your horse
Bathing Strategy #1
During the winter, it’s best to bathe your horse in an indoor, draft-free wash area with hot water, preferably during the warmest part of the day.
- Hose him down with warm to hot water (that you can comfortably touch). Hot water accelerates the cleaning and drying processes.
- Work a minimal amount of shampoo through his coat as quickly and thoroughly as possible. It’s often not possible to bathe your horse as meticulously during the winter, so use a shampoo that safely biodegrades without leaving a residue if not completely removed.
- Once you’ve rinsed off any remaining shampoo to the best of your ability, use a sweat scraper to quickly remove excess water clinging to your horse’s coat. Preferably, opt for a rubber-edged scraper, as the rubber easily conforms to the contours of your horse’s body to remove water more effectively.
- Rub his entire body down with thick towels to soak up additional moisture and to remove any dirt or shampoo residue that might have been left on longer hair. Toweling him dry will also elevate the individual hairs of his coat, which allows them to dry more quickly; plus, it increases blood circulation to help keep him warm.
- Outfit your horse in a wool or fleece cooler to accelerate the final drying process. You can put dry towels on his body underneath the cooler or use an Irish knit cooler with the wool fleece over top. Key to preventing your horse from getting chilled, coolers are designed to wick moisture away from the skin and coat, while simultaneously keeping him warm and cozy.
- If possible, hand-walk your horse in the sun or a heated arena until he’s completely dry. If this is not an option, allow him to fully dry in an enclosed area that’s protected from the elements.
Bathing Strategy #2
- In an indoor wash area, fill a five-gallon bucket with warm to hot water. If you don’t have a hot water tank in your barn, you might consider trying to bring hot water from home if you live nearby.
- Use a large sponge and a minimal amount of shampoo to wash the most crucial areas of your horse. The sponge-and-bucket method allows you to be more precise with your water and shampoo placement, especially when you’re concerned about your horse getting chilled in harsh winter temps.
- If you need to wash his entire body, you might consider washing one side of your horse at a time, making sure to sweat scrape and towel his clean side before tackling the other. By washing small areas at a time or only areas that really need to be cleaned, you can limit the drop in your horse’s temperature. Ideally, solicit a friend to help, so you can wash and scrape off excess water from his coat twice as fast.
- Once you’ve completed the sponge bath, follow the same drying protocol outlined in Strategy #1 to ensure your horse is completely dry before turning him out or stalling him.
If you have enclosed wash area, but only have access to cold water you might be able to at least wash his legs. This will limit the amount of his body that’s exposed to the cold water and allow you to more easily remove dirt or mud from his legs.
How to Dry a Horse After a Bath
No matter which bathing strategy you opt for, ensuring your horse is completely dry before turning him out or stalling him is crucial to prevent him from getting chilled.
- In very cold temperatures, offer your horse extra hay while he’s drying to utilize the natural warming process of digestion.
- Once outfitted in a cooler, walk your horse in the warmest area you have access to—an indoor arena, up and down a barn aisle, or even an outdoor if it’s sunny outside.
- If your horse has a super long winter coat, you can also use a heat lamp to promote faster drying or even a hair dryer, as long as the noise doesn’t startle him.
- After he’s dried a fair amount, you can put him in a clean, dry stall, but keep a careful eye on him until his coat is completely dry. To best gauge this, ruffle different areas of his coat with your hand; the hair closest to his skin should be dry to the touch.
- If you plan to turn your horse out after he’s dry, watch for any signs shivering. Do not put his winter blanket on until you are certain his coat is completely dry. Blankets provide protection from rain, snow, and wind, but they do not vent moisture away from his coat.
3 Alternatives to Bathing
If you deem that it’s just not safe to give your horse a full bath, there are a number of effective non-bathing options to get him looking his best for that big winter show. Use your best judgment to determine which method would be the safest and most comfortable for him, based on access to warm water and what type of wash area you’ll be using.
- Bucket of water (preferably warm)
- 3 or 4 large, fluffy towels
- An assortment of medium-sized towels (depending on your horse’s size and how much of his body needs to be cleaned)
- Waterless shampoo
- Spray-on conditioner
- Fully groom your horse with a rubber curry and body brush to remove any caked-on mud, dirt, manure, or shavings.
- Mix the waterless shampoo with the water in your bucket.
- Dunk the medium-sized towels into the cleaning solution and thoroughly wring the towels out. (They should not be dripping.)
- Use the wrung-out towels to scrub your horse’s coat, rubbing the hair as briskly as possible. You can apply the towels to his entire body one section at a time for an overall surface clean while keeping his skin mostly dry.
