All too often horses are provided little prior exposure to clipping, are expected to stand quietly for a two-hour body clip, and are punished when they fail. The horse soon learns that clipping is stressful and the stage is set for a lifetime of clipping nightmares with a reactive and dangerous horse.
The good news is that through shaping, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement, horses can learn to be comfortable with clipping and even the most reactive horses can usually be rehabilitated.
Positive reinforcement occurs when a behaviour is strengthened because it is followed by a pleasant stimulus, making it more likely that we will see this behaviour in the future. With clipping, I want to reward my horse for doing nothing, since a calm, non-reactive response is the behaviour I am after.
I begin by turning the clippers on as far away as is necessary to elicit no reaction (If this is at the end of the barn aisle, then this is where I start). As soon as I see a calm, relaxed horse, I immediately reward this behaviour with a treat.
Gradually, I decrease the distance between the horse and the clippers (either by bringing my horse closer to the running clippers, or working with a second person who brings the clippers closer to the horse). I close the distance, pause, and immediately upon seeing a relaxed horse I reward.
Although not entirely necessary, you can make things crystal clear to your horse by using a clicker which pairs a particular distinct sound with the consistent arrival of a food reward and thus precisely marks the behaviour I am rewarding – close the distance, pause, see the relaxation, click, and reward.
This incremental process may take minutes or days, depending on the horse’s innate reactivity and clipping history. Ideally, there should be zero hysteria. If he becomes tense, back up to the place where he was calm, reward that behaviour, and rebuild.
In this way I shape the behaviour I want (to stand quietly for a full body clip) by rewarding the baby steps along the way. Shaping your horse to being vacuumed with the same incremental baby steps closely approximates the experience of clipping.
Negative reinforcement, not to be confused with punishment, occurs when a behaviour is strengthened because it is followed by the removal of an aversive or unpleasant stimulus. Negative reinforcement can be used in tandem with positive reinforcement to train clipping tolerance.
As I bring the clippers near and the horse is quiet, I positively reinforce him with a treat. To reach for a treat, I must also temporarily remove the annoying clippers, and so end a mildly aversive event. In this way, I strengthen this calm response with negative reinforcement as well. Since I only want to reward non-reactive behaviours, and not reward flight responses – even the understated ones – I remove the clippers only when my horse is calm.
If I have the clippers on my horse’s body and he begins to fuss, I may have to slide my hand further away, while still maintaining contact, and remove the clippers only when he relaxes. Eventually he learns that head tossing and hysteria does not get rid of the clippers, that calm behaviour gets rewarded with a break from clipping and a treat, and that clipping really isn’t that horrific after all.
Ideally, if I move through this progression gradually and continue to positively and negatively reinforce the calm behaviour I like, general hysteria need never appear, even with horses with a reactive clipping history. Making vacuuming and face and leg trims a regular part of your grooming routine will go a long way toward prepping your horse for a speedier, stress-free body clip.