The unprepared horse owner’s guide to body-clipping

Before: this coat has a problem. This is what it looked like after being washed.

Your horse may be old, he may suffer from Cushing’s disease (ask your vet if your horse needs to be tested), you may just have a hairy horse.  But when it’s May 1 and all the other horses around are sleek and shiny looking and yours still looks like something from the set of 10,000 BC, you should probably body-clip him.  I’m saying “him” because the horse I clipped today is a gelding.  You don’t need to do it because other people and horses will judge you or your horse.  You need to do it because your horse is sweltering day after day. You don’t care how he looks, you just don’t want him to suffer.

Maybe you are working your horse in the winter, in which case you may be preparing to show or do something else where other people do see your horse and judge you by his appearance.  If this is the case, you should just pay a professional groom to do it.  It takes a lot of time, equipment and skill to do it so your horse to looks good.  It is probably worth paying someone else to do that if you don’t know how, which you don’t if you are unprepared.  Don’t make the mistake of thinking it will grow out by show season.  A bad clip job will last all year.

This horse is a couple years older than the first horse. This photo was taken on the same day, in case it wasn't clear that the first horse needs to be clipped.

How you can get prepared:

    • Buy several sets of clippers, at least two, preferably the same type and size.
    • Buy multiple sets of blades for each clipper, of the same size (You don’t want to switch between #10 blades and surgical #40s. That will make some crazy uneven lines and encourage you to make too many passes, which will make you and your horse grumpy and also irritate your horse’s skin.)
    • Wash your horse thoroughly and let him dry
    • Give your horse a light dose of bute
    • Schedule a few hours for the clipping alone
    • Have a brush handy
    • Get a bucket and some of my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula
    • Do the clipping somewhere with a lot of natural light
    • Clip a whole big bunch of horses to develop some skill.

Body-clippers, what I call sheep shears, blades about 3"-3.5" wide. I think.

Can’t do all that?  Accept that your horse will probably look pretty awful when you are done, though he will look better than he did in the 10,000 BC costume.  Also, he will be a lot more comfortable.

Get a body brush, a bucket, clipper lube (did you know WD40 is non-toxic?), a fresh set of blades (#10s are best, you’re not shaving him for surgery, just giving him a hair cut), and clippers.  Try not to work in the dark.

You should have big old electric sheep-shear type clippers but any will do.  If you use little face clippers, you probably cannot get by with only one set of blades.  They will go dull half way through the job, and all blades will get dull faster clipping dirty hair.  No matter how unprepared you are prepared to be, don’t even start without new blades or freshly sharpened ones.  There is just no point.

If you can wash him, great.  It may be too cold to wash your buffalo-haired horse.  You can brush him like crazy.  Better to clip him dirty dry than wet, so choose beforehand.

Decide before you start if you want a saddle pad.  If you are riding your horse, you should leave one, or wait a couple of days after clipping to ride.  It’s the kind thing to do.  Visualize it, draw it with chalk, whatever.  Make it large enough to protect the horse’s skin from the saddle, but small enough to hide the jagged uneven edges under your saddle blanket.

Long before you’ve finished, you will want to get my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula, but you can pick it up whenever you get tired of sitting around waiting for your blades to cool.  It is that widely available.   Details to follow.

Spray some lubricant on the blades before you start.

Presumably, by the time your horse is old enough to be getting hairy like this, and if you care enough to go through this, your horse is used to clippers.  Any horse who is used to having his face and legs and ears clipped will not freak out about you clipping his belly, sides, back, chest, or neck.  Many mares are a little fussy about the udder and flank region.  Be prepared for some squealing there.

If your horse is only used to those nice silent-running clippers, the big old shears may startle him, since they sound a little like a lawn-mower.  Give him time.  Start with his itchy butt, or his itchy chest.  The fact that he has been sweating for days under all this hair can be used to your advantage.  He is itchy.  He will enjoy this full-body scratch once he gets over the noise.

