As we start bemoaning the looming winter, our horse’s body is busy preparing for the onslaught of Canada’s cold, blustery weather by growing itself a heavy, protective coat. Although Mother Nature is trying her best, the seasonal shag can prove problematic and unsightly for many owners and unhealthy for some horses. One way to deal with the winter fuzzies is to clip – or shorten – the coat. While partly aesthetic, clipping is mainly about thermoregulation – how the body tries to maintain a constant internal temperature no matter how cold or hot the ambient air. A horse’s coat hairs are longer and stiffer in winter than in summer. Each hair is connected to a muscle that allows the hair to stand on end, fluffing up the coat to trap warm air just above the surface of the skin and provide insulation.
“As caregivers, we need to help some horses moderate the amount of hair they have, whether naturally produced in excess or because we have created exercise demands during periods when they have a naturally longer, thicker coat,” said Stephanie Rutherford, owner of Reintrue Equine, an Ontario-based company offering mobile clipping services.
“Whether your horse sweats from exercise or a health condition, they need a coat which allows sweat to evaporate and dry,” said Rutherford. “Heavy coats hold moisture in and delay drying time, which can be detrimental to their health and inconvenient for the owner.”
Pros of Clipping
• Quicker drying after exercise
• Prevents chills developing from a wet, sweaty coat that doesn’t insulate effectively and could leave the horse susceptible to hypothermia, colic, respiratory problems and other ailments
• Thwarts conditions that proliferate when skin is persistently damp (i.e. rain rot, mud fever)
• Helps maintain condition by preventing extra energy expenditure through heavy sweating
• Makes grooming easier and faster
• Maintains a horse’s sleek appearance
Cons of Clipping
• Horse will be less able to handle snow or rain without a blanket
• Blankets can be costly and require frequent care and, often, repair
• Fluctuating temperatures can mean having to take blankets on and off throughout the day
• The expense of hiring someone to clip, or purchasing and maintaining a set of clippers
When deciding the best clip type for your situation, consider that you want to remove no more of the horse’s coat than is necessary. So, before you dig out the blades and begin happily shearing away, ask yourself a few questions:
• What type, intensity and amount of work will the horse be doing? A heavily exercised performance horse is a better clipping candidate, than say, a mount doing light trail riding a couple of times a week.
• What’s the turnout and stabling situation? Living outside 24/7 in winter might not be the best scenario for an animal with an extensive clip job, but fine for one on limited turnout.
• What are the seasons like in your part of the country? Removing a bunch of hair from a horse living on the temperate BC coast isn’t the same deal as clipping a beast who has to endure northern Alberta’s punishing deep-freezes.
• What’s your horse’s age and health status? Older, very young or unwell horses might not do well with any hair removal, as they often need all the help they can get to stay warm.
The Big Cover-Up
Removing a horse’s natural insulation and leaving him susceptible to our Canadian climate means a trade-off: we must provide extra protection from the elements. Clipping means you’re committing to the cost and responsibility of a regimen involving an array of blankets, sheets, underwear, liners and coolers to keep your horse warm, dry and in good condition. (And, during warmer months, covers limit exposure to bugs, sun and heat).
“I personally use high-quality, breathable rain sheets as my multi-purpose blanket and only put it on for turnout,” said Rutherford. “For fall clips, I would blanket with a rain sheet or other similar turnout sheet, to give the horse back some form of environmental protection which we removed. Later in the winter, if the coat has not grown back in sufficiently or the horse is kept routinely clipped, adding stable blankets as layers under the rain sheet, or switching to a winter blanket is a good option.”
Owners must be vigilant in watching fluctuating temperatures and weather forecasts, being prepared to switch out blankets one or more times a day. Individuals at boarding barns will have to ask whether staff will remove or add blankets as necessary and if there’s an extra fee for the service.
Relying solely on the thermometer to determine what blanket to use is risky because each horse has individual temperature responses. Check whether he’s comfortable under his blanket by looking and feeling for the following signs that he’s too hot or cold:
• Ears cold to the touch
• Coat standing on end
• Cold to the touch
• Clamped tail
• Hot to the touch
• Breathing heavily
Although body clipping requires extra work in some ways if you consider blanketing a chore, it’s a great option for people who want to ride year-round while maintaining their horse’s health and appearance. Plus, it makes post-workout care a breeze
And, according to Rutherford, horses are thankful for the comfort clipping creates. “Most horses very quickly come to realize that I’m bringing them relief and are quite happy to receive it,” she said.
Clipping Safety Tips
As professional clipper Stephanie Rutherford knows too well, clipping can be a hazardous proposition. “You’re going over every inch of their skin, including tickly spots, unearthing fetlocks with mud fever, skin with irritation or [trimming] horses that are genetically more sensitive,” she said.
Whether you’re doing the job yourself or have hired a professional, here are 14 clipping safety tips:
1. Work in a clean, bright space with a non-slip floor.
2. No loose clothes, jewellery or hair. (Overalls, caps and rugged boots are great, fleece and lip gloss scarves and bracelets not so much.)
