How to Clip and Bathe Safely
Clipping and bathing can be safe, efficient, and positive experiences for you and your horse.
Wouldn't it be nice if clipping and bathing your horse were as simple as giving yourself a shave and a shampoo? You'd be done in 15 minutes or less, with no fuss and no frustration. But for many horse owners, clipping and bathing are among the most challenging barn chores, especially when you're dealing with a young, scared, or impatient horse. With some common sense, a hefty dose of patience, and spare time on your hands, you can make clipping and bathing your horse a safe, efficient, and positive experience for you and your four-hooved friend, whether it's his first or 50th time under the blades (or the hose).
Before you grab your clippers or your shampoo, find a safe area in which to work. Brian Egan, MS, an equine science instructor at Pennsylvania State University, teaches horse handling and training classes while also teaching the school's young horses. He recommends that you bathe and clip in an area clear of obstructions.
Bath Training Tips
- Remove the hose nozzle and turn on the water at a low level.
- Start on the horse's front legs, near the feet. If the horse is comfortable with this, gradually move up the leg to the shoulder, then proceed to the hind legs, slowly moving up to the stifle.
- Once the horse is accustomed to having his legs hosed, gradually work your way up and back along the body. When your horse is comfortable with water being hosed over his entire body, you can put the nozzle on and repeat the process.
- Leave the head for last; leave the nozzle off the hose for this step. There are several methods for getting your horse accustomed to having his face hosed. For example, you can reach up the neck and let a trickle fall between the horse's ears. Or you can let the horse drink from the hose, then slowly work up his jaw until you're hosing over his forehead (keeping your forearm across the horse's face seems to help keep him calm, although your arm will get soaked).
Sushil Dulai Wenholz
"A scared horse will try to get away," he explains. "If there are things he can jump into or through, he's in danger."
Nancy Diehl, MS, VMD, is a former Penn State assistant professor of equine science who has a particular interest in equine behavior and worked for nine years as an equine practitioner; she's currently the commission veterinarian for the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Diehl notes that, "You don't want things like rakes, pitch forks, or even ditches around. At best, the horse is going to get scared. At worst, it's going to make him think of clipping or bathing as a bad thing."
Good lighting is a benefit not only to help you see, but also to increase the horse's psychological comfort level. A solid, but forgiving floor that offers a bit of traction is another important element. Try to avoid concrete, since it can be slippery especially when it's wet or if your horse wears shoes, says Egan. A rubber mat provides softness and some traction; dirt is okay for clipping, but is not a wise choice for bathing your horse, since it will turn to mud.
Also, says Egan, "Work in a place that your horse is accustomed to and comfortable in," especially if it's his first experience with a bath or clippers. This way, Egan explains, you're giving the horse just one new thing to think about. He prefers to clip horses in their stalls (not an option for bathing). This not only provides a familiar, comfortable atmosphere, but also gives the horse no chance to escape, even if he's untied or breaks loose from the lead rope.
Next, have an assistant help you. "Having someone with you is a big plus," says Egan. "An assistant can hold the horse and, if necessary, apply a twitch."
- Keep clipper lubricant and cleaner handy, and spray the blades frequently (dirty, gummed-up clippers won't cut as smoothly and will dull faster).
- Take short breaks to allow hot blades to cool (this also helps keep the blades sharp). While you wait, give your horse a short walk so he gets a break, too.
- Keep spare blades on hand and switch to a fresh pair if the current pair stops cutting smoothly or begins pulling the hair.
- To most efficiently and quickly shave to the skin, clip against the lay of the hair. For a "longer" cut or to blend shaved areas with unshaved areas, clip with the lay of the hair.
- Turn clippers on while standing away from the horse, not right next to him, to minimize the "startle" effect.
- Start clipping on less ticklish areas, such as the shoulder.
Sushil Dulai Wenholz
He emphasized the importance of a helper, especially if you've never clipped or bathed a horse, so that you won't get hurt or inadvertently give your horse a negative experience.
Can you simply tie your horse instead of having someone hold him? Yes, but it's a truly safe option only if your horse is the type to practically (or literally) fall asleep during bathing and clipping. If you're dealing with a young horse or one who is already frightened of clipping or bathing, tying can create a negative experience--if the horse gets scared, he'll likely pull back on the lead, creating pressure on his head and a sensation of being "trapped."
Even with a horse which is at ease with the process, Egan recommends untying the animal and having your helper hold him when you work on the ears. "You're somewhat in front of the horse when you work on his ears," he says. "If he's tied, there's a chance of you getting stuck between the horse and what he's tied to. If he's held, you can at least move him away from the wall or hitching rail."
As a final caution, Egan warns you to be wary around the horse's head, and never lean over your horse's head. "The horse's head is unpredictable. It's a weapon, and the horse will use it to defend himself," he says. "Even the gentlest horse in the world can spook and throw its head up."
If your head is in the way, you could face serious injury. Egan also advises people not to step up on a bucket or stool to reach the horse's head because the horse could easily knock you off.
It is best to train your horse to lower its head for clipping, bathing, and grooming. However, if you must stand on something to reach your horse's head, make sure it is stable, placed at the horse's side, and that you have room to get away if the horse acts up and knocks you off the stand.
Time To Behave
Some of the most common behavior problems related to clipping and bathing revolve around the head. Horses frequently toss their heads because they are afraid of the noise or vibration of clippers, or of water shooting out of a hose or trickling off a sponge, notes Diehl. The reaction can range from a slight fling to a dangerous frenzy of shaking, throwing, and pulling back. In addition, the horse might refuse to stand still.
It's easy to get frustrated under these circumstances (especially if you're in a time crunch), but forcing your will on the horse in order to get the job done now will only make things worse. "Haste and hurry are the root of many problems," says Diehl.
