This article was published in The Aiken Horse magazine in 2011.
Trimming or body clipping with electric clippers is easy to take for granted if your horse is not afraid of clippers. But owners of tough to clip horses know that a fearful horse can be frustrating and even dangerous. Slowly introducing your horse to clippers in several short sessions BEFORE you clip him will save you and your horse many hours of stress over the rest of his lifetime. And it will set up a trusting dynamic between you and your horse.
A quick note: Can you twitch or sedate a horse for clipping? Certainly many people do. This article addresses teaching a horse to clip without restraint or tranquilization.
#1 Start with the right attitude: Understand the horse’s Umwelt
Umwelt is a wonderful German word which most closely means “point of view” or “frame of reference.” Whenever we handle horses, it is important to remember that the equine umwelt is very difference from a human perspective. As a prey animal, horses are much more sensitive to feeling trapped than we are as predators. Horses also have areas of the body that they know are most vulnerable to attack so they are instinctively flinchy and protective of these places. These spots include the muzzle, poll, ears, throat, belly, legs, and anus. So even before we add in the clippers, it’s important to understand that restraining a horse by cross-tying or tying him and handling these sensitive areas is already going to trigger his survival instincts. In an older well-broke horse, these instincts may be deeply buried under layers of domestication and years of training and desensitization. A younger or hotter horse… not so much. So always keep in mind that a fidgeting horse may actually be a horse that doesn’t feel safe. Observe his body language carefully, be aware of the “kick zone,” and before introducing the clippers be sure that your horse calmly accepts your touch in all the areas you plan to clip. Most importantly, be patient and respectful of your horse’s umwelt. He’s not being naughty or stupid when he acts afraid. In his mind, his life is in danger and he is just trying to survive as he is hard-wired by nature to do.
#2 Emotional Fitness is the safest form of “restraint”
The more the horse is restrained when he is afraid, the bigger the wreck you’re likely to have if he panics. It is common for a frightened horse to pull back, rear, kick, or strike. It is strongly recommended that you hold the horse yourself (drape the lead rope over the crook of your arm) until the horse can stand totally relaxed and calm for clipping. Only then do you have “permission” from the horse to tie or cross tie him, and you must be prepared for this to change when you get to very sensitive areas such as the ears. Many people find that the emotionally fit horse will not need to be cross-tied or tied at this stage. For more information, see the article Teaching Patience to Horses.
#3 Introduce the clippers in stages
The most common problems horses have with clippers are the sound, the feel of the vibration, the cord, and the touching of sensitive areas, especially while being restrained. Breaking these problems down and introducing them in pieces can help your horse be successful.
- If you use corded clippers, get your horse used to a rope dragging on the ground, touching his legs and sides first. This will also help horses that are skeptical about the hose at bath time.
- Let your horse smell the clippers and run them all over his body while they are off first. Practice holding his legs, head, and ears and touching him with the clippers with the same motion that you will use while clipping. Don’t allow the blades to snag the hair and pull.
- When you turn on the clippers, begin with them at a distance from the horse and wait for him to become curious about them and want to investigate. Turning them on and going straight for his nose will startle or offend all but the most clipper-broke horse.
- Once the horse is totally calm with the sound of the clippers running around him and turning on and off, rub his body with the running clippers beginning by his shoulder or withers and gradually working out in all directions from there leaving the most sensitive areas until last. Think about using the clippers the way that you would use a curry. Move nonchalantly, not too tentatively or he will get suspicious of why you are sneaking around.
- Turn the clippers on and off during this process. Try to time it so that you are turning off the clippers when your horse is the most relaxed so you are rewarding that mental state. It may take you several sessions, don’t be in a hurry. This is an investment in your horse’s emotional fitness and time well spent!
#4 Practice & Other Tips
Make clippers part of your grooming routine. Even if you don’t actually clip your horse every time you groom him, running a little pair of cheap battery powered trimmers over his “iffy” spots for 2 minutes a day for a week or two can help prepare him to body clip like a pro.
Check the blades frequently to make sure they’re not getting hot. Use your hand and rub the part of the body that you’re about to clip so the feel of the clippers doesn’t catch the horse by surprise. This technique can really help sensitive horses that are bothered by the vibration on their muzzle, legs, belly and ears especially.