Proving to your horse that you are trustworthy — a clipper story

“We have a horse who we are told is terrified of clippers. He’s LBI and very accepting of most things. We’ve not actually had him near any clippers since we’ve had him but I’d rather approach it from the point of view of building his confidence than ‘turn them on and see what happens’…”

First of all — very savvy to think about building his confidence BEFORE testing his view of clippers.

So, let’s think about how to build confidence with an object — well, we know it is all about approach and retreat so all we have to do is work out how to do approach and retreat with clippers, right?

Well, yes, in one way this is right. However, we could also use this as an opportunity to strengthen our relationship with our horse overall, not just with respect to clippers.

Let’s define our goal: is it to have a horse confident with clippers — or could it be to have our horse trusting that anything we present to them is safe and can be tolerated?

Something I talk about in my workshops is the difference between direct and indirect learning.

For example, if my horse is not soft when she turns, I can approach it directly: I can work on turns until they get better.

Or I can approach it indirectly and find a pattern or exercise that just happens to use a lot of turns so my horse gets more practice, develops her balance and finds the reward herself of a smooth turn…(eg the cloverleaf pattern)

So let’s take a look at two different approaches to this concern.

First, a direct approach:

Being comfortable and confident when clipped is all about the friendly game — so in this approach we can break the use of clippers down into lots of small steps — and use approach and retreat to build up the friendly game.

Here are some ideas, in an order that makes sense:

– have an electric toothbrush running in the arena and rest it on the fence while you play the circling game past it…this builds comfort with the noise and sound before adding anything else into the equation

– have the toothbrush running in your pocket the whole time you are playing with your horse

– put the toothbrush in a bucket to change the quality and volume of the sound and play around the bucket

In all the above, the toothbrush is incidental to the game, you are not asking your horse to do anything to do with the tooth brush, just playing games and the toothbrush happens to be around.

– buy a hand held massager and repeat the above using that

– have the toothbrush and/or massager in your pocket every time you groom your horse…the noise becomes associated with good things

– IF by any chance your horse shows curiosity about the noise, reward it with a treat or good scratch — something your horse really cares about

While doing the above, get your horse used to being rubbed all over with your coat…do this until your horse is relaxed and happy with this – do this several days in a row…

Then you can think about accidentally leaving the toothbrush or massager on while you rub your horse all over with your coat…

See how we are building this up with really small steps? If a step goes well three times in a row (which can be in ten minutes or ten days) then move to the next step…if your horse struggles with a step, stay on it longer — at least 7 times in a row is a good plan.

So now let’s think of other small steps:

– while doing the other steps, practice simulating the clipping movements on your horse with your hands…

– then with a grooming brush

– then with something that looks like clippers but isn’t

– then introduce clippers — turned off, and cleaned so they don’t smell too strongly (just in case smell is a factor) and when grooming simulate clipping with them turned off

So by now, your horse is confident and relaxed with the noises and with the feel of the clipping movements. This time breaks previous associations with sound and feel.

So now you can simulate clipping with the clippers off….find the spot your horse is most confident with and start there…do approach and retreat to other areas and TOTALLY respect any brace…

Then, occasionally turn on the toothbrush in your pocket — or further away in your coat pocket while it hangs on the fence — while you simulate the movements…

Then, have a pair of clippers in your pocket turned on while you simulate the movements with another pair of clippers —

Once he is accepting this (and remember to reward confidence and relaxation) then you can add some pressure to the movement — really simulate the pressure and feel of clipping….

Now is a great time to bring back the electronic massager — and use THIS on your horse! How good will that feel to him? Use approach and retreat to build his confidence and comfort with this and do this until he is enjoying the process.

By now he will be almost totally reprogrammed with his responses to the sound and feel of things — time to have a helper be nearby with actual clippers running so the smell can be added to the equation. While you simulate clipping with the silent clippers, the helper can be doing approach and retreat with the clippers that are running – until you can reach the stage where the running clippers are so close you can start touching your horse with them…

And so we can build it all up block by block until our horse accepts clipping in a way that others would never have thought possible.

If at any step things are too much for him, back up at least TWO steps to find where the hole is — spend longer there before moving on again….

So this is the direct approach.

So what on earth would the indirect approach be?

Well first of all, we forget about the clippers. After all, it’s not about the clippers, right? We hear that all the time in natural horsemanship. I’ve even got a T shirt from a course that says “it’s not about the…”. So what IS it about?

It’s about the relationship.

It’s about your horse thinking – hmm, not sure what’s going on here, but I KNOW this human would never allow anything to hurt me.

How on earth do we get our relationship to that level?

Well that depends to a large extent on the character of our horse – some are more innately trusting than others. Some RB horses are looking for leaders and are happy to place their trust with someone who treats them fairly. Playing “stick your nose on that” and friendly game with multiple objects can work well over time.

Some horses are less eager to hand over trust. Let’s call these the sceptical ones, used to thinking for themselves. These are the ones who are used to using their own brains to get in and out of situations and so are not used to handing over trust to someone else.

