Clipper training is teaching a horse to accept being clipped. A horse that will stand quietly while being clipped is what I call “clipper broke.” In other words, the horse accepts the noise and vibration of the clippers. This article is not about teaching you how to clip a horse properly, but how to teach your horse to accept the pressure of the clippers. There are three major areas on a horse for clipping- the head, the body and the legs. In my experience, the body is usually the easiest area to get a horse accustomed to clipping. The next easiest area is the legs and the toughest parts are the ears and the muzzle. I have worked with horses who have little sensitivity around the ears or muzzle and clipping is not a big deal. However, some horses are bothered by the noise and the vibration of the clippers, are ticklish, and have a difficult time learning to accept being clipped.
Good ground manners are a prerequisite to clipping. The horse must be obedient and know to move away from pressure. You must ask the horse to move around as you clip and the horse must be obedient to your touch. If a horse doesn’t have good ground manners, I will work on those manners before I begin the desensitization process. The vets, chiropractor and farriers love to come to my barn because the horses here have good ground manners, making them safe and easy to work with.
Many times there is the assumption that when you buy a horse, the horse is clipper broke. This is usually not true. Many horses have no formal training but even the horses that do, have usually had little time spent on clipper desensitization- this is true of western, english and dressage barns. To control a horse for clipping, many people use a twitch, lip chain or ear the horse, while other times they drug the horse. To me, drugging is actually better than having a lip chain used. A lip chain is a chain that is run across the gums under the upper lip. Horses may also have a metal twitch used on the nose or the ear. These controls are intimidating and painful. Control of this type usually creates a bigger problem with a horse in the long run. The reason I say this is that I have been working with problem horses for 25 years and I have seen the result of these severe types of control. So, how do we get our horses to be comfortable and accept the clippers without extreme measures? I have found that if you simply take the time to desensitize a horse, making the horse comfortable with the noise and feeling, these unpleasant forms of control are not needed.
Before I ever get the clippers out, I begin to desensitize the horse to touch. Once a horse will stand quietly, move away from my touch and is comfortable with being touched all over, I am ready to begin the clipper training. I like to start with a dressage stick about 36 inches long. I stroke the horse all over with the stick and evaluate how the horse accepts this. Rubbing around the legs of some horses will cause them to pick up their legs quickly or even kick out. A horse that is sensitive around the legs and feet is hard to shoe and even more of a challenge to clip. Desensitizing the legs is important even if you don’t plan to clip them. Using the stick, I work around the front and rear legs. If the horse wants to kick, better the stick than my hands or arms. I continue rhythmically rubbing the body, the neck and the ears, letting the horse know the stick is a friend and not a predator. I hold the lead rope with my left hand near the snap. If the horse pulls back, I stay with it until it either stops its feet or becomes quieter. I want to reach a point where the horse is calm when I rub the stick over its head, ears, muzzle, body and legs.
Once the horse is calm with the dressage stick itself, I pull a small plastic grocery bag, through the loop on the end of the stick. I make sure to knot it two or three times so that it is not too big or threatening. Again, I use the same procedure, rubbing the bag all over the horse. When you are clipping a horse, your head is right down there by the legs. Because of this, you want your horse to be as calm as possible while at the same time, be safe for any child who may come running up to the horse. Small children don’t understand how dangerous it is to run up to a horse and grab onto a leg. Thus, desensitization is considerably more than just teaching your horse to accept the clippers. Once the horse accepts the plastic bag around the body, I continue the procedure with my hand. I make sure I can pick up each foot, hold on to the ears and rub them with my thumb, and I play with the horse’s muzzle.
I am now ready to introduce the clippers. I begin by rubbing the horse all over with the clippers off. I like the small, silver models of Andis Freedom clippers best because they fit well in my hand. I then turn the clippers on, standing far away enough as to not frighten the horse but near enough to allow him to hear the vibrations. The clippers I use are quiet and this is helpful because very loud clippers can frighten the horse. If your clippers are noisy, I suggest you begin with something quieter. Once a horse accepts a quiet noise, the horse should be able to accept something louder. It is like the plastic bag, you begin with something small and then you can expand the bag and make it more threatening as the horse becomes more accustomed to it.
Once the horse is accepting of all of these steps, I turn the clippers on and begin rubbing, not clipping, the horse. I go all over, including up the neck, around the ears and over the muzzle. Once the horse is accepting of rubbing the clippers all over the body while they are on, then you can begin actually clipping. I start with the bridle path by draping the lead rope over my left arm and using my left hand to pull the forelock forward a bit.As I continue to work on the bridle path, I use this same hand to move the ear and the mane out of the way. At the same time, if the horse moves into me, my left arm is in a position to block the horse. Even with the desensitization the horse may react, particularly the first time it feels the blade cutting.
The Andis clippers work really well in this process. The adjustable blades make ear and muzzle work very easy, and can be adjusted to do the bridle path or the fetlock which have more coarse hair. Because the clippers are small in my hands they are easy to maneuver and if the horse actually bumps into the clipper because he is a little nervous, the clipper is easy to hold on to. These clippers are quite durable but like any piece of equipment, we try not to drop them. Andis puts out a great product and the blades are just fantastic, but any blade can become dull and will pull the hair instead of cutting it and this causes the horse discomfort. The time spent on desensitization will be lost if the horse experiences pain and becomes frightened.
You need to keep the blades clean and don’t be afraid to get them sharpened. Andis blades will stay sharp for a long time if kept clean. It is also important to make sure you horse is clean, as this will dull the blades as well. The horse is a prey animal and anything new and out of the ordinary can be frightening. This is especially true when we are working around the head, belly and legs. Some horses could care less about plastic bags and clipping but this depends on the personality and the emotional level of the horse.
I hope this exercise helps you with clipping. It will help you establish a better relationship with your horse because you are communicating and building trust. Remember, when you put a stud chain on a horse you are not communicating, you are merely intimidating. Establish good ground manners before you start. Work on acceptance of inanimate object like dressage sticks and plastic bags. Work on acceptance of the clippers noise and vibration. It takes time and patience! It can take as little as a ½ hour or months, but it is worth the time to do it right.