How can I trim my horse's sensitive ear?

Hunter/jumper trainer Julia Seltz explains how to gain a horse's trust and get him accustomed to having his ears clipped.
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Hunter/jumper trainer Julia Seltz explains how to gain a horse's trust and get him accustomed to having his ears clipped.

Q: My horse hates to have one of his ears trimmed with clippers. I actually can’t do that ear. However, he’s fine with the other ear. Why is this and how can I get him used to the clippers on his bad ear?

As part of the process to get your horse used to clippers near his ear, slowly rub your way up his neck to his poll and then as close as you can get to his ear without upsetting him. © Paula da Silva/arnd.nl

As part of the process to get your horse used to clippers near his ear, slowly rub your way up his neck to his poll and then as close as you can get to his ear without upsetting him. © Paula da Silva/arnd.nl

JULIA SELTZ 

A: Several different problems can result in such a dramatic aversion to clippers. Your horse may have suffered a traumatic injury or a bad experience with a former owner. If you are in touch with his previous owner, ask if he ever hurt his ear, for example, by hitting it on something in his stall. Bad human-related experiences may be harder to ask about. Some people try to restrain and subdue horses by grabbing one ear and bending it over, occasionally to the point where it causes serious pain and even damage. This memory takes a long time to overcome. 

Other possible roots of the problem include mites, ticks, foreign bodies and spider bites. If you can see inside your horse’s ear, look for ticks, foreign objects and unusual bumps. Small, colorless bumps indicate bites from mites, whereas larger colored bumps are more characteristic of spider bites. Mites can be treated with medication. (Consult your veterinarian if you suspect your horse has them.) Unfortunately, there’s no treatment for spider bites, although it’s fine to swab them periodically with cotton gauze and an antiseptic such as Betadine®. (Never pour water or liquid down the ear! This will make the situation worse.) Although rarely dangerous, spider bites can cause a great deal of discomfort, so treat that ear with extra care until the bite goes away.

If your horse’s ear is too fuzzy to see inside, ask your veterinarian to sedate him, clip the ear and examine it. He or she can also look for signs of equine external otitis, which can be treated medically. 

If nothing appears wrong medically, make a gradual step-by-step plan to teach your horse to accept the clippers on his sensitive ear. Always work with him in the kindest way possible, using treats at the beginning and end of each session to help him understand that this can be a positive experience. If you have a safe grooming area or wash stall with rubber mats, work on your horse there. Instead of attaching his halter to cross-ties, connect two lead ropes or stall guards together in front of him at about chest height to serve as a barrier. That way, if he raises his head, he won’t feel confined by the pressure of the cross-ties. If you don’t have a suitable grooming area, ask a friend to hold his lead rope in a gentle, forgiving way (avoid yanking on the rope or overly restricting his head movements). 

Next, get on a step stool (a safe one with no legs that your horse can get tangled in) or mounting block placed by your horse’s head. Give him a treat, then rub his neck and crest while speaking in a calm voice. Slowly rub your way up to his poll and then as close as you can get to his ear without upsetting him. If you can, massage his ear lightly while saying “good boy.” If he pulls away, simply go back to rubbing his poll near the ear. Don’t ever try to fight with him. 

Spend as little as one minute in this first session. Repeat the process every day, gradually lengthening the duration of the session to five minutes, then 10 minutes, then 20. (I know most people are very busy, but it really is worth spending this much time. Problems like this are never cured in a single session.) Over a span of many sessions, progress from lightly touching the ear to gently massaging it all over. Use plenty of verbal praise and treats to reward him for every improvement, no matter how small it is. 

When your horse is allowing you to massage his ear, introduce the clippers, first turned off. Run them over his poll and face around the ear, then eventually over the ear, praising him all the while. Take as many sessions as necessary to gain his trust in this process. When you finally turn on the clippers to let him hear the noise, hold them several inches away from his ear, again reassuring him with your voice. Then move the clippers around his brow and ears without touching him at all. When he seems comfortable with that, briefly touch the ear with the clippers. Build on that over subsequent sessions.

Even after weeks of practice, it may be necessary to break your horse’s ear trimming into multiple sessions so he has to endure only a little bit of clipping at a time. Remember, the more patient you can be with him, the greater your chances of success will be overall. 

Depending on the root and severity of your horse’s problem, he may never entirely overcome his fear of the clippers on this ear. If you’re absolutely desperate (for example, preparing for an upcoming show), ask a friend to distract him with a “pinch and twist.” Have her grab a pinch of skin on his neck and twist it hard. Then you can stealthily approach his ear from the poll and quickly trim it. Using a twitch is another option, as is sedation. (Ask your veterinarian to assist you with the latter. Note: Never drug a horse within three days of a recognized show; a positive test can ban you from future shows.) But these are all last-resort methods. Gaining your horse’s trust with kindness and patience is a far more positive, long-lasting approach. 

Hunter/jumper trainer Julia Seltz left a career in the entertainment business 10 years ago to ride and groom horses. She volunteered as an apprentice groom at Arbor Lanes Farm in Los Angeles, California, before being hired as a professional groom for many hunter/jumper trainers, including Rosey Reed, Tommi Clark and Shauna Pennell, as well as dressage trainer Camilla Fritze. Sometimes in charge of as many as 20 horses at a time, Julia developed the skills for keeping horses happy and healthy and for making them look their best both in and out of the show ring. As one of her employers often said, “The horse should go out looking like a diamond, schooling or showing.” Currently based in Pasadena, California, Julia teaches fundamental horsemanship, riding and horse care at San Pascual Stables and grooms and schools jumpers for grand-prix rider Nicolas Rossi at Sterckx Stables. She is also a contributing editor for the West Coast publication The Equestrian News.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.