Sophie is a Morgan mare who, at the impressive age of 36, has developed Cushing’s Disease. This has led to her inability to fully lose her winter coat despite 90+ degree temperatures in Eastern Washington. Her owner wanted to clip the hair off and give her some relief from the heat. But the owner, Allison, said that Sophie was afraid of the clippers.
Since Sophie is a Cushings mare, and therefore cannot tolerate a lot of sugar, we picked up a bag of black oiled sunflower seeds. Allison had never fed the seeds and hadn’t heard of giving them to horses.
Black oiled sunflower seeds offer a lot of benefits to older horses. They are easy to digest and they can help put weight on, as well as promoting shiny coats and strong hoofs.
We tied Sophie up on a long lead and began by offering her a couple of handfuls of seeds. Once she started looking for more, I began showing her what the click means. The process is to click, treat, click, treat. It didn’t take long before she started looking for food after the click.
At her advanced age, Sophie doesn’t see very well. Therefore, I wanted to make sure she comprehended what was happening and nothing startled her.
I graduated to having her touch my closed fist with her nose. When her nose made contact, I would click for that. Once I had her successfully targeting my fist, reaching for it at different heights and positions, I knew she had a good understanding of the clicker and was ready to proceed to the next step.
Upon the sight of the clippers, Sophie immediately tensed up. Initially I was going to ask Allison to clip her while I handled the click and treats. But even before the clippers were turned on, the mare lunged violently backwards against her rope.
We had to regroup. I took the clippers and just rested them against her withers, clicked and treated her with a handful of seeds.
Every time I clicked, I had to walk away a couple of steps to get the seeds, which were sitting in a bowl nearby. I realized that this was adding a form of negative reinforcement on top of the positive reinforcement promised by the click.
Once she was okay with the silent clippers and long dragging cord resting against her skin, I turned it on so she could hear the sound. I clicked her for standing calmly with the clippers running, without touching her with them.
Then, I touched her on the neck, holding the clippers against her skin so she could feel the vibration. The blade was away from her skin. She shivered but she stood there so I clicked immediately.
We progressed from there. I used a high rate of reinforcement and just kept on shoveling those seeds into her.
Finally, she was willing to permit me to shave a small area of her bridle path, where the halter goes. I took a couple of swipes of hair off her neck and she was okay with that.
I used a lot of scratching and petting and kept talking to her. At the end of the session, I asked Allison to try clipping her. Allison stood timidly and poked at her with the clippers, and the mare jumped.
I then explained, “If you ask from a place of fear, the answer will always be no.”
I went back a week later and Sophie remembered her lesson. We were able to get a good amount of hair off her neck and shoulder, before the blades went dull. By the time I left, we had weaned Sophie off the clicker, and were just using treats. Allison was able to clip her. It’s been years since she has seen Sophie’s summer coat, so I hope she sends photos!