The Gray Horse Blues

Virginia red clay: I can still see it in my nightmares. Ground into my gray horse Peter’s knees, smeared all over both sides of his body, even staining his white eyelashes and the tip of his tail that telltale orange that is soooo difficult to remove (especially on a cold winter’s day before a big event).

Peter was a knockout when all tidied up—what gray horse isn’t? However, as anyone who’s ever owned a gray (or a horse with “chrome”) will attest, getting one clean can be a nightmare, too. Nor is it just red clay—manure, urine and grass stains are the devil to remove.

Once upon a time, desperate owners like me often resorted to laundry detergents and bluing to restore the sparkle. Though these cleaned well, they often rendered Peter’s skin so itchy that he couldn’t wait to … you guessed it: roll in the mud again! In addition, many’s the day I turned up at a show with a horse sporting a purple tail. Yes, purple. This is because if you overdid the bluing (or left it on too long), you got a blue stain over an orange stain, and somehow (!) that made purple.

Thankfully, there are now products specifically developed for cleaning light-colored horses or those with a lot of white—as well as maintaining that white and even highlighting it. 


An effective all-over whitening shampoo, such as Cowboy Magic’s Shine In Yellowout, should also target brassiness and optically brighten yellow tones while remaining mild enough for daily use. The goal, whether you’re spot cleaning or bathing the entire horse, is a stain-free, baby-powder white with a silky, brilliant sheen.

One of the most effective weapons in the whitening war is an equine shampoo with natural whitening agents or oxygen-based stain lifters (but no harsh bleach, please). Some, like Cowboy Magic® Shine In Yellowout™, are actually formulated to neutralize yellow stains and brighten coats of all colors.

To maintain a gray horse’s coat at peak brilliance, alternate the use of whitening shampoos with regular shampoos to keep him looking his best.

Bathing your horse in cold weather? Consider using a waterless shampoo and spot treatment like Cowboy Magic Greenspot Remover. Designed to work as a pre-treatment on stubborn stains (grass, manure, urine, etc.) before a full grooming, it is also a targeted spray that is useful when it’s too chilly to do a complete grooming. A warm, wet towel together with Cowboy Magic Greenspot Remover can get those tricky stains out, even on grays (it’s also a smart product option when you’re trying to conserve water).

Another way to target stubborn stains on a gray coat or white markings is to use a bleach-free, concentrated spray-on whitening shampoo—ideally with a built-in conditioner, like Mane ‘n Tail Equine Spray ‘n White. A quick spritz gives light-reflecting qualities for added “pop”; this gentle, pH-balanced formula can also be diluted for overall grooming or used as a pre-treatment for the whitest of arctic whites.

Optical Brighteners

Even after a good scrubbing, spots with stubborn stains—such as knees, fetlocks and hocks—can still look yellowed. This is where shampoo containing bluing or optical brighteners/whiteners can help. Products like Mane ‘n Tail Spray ‘n White Shampoo or Exhibitor’s QuiSilver Shampoo add a bit of blue or purple tint that reflects light, making dingy whites appear brighter. 

To “spot brighten” with these shampoos, either spray them on or use a wet sponge dipped in a bit of the shampoo. Scrub, allowing the suds to stay on no longer than 10 minutes before rinsing. Always rinse until the water runs completely clear.

Some color-enhancing equine shampoos also act as whitening intensifiers, optically altering the way light interacts with each hair for extra sparkle. Exhibitor’s Quic Silver, for example, can be used to remove stains and magnify highlights in coats, manes and tails. The manufacturer recommends shampooing first with Exhibitor’s Quic Shampoo and following up with Quic Silver Shampoo (which is free of bleaches and harsh chemicals) to bring out silvery, iridescent highlights in any light-colored coat.

With a bleach-free product like Mane ‘n Tail Spray ‘n White, you can also target white markings on a dark horse without affecting his body color.

Troublesome Tails

Tails not only pick up dirt and mud, they are prone to continuous staining by urine and manure. However, bleach and hydrogen peroxide are no-nos, as they tend to damage the hair and make it brittle.

To achieve a whiter-looking tail, some grooms recommend first washing the tail with a regular shampoo, then working in a paste of baking soda and shampoo. Scrub the stained parts and leave this on for about 15 minutes before thoroughly rinsing the tail with white vinegar.

If the tail is still yellow, an optical brightening shampoo or a yellow stain neutralizing shampoo like Cowboy Magic® Shine In Yellowout™ can help. Wash the tail, leaving the shampoo on no more than 10 minutes before rinsing and conditioning as usual. Then put the tail up (braid and wrap it) to prevent further staining before show time.

Adding ‘Pop’

Would you like to make those white socks “pop” for a competition? One time-tested trick is to brush baby powder or corn starch into the hair. There are also spray-on products that will temporarily highlight the white in your horse’s markings. 

Preventing Stains

Equine sprays formulated to repel dirt and dust are your best bet when it comes to preventing future stains, or at least making them easier to remove. (Mane ‘n Tail’s Shine-On is one example that also conditions your horse’s coat.) These sprays (some made with silicone, some without) are most useful on the areas most susceptible to staining from grass or manure.

With this new range of products—and a little elbow grease—that gorgeous gray coat will emerge from under the mud in no time. For more information, see “How to Bathe a Horse Like a Pro”. 




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