Clipping can be a safe, efficient, and positive experience for you and your horse.
by Sushil Dulai Wenholz, The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care
For many horse owners, clipping is among the most challenging barn chores, especially when you’re dealing with a young, scared, or impatient horse. With some common sense, a hefty dose of patience, and spare time on your hands, you can make clipping your horse a safe, efficient, and positive experience for you and your four-hooved friend, whether it’s his first or 50th time under the blades.
Before you grab your clippers, find a safe area in which to work. Brian Egan, MS, an assistant teaching professor in equine science at Pennsylvania State University, teaches horse handling and training classes while also teaching the school’s young horses. He recommends that you clip in an area clear of obstructions.
“A scared horse will try to get away,” he explains. “If there are things he can jump into or through, he’s in danger.”
Nancy Diehl, MS, VMD, is a former Penn State assistant professor of equine science who has a particular interest in equine behavior and is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania. Diehl notes that, “You don’t want things like rakes, pitch forks, or even ditches around. At best, the horse is going to get scared. At worst, it’s going to make him think of clipping … as a bad thing.”
Good lighting is a benefit not only to help you see but also increase the horse’s psychological comfort level. A solid but forgiving floor that offers a bit of traction is another important element. Try to avoid concrete, since it can be slippery especially when it’s wet or if your horse wears shoes, says Egan. A rubber mat provides softness and some traction, though dirt is okay for clipping.
Also, says Egan, “Work in a place that your horse is accustomed to and comfortable in,” especially if it’s his first experience with … clippers. This way, Egan explains, you’re giving the horse just one new thing to think about. He prefers to clip horses in their stalls. This provides a familiar, comfortable atmosphere, but also gives the horse no chance to escape, even if he’s untied or breaks loose from the lead rope.
Next, have an assistant help you. “Having someone with you is a big plus,” says Egan. “An assistant can hold the horse and, if necessary, apply a twitch.”
He emphasized the importance of a helper, especially if you’ve never clipped a horse, so that you won’t get hurt or inadvertently give your horse a negative experience.
Can you simply tie your horse instead of having someone hold him? Yes, but it’s a truly safe option only if your horse is the type to practically (or literally) fall asleep during clipping. If you’re dealing with a young horse or one who is already frightened of clipping, tying can create a negative experience–if the horse gets scared, he’ll likely pull back on the lead, creating pressure on his head and a sensation of being “trapped.”
Even with a horse which is at ease with the process, Egan recommends untying the animal and having your helper hold him when you work on the ears. “You’re somewhat in front of the horse when you work on his ears,” he says. “If he’s tied, there’s a chance of you getting stuck between the horse and what he’s tied to. If he’s held, you can at least move him away from the wall or hitching rail.”
As a final caution, Egan warns you to be wary around the horse’s head, and never lean over your horse’s head. “The horse’s head is unpredictable. It’s a weapon, and the horse will use it to defend himself,” he says. “Even the gentlest horse in the world can spook and throw its head up.”
If your head is in the way, you could face serious injury. Egan also advises people not to step up on a bucket or stool to reach the horse’s head because the horse could easily knock you off.
It is best to train your horse to lower its head for clipping. However, if you must stand on something to reach your horse’s head, make sure it is stable, placed at the horse’s side, and that you have room to get away if the horse acts up and knocks you off the stand.
Time To Behave
Some of the most common behavior problems related to clipping revolve around the head. Horses frequently toss their heads because they are afraid of the noise or vibration of clippers, notes Diehl. The reaction can range from a slight fling to a dangerous frenzy of shaking, throwing, and pulling back. In addition, the horse might refuse to stand still.
It’s easy to get frustrated under these circumstances (especially if you’re in a time crunch), but forcing your will on the horse in order to get the job done now will only make things worse. “Haste and hurry are the root of many problems,” says Diehl.
Egan agrees, saying, “If there’s a time constraint, people tend to get frustrated, then they tend to get violent with the horse.” A horse learns very quickly about negative consequences–one bad experience with the clippers will cement in his mind that this is a bad thing.
The key, then, whether you’re teaching a young horse or retraining a scared one, is to take your time and work hard to make every clip job a good experience, agree Diehl and Egan.
