SmartPak photo shoots are a lot of fun, but they’re also a lot of work. The preparation starts weeks in advance, the expectations are high and the timing is tight. From the minute we step out of our cars, the entire team is going full throttle, and no one stops until the job is done.
Grooming for photo shoots is a lot like grooming for horse shows – you want the horse to look his absolute best, but you’re not sure exactly how much time you have. Since photo shoots, like show ring schedules, can be unpredictable at best, I’ve developed a sort of grooming hierarchy. It’s a progression through the stages of grooming that ensures that no matter when my horse is called on, he’s presentable at worst and stunning at best.
I’ve broken down the steps I use to turn a muddy horse into a cover model (the pictures I’ve included are just a few of our recent stars.) Since I’ve used just about every brush, spray and polish we carry, I thought I’d share some of my personal favorite grooming products along the way!
Grooming for the Picture-Perfect Look
#1: Clip it, clip it goodI always start with clipping so that I have plenty of time. Rushing means mistakes, and take it from me, clipping mistakes can be really, really unfortunate (ever seen a horse without eyelashes? Not cute.)
My absolute favorite clippers are the Andis AGC Super 2 Speed Clippers. I love them because they’re versatile – the T-84 blade can handle a full-body clipping, or you can swap in a 5, 10, 30 or 40 blade to get as close as you want to go (for goodness sakes, don’t use 40s unless you’ve got a really steady hand and you know the horse well! No one likes the naked mole rat look.) These clippers also work with most Oster slide-on blades, which are some of the most common blades on-hand in tack shops and even pet stores, if you’re in a pinch. Since I clip a lot, I have multiple blades in every size so that I can swap them out as they get too hot.
I could literally write an entire article about my clipping process (and I will, but not today!) For the sake of time and space, I’ll simply say that I clip the muzzle, inside the nostrils, under the chin, the bridle path, the ears, the fetlocks and any hairs growing below the coronet band on to the hoof. I always check with the owner before clipping the “eye whiskers” – those long, “feeler” hairs that grow above and below the eye. Some owners clip them regularly and some owners absolutely never clip them, it’s just a matter of personal taste.
#2: Soak it up
I like to let my conditioner/detangler “soak” in the horse’s tail for a few minutes before I start brushing. I think it softens the tail a little bit and helps prevent breakage. It also gives the spray more time to dry, so my horse doesn’t go in front of the camera or into the ring with the not-so-flattering “wet look.” As soon as I’m finished clipping, I spray Canter Silk Mane & Tail Conditioner over the entire tail, especially inside and at the roots. I quickly work it in with my hands and save the brushing for later.
#3: Clean sweepWhile the conditioner sits, I move on to the overall body grooming. When it comes to drudging up dirt and loose hair, nothing beats a basic Curry Comb. For the head and legs, I love the flexible fingers of the Soft Rubber Face Curry; the horses love it, too! I use a medium-sized circular motion and a decent amount of pressure to really work the coat. Once I’ve gotten everything to the surface, I grab my Flick Poly Brush and with just a flick of my wrist, dirt, dust and loose hair are gone.
#4: Hoofin’ it
Even the fastest-drying hoof polish needs a few minutes to set, so I don’t want to leave the hooves for last. At the same time, I don’t want to polish my horse’s hooves to perfection only to cover them in the dust, dirt and hair I’m fastidiously flicking from his coat. So, between the hard brush and the soft brush, I focus on the feet.I start by picking out all four feet and brushing off the heels and hoof walls, so I prefer a hoof pick with a brush. Then I dab on my favorite hoof polish, Absorbine’s SuperShine. I usually use clear for the photo shoots because we want a more natural look, but you can opt for black for a more dramatic effect. (If you’re using black, place your horse’s hoof on a scrap piece of cardboard so you don’t stain the barn aisle!)
I don’t like to guess where my applicator is going, and I don’t like putting myself directly in front of the horse (getting kneed in the head is less than awesome), so I usually polish the outer two-thirds of the near hoof and the inner one-third of the far hoof, then switch sides. I use the applicator to run a ring around the hoof, just below the coronet band, but not touching the hair, then work downwards to coat the entire hoof wall. Now that the applicator isn’t so full of polish, I can carefully blend my first “swipe” upwards to meet my nicely clipped hairline at the coronet band. (Again, if you’re using black, be extra careful – even the slightest touch can cause the black polish to bleed up into the hair.)
