A winter coat provides your horse with all the protection he needs during cold weather, but it can pose a problem for you. Work your horse hard and he will overheat. His heavy coat will become drenched with sweat and could take hours to dry. Do you have the time to hand-walk him and rub him down? If you don't, and you put him away damp, your horse may catch a chill and get sick. So if you plan to train your horse through the winter, you probably should consider clipping him.
Like many horse-related tasks, successful clipping requires careful planning and preparation. Before you start, consider the financial investment you're willing to make. Buy the best large-animal clippers you can afford. (You probably already own small clippers, but if not you'll need those too. A good set of clippers will last years, provided you take care of them (see sidebar).
Clipping leaves your horse entirely vulnerable to winter elements, so you must blanket him after you clip. A full body clip will require a full set of blankets Ð a sheet, one or two warm stable rugs, plus turn-out and exercise blankets. That's a big investment, one you may be unwilling to make. In that case, choose a clip that leaves your horse with more hair and protection. (See sidebar)
One last financial item to consider. If you've never clipped before, it's worth having your horse clipped professionally, once, so you can watch and learn. (The cost of professional clipping varies, ranging between $85-125.) Perhaps you could offer to hold horses for a pro in return for a clipping lesson. Nothing beats hands-on experience, and learning how to clip from an expert will spare you the agony of botched clip jobs down the road.
Introducing the clippers
Give your horse time to get used to clippers long before you plan to clip him for the first time. A full body clip takes anywhere from 2-3 hours and your horse must stand quietly throughout the process Ð that's easier said than done!
Start with small clippers, as these create less noise and vibration and generally seem less threatening. Whenever you're introducing something new, like clippers, take your horse off the cross-ties and have someone hold him, just in case the machine frightens him and he attempts to pull back.
Try simply turning the clippers on as you groom him so gets used the sound they make. Then gradually run the clippers, turned off, over a large muscle area (like the neck or shoulder). Next lay your hand flat against his shoulder, then position the running clippers nagainst your hand so your horse can feel only a faint vibration. Gradually, move the running clippers next to the shoulder. If your horse pulls away, stay with him Ð remove the machine at that moment, and your horse will learn that flying backwards makes that scary thing go away. Instead talk soothingly to him and give him a carrot or two until he realizes the clippers aren't that terrifying. When your horse accepts the running clippers against his neck, try clipping his muzzle area. This whole process takes time Ð you may have to repeat this process for several days before your horse is ready to have his muzzle trimmed.
Once your horse calmly accepts small clippers, use the same procedure with the large clippers. Before you consider clipping, your horse should stand calmly while the clippers are run over his body Ð or at least those areas you intend to clip. Even well-behaved horses sometimes have trouble with large clippers Ð sensitive thoroughbreds, for example, often dislike the ticklish sensation against their skin. Should your horse become impatient, work only in short intervals (15-30 minutes) and plan to spend 2-3 days finishing the job.
Prepare to clip
When to clip? Ideally, let the horse's coat grow in somewhat before you clip. Most trainers begin clipping in early-October. You'll probably need to clip every six to eight weeks after that, depending on your training needs. Horses coats always look best about a week after they've been clipped; a newly cut coat loses sheen and makes horses appear a bit naked.
Bathe your horse before you clip him . A dirty horse will result in an uneven clip job Ð plus the dirt will cause your clippers to clog and overheat, and may even ruin your blades. Give your horse a proper soapy bath and allow him to dry thoroughly. (If you clip in the dead of winter, you may have to get by with hot towels and a sponge bath.) Once your horse is clean, some trainers suggest spraying the coat with silicone spray (let this dry, too) to help the clippers glide more easily across the skin.
It's easy to cut your horse's mane by mistake when you're clipping the neck. So I like to put my horse's mane up in training braids to keep it out of the way. Similarly, I'd suggest putting a tail wrap on, just to prevent lost hairs from an off-base swipe of the clippers.
