Now the winter solstice has passed and the spring shows are on our minds, it is the season for clipping our shaggy companions into sleeker versions of themselves so they cool down faster after work and don't get chilled with wet coats covered in rugs, and so their spring coats show up earlier.
Clipping is an awful job. Horses often hate the clippers, its awkward and you get itchy hair everywhere. Get prepared first. Ensure you have enough rugs to keep him warm afterwards. Check that your blades are sharp. Have oil for lubricating the clippers and kerosene to dip the blades in to keep them clean and therefore sharper longer. Wash him really well and give him time to dry. Wear fitting clothes done up to the neck, not polar fleece as the hair sticks to it.
Choose a safe dry area, preferably with cross ties and a power point placed so the electric lead can not be trodden on or tangled.
Decide on your clip (full, trace,hunter). Think about leaving the legs on if he is not stabled, just trim the backs of his legs. You can use tailors chalk to mark the edges of the clip. If you leave an area where the saddle goes your saddle wont slip as much. Always clip in long strokes against the direction of the hair, starting where he is less ticklish. I start with the shoulder to check how he reacts.
There are a number of things you can do to help him get used to the clippers. Switch them on and see how he reacts to the noise. Slowly bring them closer. Just don't take so long that the clippers overheat. If he is ok lay them on his shoulder to let him get used to the buzzing before you actually start clipping. Then if he is still ok go ahead and clip. It can help to train him to put his head down from light pressure, and keep his head down when you start.
If he is not ok here are some suggestions on what to do next:
- Use the fundamental strategy of the Jeffrey method, developed by australian Kel Jeffreys for breaking in, and popularised by Maurice Wright. Approach with the clippers to where you can see he gets stressed, and back off a bit (withdraw) to where he is comfortable. Wait til you see he is relaxed (head down, chewing, soft eyes, standing still) and then approach again. Back off when he shows stress signs (restlessness, head up, pawing etc.). Just keep watching his signs and keep withdrawing when he is stressed and back off to a point he is happier and approach again. You can use this to do difficult areas like heads and ears. It is slow at the beginning but you will teach him to accept it confidently. Next time will be easier.
- Overshadowing is a method from learning theory. You use a trained response, such as going forward and back from a rein cue, or head down to keep the horse's attention while you introduce the clippers. Have an assistant ask him to go forward a step or two and back a step or two each time he looks stressed about the clippers. Again this can be slow at the start, and really needs two people but will teach him to accept the clippers. The already trained response, (forward/back) overshadows the new stimulus (the clippers). He learns clippers are ok and should be easier next time. Andrew MacLean told me this method.
- You can use the principles of pressure/ release training to teach him to approach anything novel. Introduce an umbrella for example. If he moves away from it send him forwards towards it, and when he does move towards it remove the pressure, ie hide it behind you or collapse it. He learns that when he approaches something scary it goes away. He stops being scared of it and accepts it. Repeat the lesson with a few different scary objects, including something noisy so he knows that approaching something makes it go away. Then introduce the clippers in the same way. When he approaches them switch them off. Next time wait til he is close before you switch them off, until he lets you put them on him. This is based or the work of Tristan Tucker, previously from Melbourne.
- Restraining him so he stays still will help him to accept the clippers. Lift a front leg up so he is on three legs will help to get him to accept the clippers. Or you can use a hobble strap and a rope to lift a hind leg off the ground. You can grab a handful of his neck skin and keep it tight. You can use a twitch (not for too long and NEVER on an ear).
- You can use the principle of flooding. I do NOT recommend this. Just ignore his fear and go ahead and clip him. If you manage to do it without getting hurt, and without him escaping he may habituate to the clippers, ie get used to them. If however he manages to break away and escape from them when he is terrified you will have a really dreadful time getting him to accept the clippers. We know that it only takes one trial to learn something when you are very stressed, and it is very hard to extinguish ie unlearn this. So if he learns that plunging or kicking or striking makes the clippers go away when he is very stressed, he is likely to always think that this is the best reaction to the clippers.
- You can get the vet to sedate him to clip him. Safety is the most important thing and sometimes it is necessary to do this to keep everyone safe. If you do this don't expect him to be better next time. He may not learn that the clippers are safe if he is sedated, so may be just the same next time. We call this state dependant learning, what he learns drugged he may need to be drugged to remember.