Western performance horses can be shown or rode in a variety of styles. That’s the beauty of our disciplines – we have a lot of freedom when it comes to manes and tails. Certainly some rules apply to specific classes but for a great majority of us, long flowing manes are the trend. Whiskers may or may not be clipped and hair in the ears is not really an issue, although some ranch horse versatility classes have recently made it a ruling for all horses to maintain the natural hairs in their ears.
Having said all that, to be able to clip your horse without a fuss is one of the best life skills you can teach your equine companion. You never know when a neatly groomed bridle path may come in handy, or if an area on the body might need to be clipped for a veterinary procedure. If your horse is opposed to clippers in every way, here are a few tips professional trainer Clay Webster always offers his students for clipping a horse safely.
To teach a horse how to accept clippers, I use only a halter and a good lead shank. For the first few times of introducing clippers to a horse, I do not tie my horse up and instead maintain a grip on the lead by tucking the rope into the crook of my elbow. This allows me to hold onto my horse but also affords me a free hand to hold the clippers. Once the horse is used to the process, tying them for clipping should not be an issue.
STEP #1 – I like to teach my horses to lower their heads on my cue so that clipping is easy, accurate and low-stress on all of us. I do this by spending time with my horses, prior to ever picking up a set of clippers. Essentially I will apply gentle, but steady pressure behind the horse’s ears on top of the poll area. As the horse lowers its head, I release my pressure. Gradually I work towards getting the horse to lower its head further and further down, taking great care to release my pressure whenever the horse shows me the slightest amount of the desired result. My horse will learn from the release of pressure – he does not learn from the pressure itself. When I can cue my horse to lower his head to the desired height, I can start thinking about the next step.
STEP #2 – Next, I will grab a pair of clippers and begin to introduce them to my horse. It’s important to note that I actually turn the clippers on for step #2. With the motor running I show my horse the clippers and begin to rub him with them to get him comfortable with their sensation. With my body positioned in a safe location (for instance, at the shoulders and not in front of his front hooves or a place where he may be able to strike me,) I rub the clippers on several areas of his body. Areas that he may be able to accept the clippers easily include the chest, shoulders, neck. Typically I will start by rubbing the clippers on one shoulder, then work my way up the neck until he becomes comfortable with them.
When I see that my horse has begun to accept the clippers on the shoulder and neck, I will ask him to drop his head once again. Then I progress the clippers up to the area behind his ears. If he jerks his head up really fast, pulls back, or bolts, etc. I work the clippers back to an area that he was happy with and start over. Practice makes perfect and there’s no sense in getting upset with my horse if he isn’t ready to accept the clippers immediately.
STEP #3 – If the process seems to be taking an overly long time, I may actually set the clippers down and walk my horse to an area where he can be worked safely. Then I would proceed to lunge him around me and make him work. Once my horse’s demeanor returns back to a positive attitude (ears forward and paying attention, head hanging in a relaxed position and not high in the air like an elk), I will calmly walk him back to the area where we left off with the clippers and start again. When horses protest against something you may ask of them, often a little reminder of “work” is all they need. If they don’t want to accept the clippers, my horse can start moving his body at my direction in the arena. His heart, lungs and muscles can pick up the pace. And when we return to the clippers, he can stand and relax – helping him to associate the other place with work, while the clippers are paired with rest and relaxation. At the clippers, my horse gets a reward. Once things have calmed down, I turn the clippers on and start again.
STEP #4 – Another important point to note is that my clippers should be well-maintained and oiled. If they are not, the blades won’t cut the hairs nicely and may actually pull on them, causing the horse slight discomfort. Plan your clips, so you don’t accidentally take too much off and ensure both sides of your horse are even in whatever you do. A good rule of thumb for a bridle path is to gently bend one of the horse’s ear back and guide you to a length to clip – the tip of the ear laid back is generally where one would clip to. I have seen western bridle paths shorter than this of course (just enough to comfortably lay the headstall), and I have seen horses without bridle paths too. Check the rules of your association and discipline to ensure a bridle path is permissible to show and what length, if any, is required.
STEP #5 – When I have my horse confident with the running clippers, it’s time to start clipping hairs. Whether it’s the bridle path area, on his muzzle or elsewhere, I always ensure to gently lay the clippers against my horse’s skin enough to get the cutting done, but not so much that they’re digging into him. It’s important not to tickle the horse (which can happen if the clippers aren’t applied firmly enough) but also not pressing too hard into him either. Luckily most of today’s modern clippers are made with great protective blades so it’s difficult to cut your horse.
STEP #6 – When clipping, use long over-lapping strokes that go with the direction of hair growth. Some people prefer to go against the grain but I find clipping so much easier when you go with the hair follicles. Avoid forcing the clippers through an area you wish to clip. If the blades don’t seem to be cutting the hairs, they may need cleaning, sharpening or oiling. Part way through your clip session, you may need to clean and oil your clipping blades. I find that I often have to do this every 10 minutes.
Clay Webster is a professional trainer with over 21 years in the industry. He specializes in the disciplines of reining and cow horse. For more information about him, check out: www.claywebster.com