Most of us don't give much thought to our grooming tool purchases. After all, brushes, combs and the like are relatively inexpensive compared to other items at the tack store. And, though sizes and prices may vary a bit, the differences between items generally seem minimal.
However, says Susan Harris, author of the classic text Grooming to Win, a little time spent comparison shopping can pay dividends in efficient and economical grooming. "I've spent hours trying out grooming tools and thinking about which ones are the best choices for my horse, myself and the job I need them to do," she says. "The right brush gets the job done quickly and well. If it doesn't, it's a waste of money, no matter how much you paid for it."
Buying the right grooming tools requires weighing several factors, including exactly what you need it to do, how much you want to spend and your own personal preferences. If you've never given this much thought to the purchase of brushes before, never fear: Here's what you need to know to select the best tools for your basic grooming kit.
Materials: rubber or plastic Cost: $2 to $14. Retractable combs, which release trapped dirt when the handle is twisted, are more expensive. Shopping tip: Look for a comb that's firm enough to do the job but not so hard that it will injure your horse's skin.
A good rubber or plastic currycomb is essential to any grooming kit. Several different designs and sizes are available, but all will help loosen hair and dirt while massaging the skin and stimulating oil production.
When selecting a curry, the teeth are key. If they are too soft, you won't get the proper dirt-busting, skin-massaging action. But extremely hard teeth can cause discomfort for the horse or even break his skin, providing an entryway for infections such as rainrot.
"On most horses, I use the old- fashioned heavy, rubber currycomb with the concentric circles of teeth," says Harris. "I like how they bend slightly in my hand and that the rubber is slightly 'tacky,' which helps remove loose hairs. I've found that smooth plastic currycombs don't always do this as well."
Your horse will also likely have a clear preference. "Many horses simply cannot tolerate a hard curry, and they shouldn't be expected to," says Harris. "If your horse makes faces or snaps or stomps every time you curry him, he's got an honest complaint. If you think of the curry as a massage tool as much as a grooming tool, you'll select one that's comfortable for him. Try it out on your own skin first!"
For sensitive horses, Harris goes with a model that has flexible fingers: "These types of curries can be great, but those with longer 'fingers' may not massage as well as firmer ones. You may be moving the curry in a circle, but since the fingers bend so much the ends never move against the horse's skin." Another option for very sensitive horses are the rubber "pimple" mitts.
Metal currycombs and even some extremely hard plastic curries can do more harm than good, warns Harris. "A very harsh material can create small nicks in the skin, particularly over areas like the hipbones," she says.
Harris says metal currycombs are best reserved for cleaning brushes as you groom; to tackle a mud-caked winter coat, she recommends a shedding blade applied with a light hand.
Hard (Dandy) brushes
Materials: synthetic (plastic) or natural fibers (bassine, palmyra, rice root or union fiber) Cost: $7 to $14. Brushes with comfort grips are usually the more expensive option. Shopping tip: Focus on the diameter of the brush bristles--that will tell you the size of dirt particles the brush will remove most effectively.
These brushes, which typically have oblong handles and stiff, large-diameter bristles, are the workhorses of a grooming kit. "Brushes only remove dirt particles that are close in size to that of the bristles," explains Harris. "So hard brushes with large, coarse bristles are for removing dried dirt and heavy mud."
When purchasing a hard brush, consider your climate and the type of dirt your horse usually collects. If you live in an area where caked-on mud is common, go for a firm brush with large bristles. If mud is less of a problem, you can opt for a "medium" hard brush. "You don't want a brush that's coarser than you need because some thin-skinned or sensitive horses can really object to a very hard brush," says Harris.
The bristles of hard brushes (also called "dandy brushes") will be made of plastic or natural fibers such as bassine, which is derived from palmyra palms. "Plastic bristles are very sturdy, will stand up to mud and can last forever," says Harris. "Organic bristles can break down if you don't care for them properly--if they're left wet and dirty or get stepped on, for instance---but I find that they polish the coat better."
Handles of hard brushes are wood or plastic. Wood will obviously wear more quickly if left exposed to the elements, but many groomers prefer the traditional "feel" it offers.
How the bristles are attached to the handle of the brush is another consideration. In machine-drilled brushes, bristles are glued into holes in a solid handle. "There used to be some concern that the glue would break down and the bristles would come out, but some of the glues used today will last longer than we will," says Harris.
Wire-drawn brushes have handles that are divided into two parts lengthwise. The bristles are pulled all the way through and wired securely into the first half, then the second half is screwed or glued down. "If you see four little screws in the top of a brush, you know it's wire drawn," says Harris. "Wire-drawn brushes last forever; the bristles aren't going to come loose." Wire-drawn brushes tend to be more expensive because they are more complicated to produce.
If you're looking for a brush to use when bathing your horse, consider an open-backed rice root brush. The bristles are wire-drawn, but the handle has no top. "The rice root is thought to hold up better to water," explains Harris. "The holes in the back of the handle allow the water to just drain through."
