Q: I bought a 4-year-old gelding a couple months ago. His previous owner said he’d had some exposure to clippers, but after a first try at clipping his bridlepath, I’m not completely convinced. Could you explain some solid tactics for introducing clippers and working my way to clipping his bridlepath and legs?
Michelle Jameson, Mississippi
A: You can help your horse become accustomed to everything associated with clippers through a process of desensitization, for which there are two philosophies: bombardment and advance/retreat. Bombardment means exposing the horse to all the stimuli—the cord, clippers, noise, feel—at once, until he gets used to it. I prefer the advance/retreat method, especially when clippers are involved, because there are so many stimuli to which the horse must be exposed.
A Quiet Approach
The advance/retreat philosophy programs relaxation and acceptance into the horse’s behavior. With this method, I advance one of the stimuli toward my horse slowly—say the extension cord—until he shows a sign of acceptance or relaxation. Good signs include relaxing tense muscles, lowering his head, releasing a deep breath, or showing forward interest in the clippers. The moment I see that acceptance, I retreat, or remove the stimulus from his comfort zone. It’s really all about timing; to teach your horse to accept a stimulus, you must remove it at the exact moment you see a positive response to it.
With precise timing, your horse will advance more quickly. That said, a horse with more fear could take 20 to 50 repetitions before accepting the stimulus, while a braver horse might only take five to 10 encounters. The duration of the process really depends on the horse and the timing of the release.
I prefer to use corded clippers in this process, because a corded unit offers a chance to expose your horse to many elements cordless clippers don’t have—mainly the extension cord, louder volume, and larger size.
Here’s the order in which I expose my horse to each of the clippers’ stimuli.
The cord. A cord can be a terrifying thing to a horse with a high level of fear. It resembles a snake on the ground, so it can even bring out a horse’s fight instinct—as opposed to his most often seen flight response when something threatening approaches.
I begin by moving an extension cord on the ground 5 feet from my horse. When he acknowledges the cord and shows comfort with it, I retreat, and then move closer with each repetition. I keep advancing after each retreat, until I’m beside the horse and can let him smell and explore the cord and then rub it around his head and neck.
The clippers. Begin with the clippers turned off. You might even leave them unplugged for now, just to ensure that you don’t switch them on by accident. I let my horse smell and touch the clippers. The smell of the oil is something the horse will notice. I again move the clippers toward him, let him explore them, and retreat when he shows that he’s unfazed by them.
I then move 5 feet back from my horse and turn on the clippers. I turn off the clippers and offer verbal praise every time he shows that he accepts them as I approach him, incrementally.
Once I’m close enough to touch the horse on the shoulder with the clippers, I allow him to explore the feel of the vibrating clippers, moving the unit away every time he accepts it. I then advance the clippers toward his neck, back, and legs with the same advance/retreat method.
The last place I get near him with the clippers is his poll. There’s a lot for him to learn to accept there—the feel, the sound, and the clippers unit looming over his head. The poll is a highly sensitive area, and the close proximity to his sensitive ears makes this a very challenging spot.
The blades. When I introduce the blades, I don’t want to cut hair yet. I stroke the blades backward against the horse’s skin so they don’t cut the hair, but the horse can get used to the feel. I use the advance/retreat technique, beginning on his shoulder and neck, then move to his legs and then his poll.
The last thing I do is cut hair. If the horse is most accustomed to having his legs handled, I start there. Because of the horse’s sensitivity at his poll, I do his bridlepath and any ear trimming last.
A Time for Treats
I say this with caution, because I’m not an advocate of treat-training, but a food reward can help when desensitizing a horse to clippers. Clipping is an obnoxious thing that we make a horse endure, so I allow some food reward, but I never use it as a bribe, only as a reward after he has shown the desired behavior. I’m careful not to overdo the food-based reward to the point that he expects a treat every time he accepts a new stimulus. Intermittently, it can be advisable to offer a treat when a horse has made a significant stride toward accepting one of the stimuli involved with clipping. It can get him past a wall that he’s having trouble overcoming and lead to ultimate success. But as the horse becomes more accepting of the clippers, the food reward has to diminish in frequency to maintain the horse’s respect.
A Few Final Words on Clipping
It’s important to be sensitive to your horse’s needs when clipping his ears and whiskers. The whiskers are sensory organs called vibrissae, not just hair. They actually serve a purpose: They allow a horse to feel his blind spots around his face. His ear hair acts as a protective layer to keep debris and insects out of his ears, as well as protect his sensitive hearing.
Don’t mistake my cautionary words for my saying I don’t ever clip my horses; I do. I like to look at a cleaned-up horse as much as the next rider! I’ll trim a horse’s jawline to keep his face looking nice, and I clip bridlepaths for correct headstall fit. I also clip legs to alleviate bulkiness under protective boots and allow correct fit, as well as to keep a horse’s limbs from getting too hot under the boots. Furthermore, it’s easier to identify leg injuries on working horses when their limbs aren’t covered in heavy layers of hair.
Julie Goodnight, known for her ability to teach horses and riders of all skill levels, hosts “Horse Master with Julie Goodnight” on RFD-TV. She also presents clinics nationwide from her home base near Salida, Colorado (juliegoodnight.com).