3. If using electric clippers, ensure power access is nearby and the cord is connected to a circuit breaker. Keep cord away from horse’s feet.
4. Use well-sharpened blades that are an appropriate size for the job you’re doing.
5. Let the horse examine the clippers, running them for a bit so he gets used to the noise and vibration. “Stand in the most neutral and least aggressive position, on the left-hand side at the shoulder,” Rutherford advised. “Place a comforting palm on the horse before laying the clippers against their skin.”
6. Be aware of your foot placement, the position of the horse and where they’re secured, Rutherford added. “Use your free hand and arm to brace yourself, put traction on the skin and be able to push off that hand quickly if needed.” Clip in long strokes, moving in the opposite direction to the lay of the coat, with clippers flat against the skin.
7. The head is often the hardest area to clip. Do it early in the session while the horse isn’t fed up.
8. When squatting to reach an area, “Don’t face the horse directly,” she said. “So if you need to move quickly you can go sideways rather than fall backward.”
9. Have an assistant on hand.
10. It’s imperative the horse remain still, said Rutherford. To keep a fidgety horse calm don’t clip at feed or turnout time. A hay net, earplugs, music, even the company of a calm horse friend can help.
11. Centre the horse in the crossties. “It can be a dangerous position if a horse feels stuck between you and a wall,” she said.
12. Take lots of breaks to give you and your horse a chance to chill. (And the clipper blades too – they usually get hot after about 10 minutes.)
13. Use clipper oil often to prevent overheating and clean the blades with a soft brush.
14. Most of all, Rutherford cautioned: “Don’t clip an unsafe horse that could injure itself or you.” She advises owners chat with their veterinarian about sedatives for extremely nervous or excitable horses.
Common Clip Types
• Removes entire coat, including hair on legs, head, ears
• Allows horse to fully sweat, moisture to evaporate
• For a horse in heavy work or performance
• Horse should be well blanketed; possibly remaining indoors in cold weather
• Removes entire coat except saddle area, legs
• Remaining leg hair provides protection, warmth
• For a horse in medium to hard work
• Horse can be turned out in cold weather if appropriately blanketed
• Low trace removes hair from jowl and underside of the neck and belly, then from elbows to 10 to 15 centimetres up the body to hindquarters
• High trace cut goes a few centimetres further up flank
• For a horse in light exercise
• Horse can remain outdoors in cold weather if well blanketed
Strip (also called neck and belly clip)
• Removes hair in thick strip from throat latch, down neck and chest and under belly
• For a horse in light work
• Horse can stay outdoors with blankets
• Variation: bib clip – hair is removed to girth area only
• There are a number of basic clip types, but Rutherford said, “Professional equine groomers can customize a clip to balance your horse’s exact needs.”
• Train young horses to accept clippers by progressively introducing them in your regular grooming routine.
• Time your fall clip job so you can extend your exercise season, but still allow time for a full coat to grow before the real chill descends.
• Clipped horses are more susceptible to rubbed skin. Be extra diligent in removing blankets daily to check for sores or signs of discomfort.
• Freshly bathing a horse to be clipped will help the clipper blades glide smoother, quicker and with a cleaner edge.
• A horse with a clipped face or neck might need extra warmth from a blanket hood or neck warmer.
• Horses can get itchy while they’re being clipped. Curry and brush regularly during the session and wipe them down with a wet cloth afterward to provide some relief.
Hair Cuts for Health
Professional body clipper Stephanie Rutherford works on a lot of senior horses with pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID) – more often known as equine Cushing’s disease – the hallmark sign of which is a long, curly coat that won’t shed out properly. In fact, it’s not uncommon for horses with PPID to grow coats upwards of 10 centimetres long.
One of the most common disorders in aged horses, PPID is an incurable progressive condition caused by an enlargement of the pituitary gland, a small protrusion at the base of the brain that produces hormones and releases them into the bloodstream to regulate certain bodily functions. With PPID, the enlargement triggers an overproduction of certain hormones, which contributing to muscle loss, weakness and decreased immune response.
To battle excessive hair growth and retention and extra sweating that results, clipping often becomes a regular part of an affected horse’s care.
Rutherford said her PPID clients typically opt for clips that remove most of the body hair, but leave fetlock feathers, eyes, muzzles, ears and eyes natural. She recommends clipping at least once in the spring and again mid-summer for heat relief and to prevent skin disorders. A late-fall clipping can also be beneficial, “especially if the horse is prone to having any metabolic episodes during cold weather.”
Overall, clipping is a “great tool” for monitoring any horse’s health, Rutherford said. You can “visually and tactically examine the horse over the entire clipped area noting the condition of hair and skin, irritations, small injuries and potential melanomas. This is especially helpful for senior horses or those not in regular work because they may not receive as much day-to-day attention.”
Owners noticing a change in their horse’s coat or shedding habits should contact their veterinarian.