“Introduce things slowly,” encourages Egan. “Desensitize your horse. Give him a chance to get used to the noise of the clippers.” Make sure that the horse is thoroughly broken to handle before you even attempt clipping him, agree Egan and Diehl. (Egan typically doesn’t clip the Penn State horses until they’re nine to 10 months old.)
A similar theory applies if you need to clip your horse away from home, says Diehl. “First, establish the training and proper behavior at home.” Otherwise, says Egan, you’re introducing two new things at once, and that can be overwhelming. Furthermore, notes Diehl, you’re in double jeopardy trying to teach something new in a show environment, because the facilities “tend to be less safe than your home barn. There are often wires everywhere, the aisles are narrow, and there’s no protection if your horse gets away from you,” she says. (This is why Egan encourages you to clip your horse in a confined area, if at all possible.) Again, having an assistant help you control the horse is a big plus.
In some cases, you might find that your horse behaves like an angel when you clip at home but is a terror on the road. Often this is due to the increased distractions. In that case, says Diehl, “Consider going to shows not to compete, but to dedicate some time to re-training, without the hurry and stress of actually being in the show.” Be patient. Just as it might take several training sessions at home to develop the positive behavior you seek, it might take several “dry runs” to establish good clipping behavior on the road.
Twitches and Tranquilizers
Many people, says Diehl, view the time-intensive slow road to good behavior as a waste of time. They’d rather slap on a twitch or administer a sedative to gain the upper hand with an out-of-control horse. That’s not always a bad thing, Diehl admits. “These are shortcuts,” she confirms. “But twitches, if applied well and used judiciously, can help you get something done. And, while some people say that a sedated horse isn’t learning, he’s not completely unconscious, either. He still has some ability to perceive what’s happening and to have a more positive experience than if you had to treat him roughly without the sedation. I have seen many horses that eventually don’t need sedation anymore.”
Furthermore, says Egan, “Anytime you can do the job quicker, it’s easier and less stressful on the horse.”
The key, Diehl continues, is first to use the tools properly. Don’t leave a twitch on for too long or apply it roughly, because the horse will learn to hate not only the clipping process, but also the twitch. (Egan likes hand-held twitches “because you can tighten it if the horse acts up, then loosen it as soon as he behaves. It’s pressure and release training,” he says.) Don’t become dependent on tranquilizers as a means of avoiding proper training.
To reach a point of proper control, you need to couple proper usage with solid clipping and bathing skills, so you can perform the tasks quietly and efficiently. Put it all together, says Diehl, “and you can end up with a horse learning that clipping … is not such a bad thing after all.”
Let Common Sense Reign
“Hair is on the horse for a reason. So if you don’t need to clip your horse, don’t.” And if you do remove this valuable warming component, says Diehl, “Realize that you’re significantly altering your horse’s physical attributes, so now you need to take responsibility for him and blanket him.” (Along the same lines, says Diehl, when you clip a horse’s ears during warm weather, “you’re taking away a protection, so you need to take care of the horse” with bug repellents and, if needed, skin soothers.)
Egan agrees, saying, “Common sense should win out. If it’s 50 below outside, I wouldn’t shave the horse and just turn him out. After all, would you shave yourself bald and go out in that weather without a hat on? I don’t think so.”
- Keep clipper lubricant and cleaner handy, and spray the blades frequently (dirty, gummed-up clippers won’t cut as smoothly and will dull faster).
- Take short breaks to allow hot blades to cool (this also helps keep the blades sharp). While you wait, give your horse a short walk so he gets a break, too.
- Keep spare blades on hand and switch to a fresh pair if the current pair stops cutting smoothly or begins pulling the hair.
- To most efficiently and quickly shave to the skin, clip against the lay of the hair. For a “longer” cut or to blend shaved areas with unshaved areas, clip with the lay of the hair.
- Turn clippers on while standing away from the horse, not right next to him, to minimize the “startle” effect.
- Start clipping on less ticklish areas, such as the shoulder.
—Sushil Dulai Wenholz
Reprinted with permission from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care/TheHorse.com. Find more veterinarian-approved horse care information at TheHorse.com.