Clipping some or all of your horse’s long winter coat will save hours of time cooling him off after rides. It will simplify daily grooming and create a neat, tidy appearance. It also will mean, of course, that you’ll need to blanket him both indoors and outside on cold days and nights. Many people trace clip or partially body clip (leaving the hair long on the legs and face) to train over the winter and go to clinics, but if you’re competing during the colder months of the year and really want to impress the judges, consider giving your horse a full-body clip.
Most horses tolerate the process of body clipping well so long as you’re careful to keep the clipper temperature from getting too hot, maintain a steady, comfortable pressure, and avoid cutting any loose skin accidentally. If you’ve never clipped a horse before, don’t be afraid to ask an experienced horseperson to demonstrate the basic techniques before you get started. Even if you have lots of experience, if you’re working with a horse you’ve never clipped before, plan your session when there will be someone else in the barn who can lend a hand if necessary.
Plan enough time to complete the full-body clipping in one day. That way, the hair will all start growing in again at the same time so you won’t have uneven lengths. If this is your first time body clipping, give yourself at least three hours (plus toilet breaks for you and your horse).
Throughout the entire clipping process, pay close attention to where you are standing in relation to your horse’s legs. Be prepared to get out of his way if he moves suddenly. And never position yourself directly in front of him—where he could strike out with a front leg—or directly behind him—where he could kick you.
What You’ll Need
Before you begin clipping, make sure all of your equipment is in an area that is easily accessible yet also safe from being stepped on by your horse. Some people use two different sets of clippers—one for the body and head and another for finer details like the fetlocks and base of the mane—but I get the whole job done with one set of clippers and interchangeable blades. Be sure to read the manufacturer’s directions about care (oiling, cleaning, etc.) for your particular clippers before beginning.
What size blades you use depends on the season and your personal preference. I generally use a T10 or T84 for clipping the main body and a #10 for clipping close to the mane and for trimming the legs of fine-legged horses. You’ll also need:
• Witch hazel and a clean cloth to wipe down your horse at the end of the job
• Clipper oil*
• Clipper cleaning fluid*
• Clipper coolant*
• Brush and cloth for wiping hair off the blades
*Note: You can use an all-in-one lubricant/cleaner/coolant twice during the process—once after finishing one side of your horse and then again at the end of the job. I don’t recommend using it more frequently than that, though, because it can rust the blades over time. Rely more heavily on your regular oil to keep the clippers running efficiently.
Clip the Body
1. Always make safety your number-one priority. If this is your first time clipping your horse, ask a friend to hold him or leave one cross-tie unfastened (to prevent him from panicking, which is more common when horses feel confined by cross-ties) until you’re sure he’ll stand quietly.
If you’re using corded clippers, always run the cord strategically around a mounting block to eliminate any risk of your horse stepping on it. Metal shoes and electrical cords don't mix. Never pull the cord over his back, between his legs or underneath his belly. The feeling of the cord can be very spooky for horses.
2. If you haven’t clipped your horse before, test his reaction to the body clippers by placing one of your hands on his side, turning on the clippers and pressing them against your arm. The vibration will travel through your arm and into his body. Watch his face to see how he reacts to the sound and feel. If he appears worried or agitated, proceed slowly with the next steps, taking extra special care around sensitive areas like the flanks.
3. Begin with the largest muscle masses, which absorb more vibration and are therefore most comfortable for horses. Running the clippers over bonier areas is more jarring, so save those areas for later when your horse is most relaxed. Start at the shoulder, well out of kicking and biting range, and always keep your spare hand in contact with the horse. This way, you’ll sense any tension building up and can try to avert problems before they happen.
4. Make each stroke against the direction of the hair growth, applying steady, even pressure for the entire stroke. Keep the stroke length within a comfortable arm’s range so you don’t have to move your body to complete it. Also avoid very short strokes, which are inefficient and create more track lines. To reduce track lines even further, make each fresh stroke overlap the previous stroke by one-quarter of the blade’s width. Clip all of the hair you can comfortably reach from one location, then move a step and tackle the next section.
It might take a little practice to achieve just the right amount of pressure. With too little pressure, the clippers will bounce on and off the horse, missing some hairs and cutting in uneven lengths. With too much pressure, you’ll make your horse uncomfortable and leave track lines. Imagine using the same amount of pressure that you would use to make an indentation with your thumb on a ripe tomato or grape without piercing its skin.
5. Every two to three minutes, check the blade temperature: Turn off the clippers and place the blades against the back of your hand. If the temperature is uncomfortably hot on your skin, oil the clippers more frequently. Oiling the clippers helps to keep the temperature down. You can never use too much oil, so err on the side of more frequent rather than less.