- Once you finish an area, grab one of your large, dry towels; rub the towel in the direction of his coat for several strokes, and then rub against the direction of his coat to lift individual hairs and accelerate the drying process.
- Pay extra attention to any areas that are particularly dirty to determine if they need a deeper cleaning. If necessary, rinse the towels in the cleaning solution and repeat the process.
- Once you’ve completed his entire body, outfit him in a cooler until he is completely dry. Even though his skin shouldn’t be excessively wet with the towel treatment, he will still benefit from the cooler.
- When your horse is dry, spray him with a coat conditioner to moisturize hair and help repel dust and shavings. Use a soft body brush to work the conditioner into his coat.
- Once you’ve completed the entire process, outfit him in whatever weight blanket is appropriate for his living situation and the current temperature to keep him—and your hard work—as clean as possible until it’s show time.
- Bucket of water (preferably warm)
- 3 or 4 large, fluffy towels
- Large, course sponge
- Waterless shampoo
- Spray-on conditioner
How to Spot Clean
Utilize the same steps outlined in the towel method, using a large, coarse sponge. Be sure to wring the sponge out as much as possible to prevent his skin from getting overly wet. Only address areas that absolutely need to be cleaned if the temperature is below 50 F.
If your horse has worked up a decent sweat after a workout, the sweaty areas will likely foam more as you rub them. In this case, you’ll need to frequently rinse the sponge, wring it out, and then continue scrubbing the area until foam and any shampoo residue has been removed.
Use a thick, dry towel over each area as you work to rub the hair in both directions for faster drying, and then follow the cooler, conditioner spray, and blanketing protocol listed is the towel method to prevent him from getting chilled and to keep him show-day ready.
True Waterless Bath
If it’s just too cold to incorporate water into your cleaning regimen, a thorough grooming session may be enough.
- Rubber curry comb
- Stiff body brush
- Soft body brush
- Spray-on waterless shampoo
- Spray-on conditioner
- Using a rubber curry comb, vigorously curry your horse’s coat in small, circular motions to loosen any dirt, caked-on mud, manure, and loose hair.
- Brush away any debris with a stiff body brush. For sensitive area like his face and legs, use a soft body brush or a grooming towel. (A meticulous grooming session also provides the opportunity to check for any heat, swelling, bumps, or cuts on your horse’s legs, which can often be overlooked during the winter.)
- Apply a generous amount of a waterless, spray-on shampoo to his coat and work it into individual hairs with a soft body brush. This will help remove any further dirt or dust, as well as stimulate his coat’s natural oil production for enhanced shine. Spray-on shampoos are excellent for cleaning urine, manure, or sweat stains, and they don’t require rinsing.
- Spray him with a leave-in conditioner coat conditioner to moisturize hair and help repel dust and shavings. Use a soft body brush to work the conditioner into his coat.
Cold Weather Bathing Products We Love
- ShowBarn Secret® Waterless Tea Tree Shampoo: Formulated with antimicrobial ingredients including red algae and tea tree oil, this shampoo is a great bathing alternative to keep the coat healthy and shiny. It’s derived from a coconut blend and contains chamomile to help soothe sore muscles.
- Sport Horse Essentials Waterless Shampoo: This coconut-scented formula contains the natural cleanser aritha powder as well as witch hazel and aloe vera to help remove dirt, fight fungus, and promote a shiny coat.
- Lucky Braids Whitener & Dry Wash Spray: Utilizing an enzymatic formula that breaks down bonds between hairs and impurities, this spray dissolves stains without drying or stripping the coat of its natural oils. It also enhances luster on all coat colors without leaving a slippery residue and is great for ringside touchups.
- Knotty Horse™ Apricot Oil Recon Leave-In Conditioner: With concentrated levels of omega-6 and -9 fatty acids, keratin, as well as vitamins A and E, this deep-treating conditioner rehydrates dull hair, repairs damaged ends, and works to prevent hair breakage while grooming.
- ShowBarn Secret Sheen & Conditioner: Formulated with a proprietary hair-growth blend, this spray-on, leave-in sheen and conditioner not only promote mane and tail growth, but it also helps sooth irritated skin, improves blood circulation, and can help thwart bacteria, fungus, and flies.
- SmartPak Thermo Cooler: Designed out of a high-performance, quilted thermal fabric with polyfill insulation layered between soft knit, this cooler wicks moisture away from your horse’s coat to help him thoroughly dry, while also keeping him warm and cozy.
- Rambo® Techni-Waffle Cooler: Made with a polyester waffle-weave outer layer, this cooler utilizes the most up-to-date moisture-management technology to help him dry quickly and efficiently.