Of course, just because they are used to using their brains, doesn’t always mean they use them the way WE would like them to be using them!

For example, my LBI mare has a habit of anticipating. This is great when we are playing some games as she sets herself up for things and it looks like magic when we play at liberty or online – when riding my aids can be invisible she is so ready to respond and already half way there using her mind reading tricks.

It is NOT so great when that anticipation turns into an ASSUMPTION. If she ASSUMES I want her to go through that gateway when I was planning to ask her to wait for me to go through first – well, you can see that can get pretty hairy.

And what if she ASSUMES I want her to wade through a stream, when I just want her to put one foot in? well, if she is at all worried about that stream, she isn’t going to wade through it –she is going to jump it with a massive leap that is VERY hard to sit. Ask me how I know about THAT example LOL

So what does this have to do with something like clipping? Well, if we have a horse who is ASSUMING things — then as soon as they hear the clippers, or see us coming towards them with clippers in our hands and intent in our hearts — well, what might they assume?

They might assume we are going to kill them…that is the first thought of a lot of horses when they don’t understand what is happening. So from their point of view they are fighting for their life.

They might assume that what is going to happen to them is the same as a previous time they heard that sound and saw that intent — they are going to be constrained and something will be forced on them –so from their point of view they are fighting for their dignity.

Or, they might assume that hear comes that daft human again and what on EARTH is she carrying this time — and does she have treats in her pocket — and is this an opportunity to get more good stuff from her?

Of course, that third one is what I want to create in my relationship with my horse.

So how do I do that?

I can share an example that illustrates some of the key points in building that sort of relationship…

I had a good working relationship with my LBI mare — but she had a tendency to make assumptions. I wanted to work on this so I set up a game: can you go up the lorry ramp backwards?

When we got back to a car park after a lovely long ride, I opened up my lorry and lowered the ramp. I positioned Evie about 20 feet away from the ramp — and asked her to take a step back. She went back about 10 feet – then very pointedly swung her back end to one side away from the ramp to take the next step. She also looked at me, then at the lorry, then back at me again. She was already assuming that I was going to make her go all the way up that ramp backwards and she wasn’t at all happy about that idea. Notice that I said she was assuming I was going to MAKE her do this. In fact, in our working relationship so far I probably HAD developed an element of MAKE in order to cope with her LB approach to things. Now I was going to have to change that if I wanted to change our relationship.

I said to myself “ok, that’s as far as you can go right now — thanks for trying” and led her back away from the ramp, repositioned her at the original 20 feet — and asked again. I was very polite — I wanted to make sure I was asking, not telling.

She went about 10 and a half feet back before swinging away this time.

I led her away and repositioned.

On the fifth time, she went back to within 2 feet of the ramp. I stopped her there and lowered my energy and we just stood there for a while. After about five minutes (it felt like an hour!) Evie lowered her head, relaxed her body, cocked her leg and licked and chewed. I took her away from the ramp for a graze.

What I had just proved to her was that I would not push her to do something she was not comfortable doing….and that I would reward a try — and relaxation.

After a short graze, I asked her to back up again — this time she went to within 6 inches of the ramp. I played the same approach and retreat game here right at the ramp edge. She swung her back end slightly from one side to the other — each time she did this I would move her a step away from the ramp and ask again…

After about 7 times, she lifted one hind foot and touched it on the ramp very quickly before putting it back on the ground.

I treated her like she was the Derby winner — she got treats, scratches and a long long graze. And then we loaded normally and I took her home.

A week later I asked her to back up to the ramp. Without hesitation she backed up and lifted a hind foot — and touched the ramp. I rewarded her, waited a few minutes — then asked for more.

Interestingly, this time, she was focused more on what I was asking and offered, one leg at a time, to put her two hind feet on the ramp. I dropped the rope. I was walking towards her to give her a treat when she lowered her head, sighed — and then completely backed into the lorry and turned herself to eat at her haynet.

Clever horse. Confident horse. Calm horse.

By taking the time to prove to her that I would go one step at a time, recognise when she was not totally comfortable and rewarding every try (and a try is going a little bit further mentally, emotionally or physically than the last time) she relaxed about the whole thing enough to be confident trying out something she herself thought of — not out of nervous anticipation, or fear for her life or dignity — just out of a calculated desire to reach the haynet she knew was in there.

So here’s your challenge — what can YOU do with YOUR horse to prove that you are not going to ask them to do anything they are not comfortable with, that you can be trusted?

The more of these games you can think of, the stronger your relationship will be — and you will be able to do things with your horse that no one else ever thought were possible.

My first horse was a chestnut mare that was scared of everything. After we had been together a year, I could walk into the field with balloons all over me (and this was on a windy day) — mount up and ride her WITH the balloons attached — and all she did was sigh with resignation at her crazy human.

Interestingly, when we tied the balloons to the gate post to go for lunch — she spooked at them.

How interesting.

I think with your horse and the clipping concerns, I would be thinking of how I could combine the direct and the indirect approaches to help set myself and my horse up for success.

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

yours in confidence,



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