6. A good rule of thumb to start with is oiling every time you turn off the clippers to check the temperature (every two to three minutes). Brush the hair off the clipper blades and …
7. … tilt the blades down toward the ground, turn the clippers back on and apply oil to the teeth of the blades with the clippers running. If you are holding the clippers correctly, the excess oil should run off of the tips of the blades rather than back into the body of the clippers, which can burn out the motor.
8. Turn the clippers off again and wipe off the excess oil with the cloth.
9. Wherever your horse’s skin is slightly loose, like around his elbows and stifles, there’s more chance of pinching or cutting it with the clippers. To avoid this, use your spare hand to stretch the skin taught while you clip those areas.
10. Many people leave a strip of unclipped hair in the saddle region to reduce friction and irritation under the saddle or blanket. How wide you make this strip is a matter of personal preference. I make it fairly narrow, protecting the most vulnerable area over the withers, while also sparing my horses the uncomfortable clippers-on-bone sensation along the most prominent parts of the withers and spine.
11. Pay meticulous attention to your horse’s unique hair growth patterns, particularly his whorls (where the hair grows in a swirling fashion), always turning the clippers as necessary to clip against the direction of the hair. Continue stretching loose skin wherever it exists, both to prevent cuts and to make the hair more accessible in awkward areas.
12. The girth area can be especially ticklish, so stay close to your horse’s body while you clip it. Use your body and free arm to stay in contact with him so that you are able to feel his reaction.
13. The hip is another very ticklish area—and a tricky one to clip well because of the hair’s whorl pattern. Use short, curving strokes to trim one side of the whorl first.
14. Then do the same on the other side of the whorl before …
15. … running the clippers down the center of the whorl. You may need to repeat some strokes to remove all of the remaining whorl hairs.
16. The bottom of the whorl is an especially ticklish area. The skin is also extremely loose here, so it is very easy to cut. Be vigilant about stretching the skin in this area, but also apply less pressure with the clippers. This will ensure that you don’t accidentally catch a skin fold in the teeth of the clippers.
17. The stifle is another extremely sensitive area, so staying in close contact with the horse helps to alert you if he tenses up.
18. Being close to the hind leg in case he kicks out is also safer. In this position, he might be able to bump you with his hind leg, but he can’t cause as much harm as he would if you were a foot or two away, where he could catch you with the swinging end of a kick.
19. To create a pleasing aesthetic over the top of the horse’s tail, I like to use two angled strokes to form a triangle with the point of the triangle centered above the middle of the dock. Use your free hand to hold the tail hairs safely out of the way while you do this so you don’t accidentally cut them.
20. After you’ve finished clipping one side of your horse, turn the clippers off, brush them, turn them on again and run them in the all-in-one oil/wash/coolant to clean them thoroughly. Then turn them off again and wipe them off carefully before starting on the next side. Do this again when you finish the entire job.
Clip Next to the Mane
1. Clipping the coat hairs next to the mane is a risky business. Accidentally cutting some of the mane hairs creates a really unattractive look when they start to grow back in, especially when you braid the mane. It’s also difficult to create a really smooth clip line next to the base of the mane.
To give yourself the best chance at success, do this step from a mounting block, so you’re looking down on the mane, rather than up at it, while you clip. (Note how I’ve wrapped the cord safely around the back of the mounting block here.)
2. Switch to your #10 blade to get a closer trim. Starting at the withers on your horse’s left side, brush all of his mane to the right side and press it down with your free hand so the long coat hairs stand up more obviously. Slowly run the top edge of the clipper blade over these coat hairs, trying to complete the clip line all the way to the bridle path in one stroke. Focus on creating as straight a line as possible with the top edge of the blade—don’t worry about keeping the bottom edge flush against the skin.
3. If your horse (or pony) is especially fuzzy, turn the clippers perpendicular to the mane and make short, downward strokes to catch any extra wispy hairs along the mane line.
4. Because the #10 blade cuts the hair shorter than the blade used for the rest of the body, you can see how the single stroke along the base of the mane creates a distinct line next to the neck hairs trimmed with the other blade. To blend away this line, switch back to the blade you used for the rest of the body (in this case, I used a T10), turn the clippers at a 45-degree angle and make multiple short strokes all the way up the neck, being careful not to catch any mane hairs accidentally.
5. Next, move the mounting block around to the right side of your horse and switch back to the #10 blade to clip the underside of the mane. Flip the mane over to the other side, then hold it down with your free hand and clip a single, slow stroke from withers to bridle path just as you did on the left side. Follow up with the same downward strokes to catch any wispies and 45-degree-angle strokes (switching back again to the blade you used for the main body) to blend in the sharp clip line.