On the other hand, rain rot loves long hair, so your horse may be very sensitive along his back and spine.  You should consider leaving that hair on the horse for now.  You can buy and use all kinds of products to cure rain rot, or you can just brush it daily, as vigorously as the horse will permit.  Don’t have a brush handy?  Gently pull off the loose hair and give the affected area a good scratch with your fingers.  Maybe I use the products wrong but I’ve never found that any of them work faster than brushing and scratching.  In case you are wondering, I don’t believe I have ever contracted rain rot by doing this.

Face/leg trimmers, blades about 2"-2.5" wide. I think. I don't keep a ruler around because I'm not a prepared sort of person.

Your clippers are designed more for your comfort than your horse’s.  That is, the handle will not heat up half so fast as the blades.  Touch your blades every minute or so to make sure you aren’t burning your horse.  Hot blades absolutely can burn a horse’s skin.  Most horses will let you know it’s hurting but you should not wait for the horse to start fussing and trying to get away from you.  That is cruel.

When the blades get hot, stop, turn off the clippers, swap blades, cool them, or wait for them to cool.  While you are waiting, before you add oil or use coolant, brush any visible loose hair out of the clippers.

For the fastest cooling, dip them in my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula for about ten seconds.  If you are impatient and don’t want to take the blades off, dipping the blade end of the clippers into the coolant should not harm them if you spray oil on them right after shaking them dry.  They should be cool to the touch before you start again.

Turn them off before cooling them or you will make a big mess and possibly electrocute yourself.  Also, they are hot from running, they will cool faster turned off.

How do you know if your blades are hot?  Put your fingers or palm against them and ask yourself: “would I like to press this against my bare ass?”  No?  They are too hot.  (If you like that kind of thing, try to imagine you don’t.)

Speaking of delicate parts, if you are a woman, take your bra off before you start and remove it from the clipping theater.  Otherwise, be prepared to toss the bra afterwards.  It will never be the same and you don’t want horse stubble making your boobs itch weeks from now.

The clippers should almost always be nearly parallel to the horse’s body, not poking the tips of the blades into him, but not completely flat against him either.  Clip against the growth, just like you shave your legs or face.  You will discover that your horse’s coat grows in a swirling sea of not-straight lines as you get to different parts of his body.  Take a moment to marvel at this and keep trying a new direction until you get an even clip.

How close should you clip him?  I usually leave about 1/2″ of hair, one solid pass of the #10 blades.  You don’t want a naked horse.

You will also discover that your horse’s skin is taught in some places, all slack and prone to wrinkle in others.  Be careful around the points of the hips and the stifles.  There is almost no protective fatty padding there and your clipper blades are very hard.

No matter what part you are clipping, be patient, touch gently, as you should do all things with your horse.  Slide the blades across the horse’s skin without pushing hard.  Test different amounts of pressure (though you should never be making a dent in your horse) to find the ideal pressure.  The ideal amount of pressure will allow the blades to slide fast and smooth, dropping satisfying chunks of hair to the ground.  When you get to his back and gravity doesn’t clear the hair for you, take a break and brush him off.

Sample saddle-pad clip. Good luck doing that, but you get the idea.

If clipping the hair isn’t almost as easy as waving the clippers across your horse, you’re doing it wrong.  If you are pulling on the hair, your blades could be dull.  Stop.

Let me rephrase that last part, it’s important: do not force the blades through the hair.  If it is hard to slide the blade flat through the coat, you should slow down or speed up, adjust your angle,  cool the blades, lubricate the blades, or consider that the blades may be dull.  If you find that the blades are dull, I have good news for you: you’re done for the day unless you have another set of blades.

I begin with the belly because the belly is the biggest pain for you and your horse.  Your older horse’s skin has gotten looser than you ever noticed, it wrinkles up if you don’t keep the blades flat to the skin.  Gently pull the skin flat ahead of the blades if necessary.

Doing the belly will wear you out with all the bending over and working upside down, so that’s a good reason to get it out of the way.  Also, the hair blows in your face while you are leaning over, or kneeling (you better have a very well-behaved horse for that).  Don’t wait too long to wash the hair out of your face.  It is very bad to have horse hair in your eyes.