Find a well-lighted area for clipping and make sure the horse stands on level ground. Wear clothes that are "hair proof" Ð you'll be covered after you've finished. I like to wear a nylon running suit, since the hair just slides off that material. Wear paddock boots or sensible shoes that allow you to move quickly yet offer some protection. If you're clipping a youngster of a horse who has never been clipped, consider wearing a helmet when you're working on the legs or under the belly.
Always start with new or freshly sharpened blades and clean, oiled clippers. Make sure you have all your equipment ready to go before you start. You'll need large and small clippers, an extension cord, blade wash ready in a container large enough to dunk the clippers into, clipper oil, old towels, and a step ladder or portable mounting block (to stand on while you do your horse's back and rump).
Select the clip you prefer (see "Types of Clips") before you begin. If you choose anything but a full clip, mark lines in chalk or masking tape on your horse's body, so you'll have a guide. Try to create lines in accordance with the horse's own musculature. The muscles at the top of the foreleg, for example, can be quite easily defined and the clip line should follow this if you're leaving your horse's legs unclipped. To delineate the saddle area, put your saddle on your horse's back and trace the area around it in chalk. When you're defining lines for a blanket or trace clip, stand behind your horse and check to make sure that the lines on either side of his body are level.
Start clipping on a large muscle area, like the shoulder or rump, where your horse is probably less sensitive. Always clip against the direction of hair growth. This means that you'll have to turn the clippers around accordingly in certain parts of your horse's body, like his flank , elbow, and chest. If your horse's coat contains a circular whorl Ð on his neck or whithers, perhaps Ð you'll have to turn your clippers around in a circle, too, to follow the hair growth.. Clip in long, straight patches, then go back over the area you've cut, moving the clippers up or down just a bit. If you always retrace your clip with each new blade swipe, you'll avoid unsightly and uneven lines.
Hold the clippers lightly against the horse's coat, and use smooth, even pressure at all times. Too much pressure will make your horse uncomfortable; too little pressure won't allow your clippers to cut the hair well. Whenever you work in a sensitive area, like the flank or delicate skin around the girth, rest your free hand against the horse's skin to keep it taunt as you clip.
Once your horse gets accustomed to the clipping, clip your lines soon after you start, so your blades are sharpest. To clip a line, hold your hand against the horse's skin (to keep the area as taunt and still as possible) then turn your clippers flat against the lines and follow it with a bit more pressure than you'd use on the body. To neaten an edge, turn your clippers sideways to catch stray hairs Ð or place the blade head upright against the line and lift the clippers away.
When you clip above the tail, create a neat upside-down v that's perfectly centered over the tail. When you clip against the off (left) side of your horses neck, take particular care to keep this line straight, since it will stand out when the horse's mane is braided.
Whenever the clippers start to feel hot in your hand, or if the clippers sound strained in any way, stop and run them in blade wash. You can buy a commercial variety, or create your own wash using kerosene, a kerosense-rubbing alcohol or a kerosene-motor oil mixture. With the clippers running, loosen the tension screw on the blades, then dunk the head of the clippers into the blade wash and let it run for a few minutes. Pick the clippers up, then wipe them off with a towel so you don't get kerosene on your horse's coat. Oil the blades, tighten the tension screw, and you're ready to begin clipping again. During clipping, you probably need to use the blade wash every 10 minutes or so; a heavier coat may make the clippers get hotter faster, since they're working harder.
Watch your horse for signs of aggitation or discomfort at all times. Stay alert and be careful; even the quietest horse can kick out if you surprise him in a sensitive area with the clippers. It's always better to take a break and resume clipping later rather than risk upsetting your horse.
Use small clippers on your horse's head and ears. To match the cut of your large clippers, use a #10 blade on your small clippers. If you're clever and careful, you can also use small clippers on difficult parts of the horse's body, like the elbow. This requires tactful use of pressure, however, so that the areas you cut with the small clippers look just like those trimmed with large clippers.