#5: Shine onWith the hooves polished to perfection, it’s back to the coat. Most of the hard work has already been done with the curry and hard brush, so I just grab my spray bottle for a quick once-over. My all-time favorite spray is Pepi Coat Conditioner – it goes on so light and easy, and it smells amazing! But some horses are skittish about the aerosol spray, so I always have a bottle of Show Sheen on hand as well. Whatever spray you use, it’s important to use it well. Make sure it’s on the mist setting (seriously, why is there any other setting available? In what instance am I going to need to blast my horse with a jet stream of shine spray!?) Next, consider your aim. I don’t like spraying directly onto the horse’s coat because unpredictable spray nozzles can result in uneven patterns, wet spots and streaks. I aim slightly up and off to the side and let the spray “rain” down on the horse. I spray all over the body and legs then gently smooth the coat with a towel or a soft brush.
#6: Tail timeUnless your horse is genetically blessed, you probably wish his tail was thicker, so it’s really important to do as little “damage” as possible when you’re brushing it out. Before I start brushing, I give a quick once-over with Show Sheen for a little extra “glide.” (But don’t go overboard, you can go from “just right” to “drowning” in just a few quick sprays.)
To brush the tail, I separate it into small sections, working each one from top to bottom before combining them all back together. This lets me be more gentle and precise when working through knots. I like to use really long-toothed combs, like the ones you can find in the beauty section at the drugstore. I like these because they’re cheap and they let me pick through the tail carefully, pulling out shavings and working through tangles. Just before I’m done, I run my fingers through the tail to loosen it up and shake it out for a fuller, more natural look.
#7: About faceWith the tail tidied up, I turn my attention to the much more adorable side of the horse, his face! Just like with the hooves and coat, I don’t want to shine something that’s not quite clean, so I grab a few baby wipes and wipe any dust, gook or boogers away from his eyes, nose and the insides of his ears. Then I grab what might be the best-smelling product ever invented, Face Glo. As long as you use it sparingly, Face Glo, or any highlighter, can subtly enhance your horse’s overall appearance.
Since it’s a little bit goopy, it’s important to keep the highlighter out of the hair. Just like with hoof polish, it’s all about blending carefully. I start by rubbing it into the muzzle from the nostrils down to the tip, staying well away from the hair. Once the majority of the highlighter is off my hands and onto his nose, I use my fingertips to carefully cover the upper areas of skin on the muzzle, working towards (but not touching!) the hairline. Next up are the eyes. With just a dab of highlighter on the tip of my finger, I apply a thin line just below the horse’s lower lashes, (think: eyeliner). Up top I smooth a thin coat of highlighter all over the eyelid, (think: eye shadow), being careful not to get the highlighter in the eyelashes – no one likes having goopy “mascara.” Finally, I coat the insides of the ears with highlighter to get rid of that scaly, flaky look. When doing the ears, it’s especially important not to get highlighter on the backs of the ears by accident (I find it helpful to have one “clean” hand and one “goopy” hand.)
Once everything is “shined up”, I take a clean, dry cloth and gently pat down all the highlighted areas, to give a little bit of a matte effect. (If you’re showing in AQHA halter shows, you may want to go ahead and leave it as shiny as it can be!)
#8: Finishing touchesJust before I head out to meet the photographer or the judge, there are a few last-minute things I do to complete my horse’s look. For the ultimate shine on his hooves, I spray on the super-fast-drying Ultra Hoof Enhancer. At this point, it’s getting down to the wire and I’m usually in a rush, so I love that I don’t have to be meticulous about the application – it’s clear and very light, so if you get a little on his hair, there’s nothing to fret about!
As a very last step, I do a quick once-over with a clean, dry towel to get rid of any dust that has settled on the coat conditioner. And just like that, I’ve got the perfect show-ring shine!
While I’m sure this isn’t a “one size fits all” show-day grooming routine, it’s worked really well for me, and I hope you were able to find few helpful hints that you’ll add to your bag of tricks. Speaking of which, I would love to hear from you! Do you have any grooming tips or products you just can’t live without? Leave a comment (or a question!) here on the blog – I’ll look forward to hearing from you!
Thanks and happy grooming!
[Ed. note: If you missed Part I of this groom’s tale, you can check it out here.]