Incredibly, my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula can also be used for that.  You will want a separate supply for washing your blades and washing your eyes, but it is so reasonably priced that you will have plenty on hand.

If you do sort of care what the horse looks like, leave the belly for later when you and your blades are less fresh.  Do the sides, butt and neck first since they are the most visible.  If you care what he looks like, that is.

You may want to trim of the longest hairs in areas you will not really clip, like the back of the upper legs.  No need to leave him looking like he’s wearing chaps with fringe.  Your clippers should be sharp enough to do this without touching the horse’s skin, and it is a good way to test the blade sharpness as you go.

The neck can be difficult if your horse keeps turning around to see what you’re doing, because this wrinkles even the tautest skin.  Wait for him to look away or gently turn his head away with your free hand.  If you have help, you can ask your helper to turn his head away for you, though feeding him treats will cause inconvenient movement.  As always, patience is key.  Do it right or wrong, it’s going to take a long time, might as well have everyone happy.  Give him carrots after you’re done with his neck if he needs carrots.

Since you don’t care what the horse looks like, don’t spend too much time going over the same spot trying to get it perfect.  No matter how perfect the clip looks now, all kinds of track marks will show up tomorrow, so try to limit yourself to one pass per spot on the horse.  This will save time, blade sharpness and skin irritation.

Oh, the skin irritation: body clipping will cause it.  Some horses develop hives or welts, some hardly notice and just get a little dandruff later.   Horses are not meant to be body-clipped, they evolved with that hair coat for a reason.  Some people use hot oil (the moderately warm hair conditioner, not the scalding medieval weapon) over the clipped area, after the clipping is finished.  Others use a small dose of bute before or after, others just move really fast and hope for the best.  If your horse is already on some kind of anti-inflamatory, yay! You’ve got that covered, you don’t need to add more.  Using all of the above is not contraindicated, except the scalding castle defense oil, obviously.  Do not put that on your horse.

Don’t bother with the horse’s legs and face.  Those you can do tomorrow or never, but you should do them with smaller face and leg clippers and be prepared to take time on it.  Once you have removed the hair over the horse’s body, what is left on the face and legs will not make him overheat, and it will protect him from insects and brush.  This is good news of course, since clipping face and legs takes longer than the body and you won’t feel like doing it anyway.

Ironically, the longer you spend on the job, the more time you take doing a pretty job, the more likely it is that the horse will get skin irritation.  So if your goal is the horse’s comfort, letting him look bad is better.   This will be very reassuring as you go along, getting hair in your eyes and inside your clothes and in your mouth.    By the time you notice it has gotten inside your pants and underwear, you will, if you are doing it right, be nearly done.  Of course by “right” I mean quick and dirty, with no care to anything except not hurting your horse.

You may wonder if you need to bathe the horse after you clip him, since he is now covered in a thin layer of clipper lubricant.  I haven’t had any horses react to WD40, but as soon as I say that some horse will break out in hives because she is covered in WD40.  She is probably a grey mare.  I had one horse react to the mineral oil that wound up in her tail after she was treated for colic.  She wasn’t even grey.  The result was a fan of hives all around her flank and rump where she swished the oily tail at flies.  I cannot make this call for you.  Hopefully you know if your horse has sensitive skin.

Here is my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula: get a bucket, use a faucet or hose to fill it about half way with water.  Hold your finger in it for about 20 seconds to make sure the water is very cool.  The more water you use, the longer it will stay cool.  Follow above use instructions.  In case you missed that, yes, my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula is water.

Tell your clipper manufacturer you are doing this and they will have a shit fit because they all sell some kind of fancy shmancy super special coolant designed not to corrode your blades.  Maybe that is true, but my blades have always lasted long enough to be sharpened again several times and I have clippers over 30 years old that still work.  So maybe those coolants are better but I have never found that they work half so well, or cost so little.

After 45 minutes: I used one set of new blades and clippers, on a bathed, dry horse. It could not have been done without my Secret Special Blade Coolant Formula. He's not shiny because I shaved him down to the skin- I didn't. He's shiny from the WD40.