Egan agrees, saying, "If there's a time constraint, people tend to get frustrated, then they tend to get violent with the horse." A horse learns very quickly about negative consequences--one bad experience with the clippers or the hose will cement in his mind that this is a bad thing.
The key, then, whether you're teaching a young horse or retraining a scared one, is to take your time and work hard to make every clip job and every bath a good experience, agree Diehl and Egan.
"Introduce things slowly," encourages Egan. "Desensitize your horse. Give him a chance to get used to the noise of the clippers, for instance." (See "Terrible or Tolerant?" on TheHorse.com for helpful behavior modification techniques.) Make sure that the horse is thoroughly broken to handle before you even attempt clipping or bathing him, agree Egan and Diehl. (Egan typically doesn't clip the Penn State horses until they're nine to 10 months old.)
A similar theory applies if you need to clip or bathe your horse away from home, says Diehl. "First, establish the training and proper behavior at home." Otherwise, says Egan, you're introducing two new things at once, and that can be overwhelming. Furthermore, notes Diehl, you're in double jeopardy trying to teach something new in a show environment, because the facilities "tend to be less safe than your home barn. There are often wires everywhere, the aisles are narrow, and there's no protection if your horse gets away from you," she says. (This is why Egan encourages you to clip or bathe your horse in a confined area, if at all possible.) Again, having an assistant help you control the horse is a big plus.
In some cases, you might find that your horse behaves like an angel when you clip and bathe at home, but is a terror on the road. Often this is due to the increased distractions. In that case, says Diehl, "Consider going to shows not to compete, but to dedicate some time to re-training, without the hurry and stress of actually being in the show." Be patient. Just as it might take several training sessions at home to develop the positive behavior you seek, it might take several "dry runs" to establish good clipping and bathing behavior on the road.
Twitches And Tranquilizers
Many people, says Diehl, view the time-intensive slow road to good behavior as a waste of time. They'd rather slap on a twitch or administer a sedative to gain the upper hand with an out-of-control horse. That's not always a bad thing, Diehl admits. "These are short cuts," she confirms. "But twitches, if applied well and used judiciously, can help you get something done. And, while some people say that a sedated horse isn't learning, he's not completely unconscious, either. He still has some ability to perceive what's happening and to have a more positive experience than if you had to treat him roughly without the sedation. I have seen many horses that eventually don't need sedation anymore."
Furthermore, says Egan, "Any time you can do the job quicker, it's easier and less stressful on the horse."
The key, Diehl continues, is first to use the tools properly. Don't leave a twitch on for too long or apply it roughly, because the horse will learn to hate not only the clipping/bathing process, but also the twitch. (Egan likes hand-held twitches "because you can tighten it if the horse acts up, then loosen it as soon as he behaves. It's pressure and release training," he says.) Don't become dependent on tranquilizers as a means of avoiding proper training.
To reach a point of proper control, you need to couple proper usage with solid clipping and bathing skills, so you can perform the tasks quietly and efficiently. Put it all together, says Diehl, "and you can end up with a horse learning that clipping or bathing is not such a bad thing after all."
Health Concerns And Misconceptions
From training to riding to management, horse ownership is fraught with misconceptions and misunderstandings. Clipping and bathing are no exceptions. Perhaps one of the most common myths is that bathing a horse in cold weather will make him sick, a theory undoubtedly based on mothers' advice over the years to stay out of the cold with wet hair. In reality, Diehl says, "If you bathe a horse in cold weather, he's going to be cold. He may even be miserable. But he's not going to catch a cold."
Respiratory infections are caused by a virus, she explains, and your horse (like you) can't catch a virus just by being cold and wet. However, your horse can become more vulnerable to a virus if you stress his immune system. And certainly making him excessively cold counts as a stressor. Combine it with other strains, such as hard work or poor nutrition, and your horse could indeed come down with a nasty respiratory disorder.
To make a cold-weather bath less stressful, use warm water, keep your wet horse out of the wind, and make sure he's dry before putting him up. Egan recommends blanketing the wet horse with a wool cooler that will keep him warm while wicking water away from the hair.
Many people wonder why you shouldn't turn out a horse which is wet from bathing (or sweating), but it's okay to leave out a horse who is wet from snow or rain. (Who hasn't seen a horse enjoying a good rain shower or standing contentedly under a snowy "overcoat?") The difference is that a horse which has been bathed is wet right down to his skin (as is a sweaty horse). His hair is matted down and has lost its insulating ability, explains Diehl. On the other hand, a horse with a heavy coat in the rain or snow is only wet on the outside; if you work your fingers under the top layer of hair, you'll find dry hair and dry, warm skin underneath.
Let Common Sense Reign
Just because you can safely bathe your horse in winter doesn't mean you should. If your horse lives in a relatively clean environment and you don't have a show tomorrow, skip the bath. Often, a good grooming is all you really need to keep that insulating "loft" in the horse's coat, remove dirt and grime, and keep the skin healthy, says Diehl. "And if your horse has a skin condition that really needs some sort of medicated bath, you can usually spot bathe as opposed to giving a full body bath," she adds.
The same goes for clipping, says Egan: "Hair is on the horse for a reason. So if you don't need to clip your horse, don't." And if you do remove this valuable warming component, says Diehl, "Realize that you're significantly altering your horse's physical attributes, so now you need to take responsibility for him and blanket him." (Along the same lines, says Diehl, when you clip a horse's ears during warm weather, "you're taking away a protection, so you need to take care of the horse" with bug repellents and, if needed, skin soothers.) Egan agrees, saying, "Common sense should win out. If it's 50 below outside, I wouldn't shave the horse and just turn him out. After all, would you shave yourself bald and go out in that weather without a hat on? I don't think so."
About the Author
Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.
POLL: Managing Working Horses