Clip the Legs
Trimming the legs is a bit more complicated than the main body because of their many different angles, nooks and crannies. With less flesh covering the bones, tendons and ligaments of the legs, some horses may find the clipper vibrations more uncomfortable.
Take your time and stay attentive to your horse’s comfort level. If he tries to move away from the clippers or jerk a leg out of your hands, keep the clippers in contact with his skin to teach him that he can’t avoid them. He’ll eventually get used to the sensation and settle down.
For fine-legged horses, consider switching to a #10 blade. Otherwise, stick to whatever blade you used for the main part of his body.
1. Follow all of the same guidelines you followed for the rest of the body: running the clippers against the direction of the hair …
2. … keeping your spare hand on the leg to sense when he’s about to move it …
3. … and stretching skin over awkward areas. Removing the hairs from the creases and indentations formed by the muscles and tendons can be challenging. Pull the skin across easier-to-reach areas and clip those hairs in short strokes, repeating the process as necessary to catch all of the remaining hairs.
4. Start trimming the coronet and pastern by running the clippers vertically up from the hoof in multiple strokes. Because of the curve of the pastern, this method will inevitably produce track lines. This is due to the fact that you can’t get the entire clipper blade flush against the skin. To blend in those track lines …
5. … turn the clippers at a 45-degree angle and run them in multiple strokes over the track lines.
6. To clip the back of the foreleg, pick up the hoof and hold it with your free hand. This will relax the tendons and ligaments in the lower leg, allowing you to access the hairs in between them more easily.
7. Clip the inside of each leg from the opposite side of your horse so you can see it clearly. Note how careful I am to keep my free hand on the closer leg and to keep my head next to that leg—not in front of it—so I won’t get knocked in the face if the horse lifts it up.
8. The elbow is another sensitive area that is also tricky to clip. The best way to tackle it is with the help of a friend. Have her lift the foreleg up and stretch it forward, just the way you would to smooth the skin underneath the girth before mounting. If you don’t have assistance, lift the leg up and forward as best you can with your spare arm. Hold it in this stretched position for as long as you and your horse are comfortable. Put it down and take a break as frequently as necessary.
9. While clipping the hind legs, keep a hold of the tail with your free hand, not just to encourage your horse to shift his weight onto the foot you’re clipping, but also to …
10. … prevent him from swishing it into the path of the blades (and cutting off precious tail hairs).
11. Unlike the forelegs, I keep the back legs on the ground to trim the lower sections. Note how I’ve pulled the tail between the hind legs here to keep it clear of the clipper blades.
Clip the Face
The best way to clip the face is with a grooming halter (a halter with no throatlatch). If you don’t have one, unclip the throatlatch of your regular halter and clip it to the ring on the other side to prevent it from swinging. If your horse is fussy about having his face trimmed, unfasten one of the cross-ties for this phase of the job. Use the same blade for the face that you used for the main body.
1. Start by clipping the hairs on the chin and jaw just as you clipped the rest of the body, moving against the direction of the hair growth.
2. Stretch the skin however necessary to reach the hairs in the crevices around the jawbones.
3. Use multiple short strokes to clip the hair off the nose and front of the face, being careful to keep your own face to the side, just in case he tosses his head suddenly.
4. As you work around the forehead, keep your free hand over your horse’s eye to keep hairs out of it. Stretch the skin in different directions to access the hair in the depression above his eye. Use his longer eyelashes as a guide: Don’t clip close enough to the eye to risk clipping them accidentally.
5. To create a clean line along the edges of the ear, fold it closed with your free hand and keep it firmly closed while you run the clippers down from the tip to the base. Be sure to not twist the ear in the process, which can be very uncomfortable for your horse.
6. Still holding the base of the ear, clip the hair off the back of it. Holding the base of the ear helps to dampen the vibration of the clippers, making the sensation more tolerable for horses.
7. As you clip the hair around the top of the head, hold the forelock out of the way so you don’t cut it accidentally.
8. The result is a sharp, clean-looking ear. I prefer leaving the hairs on the insides of the ears unclipped to help protect them from bugs. If you do trim the hair out of the ears, be sure to put a fly mask on your horse whenever you turn him out.
When you’ve finished clipping, wipe your horse’s entire body down with a clean cloth soaked with witch hazel. This will remove the remaining dirt, hairs and oil.
ABOUT EMMA FORD
Since 2005, Emma Ford has managed Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and groomed at multiple Olympics, World Equestrian Games and Pan American Games. She was named the 2007 U.S. Eventing Association’s Professional Groom of the Year and awarded the 2012 Professional Riders Organization Liz Cochran Memorial Groom’s Award. Emma and Cat Hill co-authored the book World-Class Grooming for Horses and teach horse-care clinics around the country. For more information, go to worldclassgrooming.com.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2020 issue of Practical Horseman.