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Youngster Hates Clipping

16 August 2011 No Comment

Youngster Hates Clipping
Laura Phelps-Bell has over 25 years experience in the equine industry as a trainer and instructor. Her background includes successfully competing in dressage, on the “A” Open circuit in hunter/jumpers, showing in many western events, management of several large training/boarding facilities and teaching equine management courses at the college level. More about Laura

Hi. I have a two-year-old gelding who absolutely HATES to have his muzzle clipped. I can clip his entire body and face without a problem. I have tried the slow and easy approach with no luck. I also tried twitching, as soon as I touched his nose with the clippers he reared and struck out. The last time I had the vet out and we tranq’d him just so I could clip his muzzle. I would rather not have to tranq him in the future, but I am at a loss on what else to try. Thanks for any help!!

Most often when horses are reactive to being clipped on certain parts of their bodies, it’s either because of fear of the noise of the clippers, (especially with the ears or bridlepath), or because of the sensation of the actual hairs and whiskers being clipped. A horse’s whiskers on their muzzle and the whiskers above and below their eyes (not the lashes) are like very sensitive “feelers”, kind of like a cat’s whiskers. When I’m not showing my horses, I usually let the muzzle and eye whiskers grow out longer and only clip a bridlepath so I can put on their bridles and halters more easily without having to separate forelocks and manes. Even when showing, I never clip the eye whiskers any shorter then 1/2″ long and the muzzle whiskers are left at least a 1/4″ long because I want those whiskers to continue to work as “feelers” to hopefully avoid an eye injury, or the horse bumping their nose into things in the dark. Lucky for me, I don’t show halter where it is the “norm” to clip most every hair or whisker that sticks out from the horse’s body. I believe in horse’s looking well groomed and neat for showing purposes, but I disagree with sanding hooves and applying hoof black, and fully clipping out ears and clipping eye and muzzle whiskers totally off. I think that a horse can look well groomed, neat and clean without doing those things and I prove that every time I go out and successfully show in performance classes in dressage, huntseat and western.

Your gelding sounds like he is sensitive about his muzzle whiskers because he may be feeling a tickling, or very slight pinching that startles him when they are clipped. He might also be slightly sensitive to the vibration from the clippers on his muzzle as well. When he gets startled, he reacts by instinct and tries to protect himself by rearing and striking. He doesn’t sound to me like a mean or aggressive horse in the least, just a horse that gets reactive and tries to protect himself from something he thinks is going to hurt him. In a way, he has been hurt because he also now associates the clippers with the twitch and/or the vet poking him with a needle. To him, it just seems the clippers on his muzzle is negative when all he’s trying to do is protect himself from possible harm.

I would begin to re-condition his behavior by using blunt-tip scissors and getting him used to the whiskers being cut. Have your gelding on a halter and lead and don’t tie him, or have anyone try to “hold him down” or get combative with him. He won’t be able to withdraw by walking (or running) away because he’s on the halter and lead, but we don’t want to “get after” him either. Sometimes we get lured into going off in other directions when we’re working with our horse’s and we lose sight of that which we set out to work on. A human is never perfect and neither is a horse, especially not a 2-year-old like your horse. We want to avoid having any negativity during these re-conditioning sessions, so unless your boy does something that is really, really bad, just ignore the behavior and continue on with what you are doing, remaining at all times patient and calm. Along with this, I would incorporate modified clicker training in which when you are able to cut even one single whisker, immediately “mark” the good behavior by saying “good” and then giving him a treat of a piece of carrot or a little handful of grain. By teaching him that having his whiskers cut is not a hurtful thing and in fact leads to the positive of a carrot treat when he stands quiet for it, you will eliminate the negative of fear, or anticipation of pain that he might associate with having his muzzle whiskers cut or clipped. Once you can cut the whiskers with scissors with him standing quietly, then re-introduce the clippers using modified clicker training as well. Make sure that you are using a 10 blade and not a surgical blade as we aren’t interested in clipping that close to his skin as you re-introduce the clippers. You can switch to a 30 or 40 blade later on if you want a closer clip once he accepts the clippers on his muzzle as non-aggressive, and a positive instead of a negative. I would hold the clippers in my hand and then lay the back of my hand against the side of his cheek first and when he stands well for something he already accepts, “mark” the positive behavior with the word “good” and then give him a treat. Then move down to his jaw-line and repeat the “good” and reward system. Then move your hand down to his muzzle and rest the back of your hand against his muzzle and let him feel the vibration through your hand against his muzzle. If he even stands quiet for half a second feeling the vibration through your hand onto his muzzle, say “good” and reward and then repeat until through several repetitions of positives from your gelding and “good” and reward from you, he stands quietly for the vibration of the clippers against his muzzle. When you introduce the clipping edge of the clippers to his muzzle, start with the back of your hand first, letting him feel the vibration through your hand and then turn your hand over and clip one whisker and then withdraw the clippers, tell him “good” and reward immediately. Sessions should be short and you should plan on taking several sessions to get him comfortable with something that has unfortunately turned out to be very negative for him. It will take a while to totally erase the negative and replace it with positive, but by working patiently and slowly, I’m sure that you will convince your horse that clipping his muzzle is not going to hurt him and it is in fact a rather positive experience of praise and rewards for standing quietly and not becoming reactive.


Laura Phelps-Bell

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