Body Clipping: How, When, & Why

By Natalie DeFee Mendik

Once the days get shorter and horses get fuzzier, it’s time to start thinking about body clipping those horses that stay in regular work over the winter. Sweat coupled with a heavy coat means lengthy cool-down periods and potential for chills from damp hair. Horses with heavy coats due to Cushing’s disease and horses working in muggy climates might also need to be body clipped.

“Body clipping can make it much easier to properly care for a horse’s skin and coat, in addition to enabling the horse to cool off more efficiently after exercise and to dry off more quickly after bathing,” says Marie Davidson, MEd, adjunct professor of equine studies at the College of Central Florida, in Ocala, and Advanced-level three-day eventer, twice long-listed for the Olympic Games. “I have clipped some horses merely to help correct skin and coat issues. I have also clipped some horses even in summer in climates, where they find it difficult to handle the extreme summer temperatures and humidity.”

Clip styles often have different names in different regions; popular clips include:

  • A trace clip, which runs in a wide strip from the haunches, across the sides (including the belly), and up the neck;
  • A hunter clip, which removes all the coat, except on the legs, beneath the saddle, and possibly the head;
  • A blanket clip, which runs in a strip along the haunches and across the barrel, leaving the area under the saddle and on the haunches where a quarter sheet would lie unclipped, as well as the legs and possibly the head;
  • A strip clip, which runs under the neck, down the chest, and under the belly; and
  • A full body clip, which removes all the hair.

You can also modify any clip to suit your own taste and needs. Like a trace clip, but have a horse that sweats a lot on the neck? Run the trace style from the quarters forward but clip up high on the neck. Like a hunter clip, but live in an area where temperatures may plummet? Leave the coat on the belly below where the blanket ends. Are you clipping most of the horse but would rather forgo clipping the entire head? Blend the clip along the side of the face where the bridle cheek straps lie.

“I recommend learning to vary your clipping style in order to achieve exactly what you need for that horse,” says Davidson. “There are clipping patterns ranging from a modified low trace clip to a blanket clip (one of my favorites for horses in training) to a hunter clip (this allows for quick cooling and drying while maintaining protection for the legs and back under the saddle) to the full or show clip, which … leaves the horse looking sleek and clean.

“I always start clipping by removing the trace clip (areas) first and then moving up the styles in case I decide to change my style for some reason midway or if my clippers fail,” she adds. “You can always remove more hair to clean up the lines, but you can’t put it back on. This also allows me to modify should the horse begin to react poorly to the process.”

You can hire someone to clip or do it yourself. Some tips from the pros will help make your task much more manageable, while keeping your horse comfortable:

  • Clip only a scrupulously clean and completely dry horse. Many people swear by silicone sprays such as ShowSheen Hair Polish & Detangler: Spray (and even rub in with a towel) a clean horse where you plan to clip and allow to dry before starting.
  • Use quality clippers with new or sharpened blades (use a sharpening service care for your blades). Keep extra blades handy to swap out if your blades become dull, hot, or aren’t functioning optimally. Fully charge cordless clippers ahead of time.
  • Depending on the style of clippers, you might have to adjust the blade tension

    (if you aren’t sure about this, ask your clipper service technician or an experienced clipper to show you).

  • Have blade oil, blade wash, and cooling spray handy, and use often. Lubricate with blade oil before beginning and repeatedly throughout clipping. Wipe away excess oil with a rag. Feel blades regularly to check they don’t get hot; spray with a cooling lubricant. Clean and lubricate blades with a small amount of blade wash in a small container.
  • Clip in a well-lit area so you can clearly see your work.
  • Consider having a haynet available to keep the horse standing quietly.
  • Clip at a slight angle instead of directly against the direction of the hair. Overlap strokes.
  • Gently pull the skin taut with your opposite hand in areas like the underarm where the skin doesn’t lie smooth.
  • Brush hair off the horse and out of clippers periodically.
  • Know yourself and your horse: Take breaks as needed, possibly even breaking until the next day.
  • Skip wearing lip balm and synthetic fleece, to which hair sticks; opt for a windbreaker and pants or a painter suit, as well as a cap, so you aren’t covered in itchy horsehair. Wear a face mask if you have allergies or are especially sensitive to airborne hair particles and cooling lubricant.
  • After clipping, wipe the horse with warm, damp towels or a vinegar, baby oil, or essential oil rinse.
  • Don’t clip the day before a big event; allow a couple of weeks lead time, so you can fix any lines and the coat looks more blended.

“It is imperative to learn to clip properly and handle each horse appropriately so that you do not create problems such as cuts or burns from the clippers, reactions to cleaning solutions, or behavior problems resulting from poor handling during clipping,” says Davidson. “After checking that your horse is comfortable with the sound of the clippers and the touch of the vibrating hand holding the clippers without cutting, I suggest starting your cut at the shoulder and working along the neck and chest to the belly, so the horse becomes accustomed to the process.

“It is important to clip areas like the belly and flank while the clippers are coolest, as those areas are very thin-skinned and sensitive,” she continues. “Some people finish their clip around the head or face with smaller blades. This depends on the style of clip. I rarely use a full clip, so my clips end along the jawline. Be sure that you stay in a safe position next to your horse and keep the cord out of the way of both your own legs and the horse’s. I also clip in an enclosed area, so that I don’t lose control of the situation should a problem arise.”

While a body clip keeps your horse cool when working, you need to ensure he stays warm otherwise.

“Unfortunately, there are some liabilities to body clipping,” says Davidson. “In cold weather it will be necessary to help manage a horse’s body temperature once you have removed their natural coat. This can be done through the use of blankets, which can vary from light sheets, cooling sheets, and sun sheets to heavy turnout blankets and wool liners with multiple variations and specialty products created for a variety of purposes. Use of these requires having the time and knowledge required for proper management, as well as simply being available to make the necessary changes in blankets as required by the circumstances.

In cold temperatures, a quarter sheet while being ridden keeps the hindquarters toasty, especially while warming up. A fleece cooler for cooldown wicks moisture away from the coat while maintaining warmth. Choose blankets for stall time and turnout appropriately for the weather and the horse.

Horses regulate body temperature differently than we do, so they don’t need the same type of coverage we would for keeping comfortable in the cold. “Learn to observe your horse’s posture, activity level, and attitude,” says Davidson. “In addition to feeling under the blanket or feeling the tips of their ears to see how warm they are, a tight-muscled horse with his tail tucked under and a slightly agitated attitude or activity level may indicate that he is chilled. Just as importantly, horses should never be overheated under blankets. If you allow the horse to become overheated and sweat, you could create skin problems, as well as actually causing a chill that you were trying to avoid. In addition, clipping away the natural coat can leave the horse’s skin more vulnerable to insects, sun damage, and simple cuts or scrapes.”

Nevertheless, horses whose lifestyles involve performing throughout the year are prime candidates for body clipping. “I can’t imagine managing horses without the benefits of body clipping,” Davidson says. “While horses are just fine without ever being body clipped, I believe that when we start placing unnatural demands on them, we have to manage the consequences of those demands. Body clipping is a skill that truly helps accomplish that.” 

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