Clipping horses

Find out how to get your horse used to being clipped.

Find out how to get your horse used to being clipped.

Even with well-handled horses, it’s important to divide the process of getting them used to clippers into small steps, to give your horse the best chance of success. Bear in mind that it may take a number of sessions to get them comfortable with clippers, so it’s best to start this process well in advance of when you plan/need to clip your horse.

When introducing a horse to clippers, you need to ensure that you reward the behaviour you want, and that you don’t inadvertently reinforce a behaviour you don’t want. Precise timing is absolutely key here. In this case, the behaviour you want is standing still.

The reward can vary depending on the approach you choose to use. If you’re using negative reinforcement (i.e., the encouragement of certain behaviours by removing an aversive stimulus, such as pressure – which may also be called removal or subtraction reinforcement), the reward is the clippers being turned off/moved away. Another possible approach is positive reinforcement (i.e., the addition of something the horse likes) and for this you could use a food reward, but make sure it’s something they enjoy but which is healthy. Remember to only give it in small quantities as you will need to provide the reward a number of times during each session.

Safety considerations when clipping

  • Make sure your horse is in a comfortable environment that they are confident in, such as their stable
  • Make sure the footing is appropriate (i.e., the surface is dry and not at all slippery underfoot) and that the area is clear of any potential trip hazards
  • Make sure you’re dressed appropriately, ideally with steel toe capped boots and a riding hat, with long hair tied back. Overalls may also be worth considering
  • If using corded clippers, ensure you use a circuit breaker so that, if your horse does stand on the cable, the clippers will cut out
  • Make sure the cable is as tidy and out of the way as possible – this should make it less stressful for the horse as well as helping to keep you both safe
  • Consider the weather: if you know your horse is generally flighty in windy/stormy weather, it’s best to wait for a calm day before you introduce them to clippers
  • For many horses, having a haynet to pick at can help make this a less stressful process, but do make sure it’s tied up out of the way
  • Consider whether your horse would benefit from having a calm, sensible friend next door (if stabled) or nearby
  • Make sure your horse’s coat is clean and absolutely dry before attempting to clip them. If bathing them isn’t possible, could you hot cloth them instead? If not, be prepared to groom them very thoroughly
  • You might want to consider doubling your horse’s tail up and wrapping it in a tail bandage to keep it safely out of the way
  • Make sure your clipper blades are sharp, properly tensioned and well-oiled. Bear in mind that you’ll need to re-oil the blades at regular intervals during the clipping process too
  • Make sure to check regularly that the clipper blades aren’t getting too hot
  • If the weather is cold, you may want to use a rug to keep your horse warm during the process – for instance, whilst clipping their neck, chest and shoulders you could have the rug folded back over their quarters
  • Even with training, many horses find having their face/ears clipped challenging so you may need to use trimmers or smaller, quieter clippers here
  • If you prefer, you could consider having someone experienced to hold the horse rather than tying them up if it is the first time clipping or you know they are nervous.  Whilst following the process outlined below should significantly reduce the chance of a horse reacting badly, some people feel more comfortable with another person on hand, plus extra help can come in handy pulling legs forwards/holding the tail out of the way.

How to break the clipping process into manageable steps

Throughout this process, only move onto the next step when your horse is totally comfortable with the current one.  If at any point your horse finds it difficult to cope, go back however many steps you need to until they are comfortable again. You’ll then need to progress at a slower rate to make sure they remain comfortable at every stage.  The steps we divide the process into are:

  • Turn the clippers on outside your horse’s stable/across the yard to assess their reaction to the noise. Ideally, you will be far enough away that they don’t react and you can then reward them for standing still by turning the clippers off (negative reinforcement), or giving some of your chosen food reward (positive reinforcement) – or both at the same time (combined reinforcement). If you decide to use food as a reward, you may need to enlist a helper for this whilst you’re across the yard! If your horse does react to the clippers being turned on, you can move further away and keep the clippers running until they do stand still, at which point you can turn the clippers off/feed them. Remember, do not give the reward until the horse is standing still – even if only for a moment – or you will inadvertently be reinforcing the wrong behaviour. If they only stand still briefly, repeat the process and gradually increase the amount of time they will stand still for
  • Once they’re confident with the clippers being turned on at a reasonable distance (i.e., they ignore it/don’t react), gradually decrease the distance and repeat the process until they’re happy for you to stand next to them with the clippers turned on
  • Show them the clippers – turned off – and allow your horse to sniff them if they want to
  • Hold the clippers (still turned off) close to their shoulder and reward your horse when they stand still. Precise timing is key here, especially if your horse fidgets to begin with – you need to make sure that you reward the exact moment your horse stands still. N.B. Make sure that, if the horse moves, you quietly move with them, holding the clippers in place, and that you only reward them (with food, by taking the clippers away, or both) at the moment they stand still
  • Place the clippers, still turned off, on their shoulder; only take them away/reward your horse when they’re standing still
  • Repeat the above step, with the clippers turned off, until you are sure that your horse is comfortable with the clippers being placed anywhere you’re intending to clip
  • Move the clippers, still turned off, in sweeping strokes across the horse’s coat, as you will do when you clip
  • The next step is to check how your horse reacts to the vibration of the clippers. Check you have your horse’s attention at this point, as it could be quite startling for them to have the clippers turned on again if their attention is elsewhere. Holding the clippers in the hand farthest away from the horse, turn them on and then put your other hand flat on the horse’s shoulder, before placing the back of the clippers on top of that hand. Again, reward your horse (whether with food, the removal of the clippers, or both) when they stand still. As before, make sure you move with your horse if they fidget, otherwise they will learn that the way to remove the clippers is to move, whereas you want them to learn to stand still
  • Once your horse is comfortable with the clippers placed on top of your hand, you can place the clippers (turned on) directly onto their shoulder, but without clipping any coat yet
  • You can then repeat the step above for all the areas you’re intending to clip, always making sure to reward when the horse is standing calmly
  • Once they’re comfortable with both the noise and the vibration of the clippers, you can try clipping a small patch on their shoulder. At this point they may well find the hair falling off more alarming than the sensation of the clippers themselves, so keep an eye out for that.

Remember that for many horses, it will be necessary to complete this process over several sessions, so don’t expect to go all the way through the steps on the same day. It’s better to spend a few minutes over a number of days to build up their confidence, and always recap what you have done in previous sessions to make sure they are comfortable, rather than jumping in at the next step. 

Depending on how your horse copes, you may find that you need to do their first clip in stages to help them get used to the idea. So you could clip their chest one day, then the underside of their neck another, and so on. Don’t worry if this is the case – it’s much better to make sure they have a positive experience than it is to be determined to complete the whole clip in one go. You might think it looks odd to have patches clipped at a time but the horse won’t mind and, in the long run, this approach should pay off and make clipping a much less stressful process for both you and your horse.

Clipping a horse urgently for medical reasons

As a final point, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you have a horse who’s not comfortable being clipped or who hasn’t been clipped before, and you need to clip them urgently for a medical reason – for example, they have a thick coat and you need to treat a skin condition or a wound – it may be safest to have the horse sedated by a vet. This should make clipping much safer and less stressful for everyone involved and allow the treatment to be provided safely and effectively. Clipper training can always be done another day when horse and handler are both calm and there’s no time pressure. 

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