3 thoughts on “The unprepared horse owner’s guide to body-clipping

  1. “Ever question using WD40 on anything living? Don’t get in a ridiculous debate over an obviously toxic product not intended for use on living creatures. It is toxic in any way you can imagine. The chemical companies love when urban myths of safety and “you can use it for everything”emerge.

    The truth is that this is very toxic product when mishandled. By that I mean inhaled, ingested, applied to absorbable body parts, or sprayed where it was not intended to go. It has close to 90% toxic elements as its contents.

    Inhaled it is corrosive to the lung tissue and even a small amount can cause lipid pneumonia from the aliphatic hydrocarbons and petroleum. Fumes alone are extremely toxic to birds and WILL kill them. It is not used in large animal areas of zoos because it is so readily absorbed through the pads of the large cats. Like Lysol, it is toxic!

    It is highly flammable and explosive due to its hydrocarbon base. Does that sound safe for use on anything living? The difference between this base and lighter fluid is nil.

    Sprayed in the eyes it can cause ulcerations, severe irritations, and blindness. If safe, why not use it to lubricate dry eyes?

    Ingested it is considered poisonous and constitutes a medical emergency – ask any poison control center or emergency transport group. It has been shown to burn the esophagus and vocal cords. Has anyone considered why we don’t use it as a salad dressing base?

    Absorbed through the skin (and it will be due to the fat based contents) it will irritate and defeat the epithelium causing permanent damage and ulcerations. Once absorbed, it metabolized by the liver where it is extremely toxic. Overburdened, the liver will fail and then the kidneys will fail. Liver failure is a pretty painful way to die.

    If these things don’t raise fear then consider what it does to metals. IT IS CORROSIVE – eats rust and metal. I wonder how many types of skin are tougher and could handle this product better than metal?

    As for use on tails and hooves – it is foolhardy to even consider it. Remember, the hoof, nails, and hair are all made of keratin. Keratin absorbs well and does so especially with oil based products. Sprayed on hooves/tails, it is absorbed into the bloodstream and moves to the liver. Today you might not see any effect. Down the road, your animal dies and no one figures out you killed your own animal with toxic product used inappropriately.

    This is a product created to chemically change rust and metal – it dissolves. Do you really think it was intended for use on living creatures? Still not convinced? Before you use it again on your horse, why not use it to spray in your frying pan the next time you need to prevent your food from sticking.”
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    • Interesting. I don’t recall recommending using WD-40 directly on the horse. I can’t imagine why anyone would do that. But if you need to use clippers, you will need a lubricant for the clippers.

      Anyway, for the record, no, I don’t see any point and I wouldn’t recommend spraying gear lubricant– any brand– on a horse.

      The most “toxic” ingredient in WD-40 is not the part that causes respiratory problems. “White spirit,” the solvent, is classed as an irritant, not a highly hazardous toxin. Like anything, high levels of exposure can cause more severe health problems.

      The ingredient that can cause respiratory problems is the mineral oil, which should certainly not be inhaled, but is far from being classified as toxic. This brings up a discussion I had with my vet about colic treatments that I found very interesting.

      If you do inhale even small quantities of mineral oil, it is likely to get into your lungs and stay there. This is why you shouldn’t ingest it by swallowing. When you try to swallow it, tiny amounts will make it into your lungs, so don’t do it. Likewise, do not try to treat your horse by using a syringe or other means to squirt mineral oil into the mouth. The horse is likely to inhale it. When a vet uses a tube to put mineral oil in the horse’s stomach, the oil bypasses the mouth and breathing passages and is much safer.

      In short, no, don’t breathe mineral oil, and you probably shouldn’t eat it either except by feeding tube.

      Body clipping itself is not without hazard to your horse. It is irritating. This is why some people apply a soothing treatment afterwards. Whether or not more treatments or a bath helps or only further irritates the skin is debatable. So I don’t body clip horses just to keep them tidy-looking or easy to cool out in the cold months. I only do it for horses that need it for their comfort, and very occasionally for a horse that is competing in the winter. I think I have body-clipped horses for show about 8 times in a show career of 30+ years.

      As with all things, moderation is key and you have to weigh the dangers against the benefits.

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