How to get a horse OK with clippers

Here’s the thing about using clicker training for stuff that the horse is afraid of (demonstrated by some escape behavior), like using electric clippers on whiskers, if you try to click ‘for’ letting you approach with the buzzing thing you are invariably going to get the timing wrong.  They are already thinking of leaving long before you click and if you click when they are thinking of leaving then you will only make matters worse.

So, what I would do, is pretty much the same as what I said last time about mounting.  🙂  It isn’t about the mounting (or trimming) per se it is ‘can you continue to follow my feel in this uncomfortable situation?’

Prior to attempting to work near the horse with the trimmers on, I would do a lot of heavily reinforced ‘rope work’.  Meaning, following a feel on the line to look at me, follow me, turn, and so forth.  Make all that stuff something the horse feels good about.  Then what I’d do is find out how far away the clippers need to be before the horse becomes concerned about the buzzing noise.  Let’s say it 20 feet away.  Turn on the clippers and set them down 20 feet away.  Then proceed with basic ropework. I like to use a simple change of hand (figure eight) done in front of me.  That requires that the horse be able to follow the feel forward and through turns in both directions.  A handy test of the horse’s attention, lightness and softness.

The presence of the clipper noise will cause a WEE bit of distraction.  You’ll be asking the horse to pay attention only to your feel irregardless of the noise in the background.  That attention is rewarded with c/t.  Again and again  till the horse cares not about the noise.  Then move the horse closer to the clippers and repeat the process.  Continue this process until the horse couldn’t care less about the clipper noise.

When the horse doesn’t seem to care about the noise, I will then hold the clippers in my hand.  Hopefully you have the cordless type.  Maybe you could even put the clippers in your pocket and let it buzz away there.  If this causes a concern then just repeat the rope work till he’s more focused on the rope work and the click than the buzz in your pocket.

When the clippers can be on you and he’s unconcerned then hold the lead rope in one hand and the clippers in the other.  Approach the horse with the clippers.  Note the distance between your hand and the horse when (if) the horse moves.  Move slowly so that you don’t over face.  Let him move as needed but if your approach is calm and you’ve done all the prework then he shouldn’t RUN away, he might just step away.  The hand on the rope is just there to provide a soft barrier to leaving and an encouragement to look at  you. Move WITH the horse so that your clipper hand stays the same distance away from the horse that it was when he moved.  When he stops, you stop and simultaneously drop the clipper hand.  You could also click (slip the buzzing clippers back in your pocket) and then feed.  Then repeat.  The idea is that the horse learns that he gets a reward (the clippers go away AND maybe even a treat) when stands with the clippers in close proximity.

Repeat this as often as necessary till the horse chooses to stand still as the clippers approach.

When (and this involves a judgment call) I think the horse isn’t going to totally flip out when I gently touch him with the clippers I will do so.  Still holding the lead rope and guiding and supporting there.  With the clippers on the body I will let him move but be gently encouraging him to stay with me via the feel on the rope.  If all the work prior has been good he will quickly discover that when he stops moving his feet and checks in with you the clippers go away and other good things happen.

When he is OK to stand still with the buzzing clippers touching his body you will repeat this process with the clippers approaching closer and closer to the head and eventually the muzzle.

Since the horse will need to be OK with me restraining his head a bit I will put one hand on the halter and do all of the above as I approach the muzzle.  The idea is that the horse learns that when he relaxes and stays softly with your feel, irrespective of what might be in the other hand, THAT is the behavior that results in rewards (not the least of which at this point may be the clippers retreating.)

It is very important, IMO, to understand the proper use of Negative Reinforcement in this context.  This would be an example.  The REWARD is the clippers going away.  The behavior we are rewarding is “feet that are moving stop and the horse relaxes”.

It is also important IMO to recognize that feet WILL move.  It is natural for the horse to choose to leave with this feet when he is uncertain.  How FAR he goes will depend on how good all the previous work was.  So I’d rather let him move and then just wait patiently for the horse to choose let that worry go.

I don’t have a video showing this process with clippers.  But I do have video of working with a horse who was not okay with haltering.  You can see here (the first video on the page) the process of staying with the horse when she leaves till she chooses to stop and then getting clicked.  Very quickly it proceeds from there to her letting me halter her.  The same principles would apply if I were holding the clippers as well.