After you've clipped
Bathe your horse, or at least rub him down with a hot towel, to remove any traces of kerosene, oil, or silicone from his body after clipping. Then dry your horse thoroughly and blanket him at once. You've created quite a shock to his system by removing his warm, furry coat, so make him comfortable right away. If planning allows, try not to pick the most frigid day in January to clip Ð if by some chance you do, then rug your horse well in several layers until he can get used to his new skin. (If you're clipping on a particularly frigid winter day, keep your horse covered as you clip.)
Remember to keep your newly clipped horse warm at all times. Don't take his blankets off and leave him standing around shivering as you groom him. Keep a blanket draped over one section of his body as you work on another. When you ride, start with an exercise rug or cooler. As your horse warms up, you can probably drop the rug, but put it back on the minute you're done working so your horse won't catch a chill as he cools out.
Clipping demands a big investment or your time and money. But learn to do the job safely and correctly, and you'll make winter riding a lot more manageable for you and your horse.
Sidebar # 1 Ð Types of clips
There are many types of clip patterns, all suited to different requirements of exercise and winter care. For horses in full work or who intend to show, a full clip may be required. For showing, full clips are the norm. For eventing and dressage, other types of clipping patterns are acceptable.
Many novice clippers find the horse's legs particularly difficult to clip, so a hunter clip may be the answer. For this pattern, leave the horse's legs and saddle patch unclipped; you can also choose to leave the head unclipped. Leaving hair on the horse's legs also affords some protection against nicks and scrapes, so if you're turning out or riding outdoors during the winter, you may choose to ignore those hairy legs.
If you're riding outdoors during the winter or wish to blanket a bit less, consider a trace or blanket clip. The legs remain unclipped for both of these patterns, and you can decide whether you'll want to clip the head or not for either one. For a trace clip, remove the hair on the underside of the jaw, down the jugular and front of his neck, down his chest, between his legs, under his belly, and along each side of his body stopping at a designated point between hip and shoulder. A trace clip can be as high or as low as one selects, depending on how hard you plan to work your horse throughout the winter For a blanket clip, a large patch covering the horses back, loins, and croup remain unclipped along with the horse's legs.
With either a blanket or trace clip, you can get away without using an exercise rug, since the horse's back will be protected from the cold. While you still need to blanket with either clip, you can probably do with one less layer, since the hair you've left will afford some warmth to the horse.
Sidebar # 2 --Clipper care
Beth Francis of Buzzards Bay, MA runs a clipper repair and blade sharpening business, Arrow Sharpening Service. She offers these tips for giving your clippers a long and productive life:
* Clip with the proper amount of tension in your blades. To check this, turn your clippers on and loosen the tension screw until your blades start to clatter. When they sound loose, tighten the screw until you feel tension under your thumb, them tighten it 1/2 turn more. Too much tension will cause the blades to work too hard Ð your clippers will get hot quickly. Too little tension will result in uneven clipping. Recheck the tension as you wash and oil the clippers.
* Whenever you hear you clippers strain, or when they become hot, stop immediately and dunk the clipper head in blade wash, then oil the blades. Skipping this step, or letting your clippers run hot, will strain the clipper's motor.
* Constantly remove hair from your clippers and blades. When you've finished clipping, take the blades off and remove any hair you find, then oil the blades and wrap the clippers in a dry towel before you use them again.
* Send your blades out for sharpening after you've clipped 3 or 4 horses. You can probably get 7 or 8 sharpenings out of a pair of blades before you need to replace them. You can buy your own sharpening equipment, or send your blades out to a service.
* Send your clippers out for cleaning and overhaul once a year if you clip frequently; every two years if you only clip once or twice.
* Clipping a dry horse is always best but if you have to clip a wet horse, make sure you run the blades through blade wash and oil them the instant you're finished clipping. Otherwise they blades can rust solid.
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