Materials: synthetic (nylon or plastic) or organic (tampico, union fiber, pig bristle or horsehair) fibers Cost: $2 to $18. The most expensive brushes are made from pure horsehair. Shopping tip: Hold the brush in your hand to get a sense of its weight and feel. Then imagine using it every day for the next few years.
Soft brushes have the same basic shape and design as hard brushes, but--as the name implies--the bristles are much more flexible. Most are composed of soft synthetics or softer organic fibers that are comparatively narrow in diameter. "Because the fibers are smaller and set closer together than a hard brush, soft brushes remove the small dirt particles and dust," says Harris, who adds that the range of "soft" in soft brushes is wide. "This is where you consider the horse's preference. Go as soft as he needs. You can even find some 'mixed' brushes, such as those made of union fiber, that have soft and coarser fibers mixed together in a salt-and-pepper type of pattern."
The long bristles of a soft brush can get clogged with dust quickly. "Every few strokes, you need to drag them across a metal currycomb," says Harris. "That frees the dust from the brush into the air."
So-called "flick" or "sweep" brushes are a unique subset of the soft brush. These brushes have extra-long bristles--about a half-inch longer than a standard soft brush. "These are designed to be used to literally flick dirt off the horse," says Harris. "You use them with two hands and bear down to make very deep short, flicking strokes. The dust is flicked right up out of the coat."
Like hard brushes, soft brushes can be machine-drilled or wire-drawn, with wooden or synthetic handles. Harris says one of the best ways to choose among the many options is to simply hold the brush. "Stand right there in the tack shop and pretend to groom," she says. "How does the brush feel? Is it the right size and weight? Can you imagine yourself using it every day for the next few years?"
Materials: horsehair, goat hair, pig bristle or plastic
Cost: $5 to $30. Brushes made with pure horsehair will cost more. Shopping tip: Bristles on body brushes range from medium to very soft. It may make sense to have more than one body brush: an extremely soft one for the head and face, with a firmer-bristled brush for the rest of the body.
Although body brushes have soft bristles, they are easy to distinguish from soft brushes. For starters, their bristles are much shorter and tightly packed than those on a soft brush. And the handles of body brushes are typically oval with a strap across the back.
These features are key to how a body brush works to clean your horse: "The shorter, close-packed bristles reach down to the base of the hair coat and the skin," says Harris. "They will pull out dust, but their biggest benefit is massaging the skin to release oils that they then spread across the hair shaft. This is what makes a well-groomed horse shine."
You will get the best results from a body brush if you use the proper technique: Once the horse has been curried and mud and dirt particles removed with a hard and/or soft brush, use the body brush in long, smooth strokes that you "lean" into. "I like to swipe the body brush across a metal currycomb every few strokes to release the dust it captures," says Harris. "Stroke, stroke and then swip--you can get into a rhythm, and within a few strokes, you'll see the shine come up."
The bristles of the best body brushes are made of natural fibers that help to hold and spread the skin oils. Bristles range from medium to very soft, and your choice will depend on your horse's sensitivity as well as where on his body you'll be using it. It may make sense to have more than one body brush: an extremely soft one for the head and face, with a firmer-bristled brush for the rest of the body.
Handles of body brushes are usually wood or plastic but may also be made of leather. "I'm a traditionalist," says Harris. "I like a leather-backed body brush with wire-drawn bristles and the top piece stitched down. The leather back flexes with my hand and works better over the curving surface of the horse's body. They are expensive, but the results I get from them are worth it, and if you take care of them, they'll last forever. I have a few of these that are 40 years old and still produce fantastically shiny horses."
Materials: plastic, rubber or metal
Cost: $1 to $7. The size of the comb, as well as the material in the grip, account for the differences in price.
Shopping tip: Avoid combs with seams in the plastic or metal between the teeth--these tiny ridges will slice hairs as they are pulled over them.
As similar as they may appear, all combs are not created equal. "If you don't use a comb that's well made and perfectly smooth, it can leave the tail bristling with broken-off hairs," says Harris. To determine the quality of a comb, look for seams in the plastic or metal between the teeth of the comb--these tiny ridges will snap hairs as they are pulled over them. Wider-spaced teeth will also be gentler on hairs. Harris prefers plastic combs to metal. In fact, the only metal comb she uses is a small "pulling" comb and only for pulling manes.
As for tails, "if you're really concerned about preserving every tail hair, you won't comb it at all," says Harris. "You'll pick the hairs free by hand, one at a time. Although if your horse's tail is pretty thick to begin with and you've decided life is too short to handpick tails, there are some ways to brush a tail without sacrificing hairs."
Harris recommends using a pin-type brush, with smooth, rounded plastic pins set into a flexible rubber surface. "They look very much like a hairbrush you might use yourself," she says. Before brushing the tail, spray it with a silicone spray and allow it to dry. The silicone will coat each hair shaft, allowing dirt and other hairs to slide freely over it. Then, begin brushing from the bottom of the tail upward, working tangles out as you go.
This article originally appeared in the May, 2010 issue of EQUUS magazine.