News | 3 April 2023
How to clip a nervous horse
Everything you need to know about clipping a nervous horse from the experts at The Blue Cross, Burford.
A special thanks to the equine team at The Blue Cross, Burford for creating this helpful guide on approaching a nervous horse with clipping. The equine team at The Blue Cross are regularly confronted with horses from difficult backgrounds, and are trained on how to approach these situations, developing trust with the horses to build their confidence and overcome their fears.
Equine clipping made easy.
No one knows clipping quite like Lister, but those of us who use their world-renowned products also know, no one else knows your horse quite like you do.
So, what do we do when our horses are afraid and unsure of the sound and feel of clippers? We use our knowledge of equine behaviour, patience, and kindness to help them work through the uncertainty.
How do you gradually introduce horses to clippers?
When introducing horses to clippers for the first time, it’s a good idea to take things slowly and spend some time making sure your horse is comfortable with them, as this will help with all future encounters with the clippers.
Having your horse on the yard when another, more confident horse that is being clipped is a good idea. It gives them a chance to hear the clippers and see another horse with good body language, looking comfortable. Try giving them something nice, such as a snack ball, at the same time to help build early positive associations with the noise.
When you want to start the clipping process, you can start with something like an electric toothbrush or small trimmers as these produce a similar noise, albeit much quieter, as well as a gentle vibration. Run them over the horse with them switched off so that they learn that the new object is nothing to worry about. Once they are happy, build up slowly to approaching the horse with them switched on and reward any positive interactions, such as being curious and wanting to touch them. Once you can stand next to your horse without them reacting, try placing the toothbrush/trimmers on the back of your hand and then stroke your horse; the feel of your hand is something the horse will be used to, so it won’t feel as strange as having the trimmers put directly onto them.
Always take it step by step from where the horse is comfortable when introducing something new and remember to reward positive behaviour with something your horse likes such as a scratch or treat. If your horse is looking worried, take a step back and go slower.
What are the behavioural signs the horse may not be enjoying it or is nervous?
There are a few things to look out for that might indicate that your horse is not enjoying the interaction or is nervous. The obvious signs are things like high head carriage, fidgeting, snorting, being jumpy when approached, touched or when the clippers are turned on. Constantly trying to move away from you can also be an indicator that the horse is not comfortable.
Horses can show more subtle signs that they are not happy, these include things like tension in the nostrils, wrinkles above the eyes and a decrease in their blink rate. When horses are worried their blink rate generally reduces from 8-9 blinks per minute to around 5 or less blinks per minute. This is especially helpful to notice in the case of horses that ‘freeze’ when they are concerned about something. For example, cobs sometimes don’t show typical stress behaviours and will freeze instead, giving the impression that they are okay. It is good to be aware of different stress behaviours so that you can do your best to make sure your horse is having the best experience possible.
Do you use positive reinforcement and integrate it into their routine?
Positive reinforcement works well in horse training. Positive reinforcement is when we add something that is attractive to your particular horse; a wither scratch, a treat or even verbal praise. This makes a behaviour more likely in the future. For example, you place the clippers on the horse, they stand still, and you reward that.
We also use negative reinforcement, which is when we take away something aversive. In this case this would involve removing the clippers when they offer the correct behaviour. For example, when you touch the horse with the clippers, they may try to move away but you keep the clippers in contact with them until they stand still, then remove them. They soon learn that the way to remove the clippers is to stand still. This can then be combined with the positive reinforcement in order to train them to stand still whilst clipping.
Do you have any examples of horses that were difficult to clip but are now comfortable and happy with the process?
Yes, William was nervous about the clippers at the start but soon gained confidence when putting the above into practice. We took it slowly with him, doing training sessions little and often. So, we would spend a couple of minutes introducing the clippers then leave him to process his learning. We would do about five to six of these short sessions with him per day.
He also learned to target (touch) the clippers for a food reward. Once he was comfortable with the noise and feel of the clippers we started clipping, going with the direction of the coat. This technique reduced the resistance that you can feel when you hit a thicker patch of hair. Once he was happy with this and had some positive experiences, he was then comfortable enough to be clipped against the direction of the coat.
We hope this guide to clipping a nervous horse is helpful. If you have further questions or would like to learn more tips and tricks, please click through to visit our Blue Cross Webpage.