A common question we receive from customers is how often and which type of shampoo should I use on my horse? So far HSE has not added a shampoo to our range, mostly due to the thousands that are already available, and partially because we are yet to formulate one that ticks every one of our boxes… but we’re getting there.
We all love shampoo, best invention ever! It cleans, shines hair & makes everything feel a whole lot less icky, and if you have a show horse, especially a grey one, you just cant do without it. But with so many brands, claims and at times misinformation, how do you choose the one that is right for your horse? Lets take a closer look at shampoos and how they work with the horses body coat & skin. We’re not covering mane & tail ‘permanent’ hairs here, or medicated washes, we will cover those in another journal log.
Biggest organ of the horse? The skin. It’s a complex system that balances a whole bunch of good and bad surface bacteria in a fairly acidic medium that serves as the horses first line of defence against infection, injury and keeps all those internal bits wrapped up in a protective barrier. The equine skin senses temperature, pain, pressure, touch etc. It’s an amazing communicator as well, the skin and coat can tell us if the horse is healthy & using it’s feed well or if there is a problem either on the surface or internally. It is literally the first thing we see when we look at a horse, and boy does take a battering… from the daily routines that humans impose on the horse like riding, rugging and washing, to fending off serious infection and injury from chemicals, insects and the environment around them.
The equine has (as do all fur covered mammals) a built-in system that helps keep the skin lubricated, hydrated, supple, and waterproofed. It’s SEBUM. The composition of sterols, esters, cholesterol, fatty acids and lactones are pretty unique to horses, and quite different to human sebum. By comparison, human skin (including the scalp), can restore its sebum balance within hours after washing with detergents and continually produces a predominantly triglyceride based sebum to keep our skin healthy. The horses sebum glands take a minimum of 17 days (and up to 22 days in some studies) to produce its full sebum compliment and rebalance the skin. The equine skin is also thinner and often more sensitive than our own.
The Shampoo Skinny…
So now we understand the importance of the natural sebum barrier on horses, how does shampooing affect this?
Nowadays, there seems to be every kind of shampoo available with every kind of additive imaginable from Artic Spotted Brown Leaf extract to Brazilian Purple Papaya Oil (yes we made those up) and everything in between (real or ‘imagined’ ingredients included!). There’s Low Poo, Dry Poo, Sulphate Free, Natural (what is natural?? A whole other journal post!), Clarifying, Colour Enhancing, Paraben Free, Medicated, Anti-Aging (that’s no joke!). So many choices. The marketing juggernaut that accompanies the humble shampoo is truly amazing, both genius and laughable at times, but wholly designed to get you the consumer to buy the product.
What does shampoo really do? It CLEANS. Extremely well. Every shampoo, regardless of its claims, is designed to clean and lift out dirt, dust and sebum aka oils from our hair and scalp, and, as we humans like to have clean things… our horses coats.
Without drilling too far down into technicalities, shampoo is made of surfactants (detergents), an acronym for ‘surface active agents’, that can be strong or mild and are usually 10-40% of the end product. Additives and modifying agents like pearlizing agents, clarifiers, conditioning agents, thickeners, foam builders, stabilisers, preservatives and fragrance are usually 10% or less in the formulation, with the balance being water. pH can range between 5-10 for certain treatment/specialty shampoos with the ‘pH balanced’ tag usually applied to those with a pH of around 7.
Surfactant molecules have a head that loves water and a tail that loves oil. Both work together in a push-pull sort of way so that the dirt and oils can be lifted from the hair and scalp/skin and rinsed away. Presto! Squeaky clean, SEBUM & dirt-free hair. But wait…what about all those lovely additives and incredible Purple Papaya that is supposed to leave my horses coat with a halo of health/strength/goodness and NOT strip the oils? Well the uncomfortable truth is almost all the ‘hero’ marketing ingredients will be washed down the drain with your bubbles, and have very little impact on the hair and even less on the skin. This includes botanical extracts, essential oils, natural oils et al. A bit like dishwashing liquid does not leave a protective ‘rejuvenating & reviving’ layer of oil on your frying pan for you to use next time.
Some things to think about with shampoo and your horses skin… Does shampooing remove the horses sebum barrier from the hair and skin? Yes it does. Does shampoo have conditioning agents? Yes, usually synthetic and they can make the hair smooth and shiny but have no impact on the skin. Does it really have ‘Purple Papaya Oil’ in it? Yes, but in such a miniscule amount (otherwise it affects the foaming ability & viscosity of the product) that it has next to zero benefit other than making the product sound great in a marketing campaign.
Horse v Human Shampoo?
What do we recommend? Usually horse shampoo. WHY? Because they are generally formulated to be very mild, pH balanced and in particular, rinse well (as any good shampoo should of course) which is extremely important to the coat. They are far better cleansers than soap, which cleans but can leave tons of residue in fine hair especially if you have hard water and soap has a high pH value. As for dishwashing & laundry detergents… Please don’t. Just DON’T. These liquids have no place being put on equine skin, they are made for dead things… like dishes and clothing. If you wouldn’t wash your body (incl the sensitive bits!) and hair with laundry liquid or dish washing detergent regularly then why would you put that on a horse that could have more sensitive skin than you? We’ll just stop here with the laundry liquids… because we could literally write pages on why people should NOT be using these products on horses.
You may have already assessed so far that constant and frequent shampooing is probably not ideal for the skin. It does need the protective barrier it makes naturally. So how do you get the coat clean? Water, brushes and elbow grease are excellent, even on the hard working sweaty horses. Really need your horse clean for competition? Shampoo it. Shampoo is not bad but, where you can, be moderate with the amount you wash with it. Stay flexible and if you don’t really have to scrub away…don’t. Give your horses skin as much time as you can to provide it’s own natural balance. All those expensive feed additives and oils we add to the diet do a brilliant job of making the horse healthy from the inside, this feeds sebum production making your horses skin and coat naturally shiny & healthy, so why would you want to remove all that every week?
When you do shampoo but want to protect the skin, add back some natural oils. Why? Because natural (plant) oils are fairly polar and like to stick to the skin and hair. They offer excellent moisturising & waterproofing properties, contribute plenty of shine on the coat hair, as well as creating a barrier on the skin that can fill the ‘gap’ between removing sebum via shampooing and the horse restoring its own barrier protection.
Our top tips for shampooing…
- Dilute it first. Use a bucket and water down the concentrate, then sponge or brush over the coat to get it clean. Less bubbles = more mild. Only a small amount is needed to get coat hair clean. Horses don’t need to ‘feel’ squeaky clean, your dishes? yes…
- Use a shampoo that rinses well, and don’t skimp on rinsing. Shampoos that have lots of polymers added for shine can sometimes be a little harder to rinse thoroughly.
- Try equine specific shampoos if you can, if your budget only allows for human shampoo choose one for fine hair if possible, or baby shampoo is almost always pH balanced
- Don’t use laundry/dishwashing liquid on your horses skin. These detergents are not made to be used to clean living, breathing organs and they can exacerbate some skin conditions you may not be able to see under the hair.
- Put back some oils. We cant replicate equine sebum but natural oils are the next best thing to moisturise & protect the skin. You’ll find a range of range of coat oil conditioners here on our website, and we’ll discuss different oils & oiling methods in our next Journal entry.