To clip or not to clip?

11 December 2019

Winter is fast approaching, and if you haven't already you are probably getting ready to clip your horse. But is it really necessary? At a time when animal welfare has never been so much in the news, this month we have examined one of these themes. Jean-Luc Mourier, international show-jumping rider, and Maud Ligouzat, groom of Olympic champion Philippe Rozier, answer the Question of the Month!

Jean-Luc Mourier: "When I started riding more than twenty-five years ago, I learned to ride with a Swiss-German rider who didn't clip his horses. He was a good level sportsman and had been pre-selected for the Olympic Games for Switzerland. He had a very natural approach to managing his horses. They never saw an osteopath either. He used to say that when we put the horses in the paddock and they rolled, that was their osteopathy. He also said that the coat was there to protect them. Even if they were soaked in the winter and still had some grease on them, the drops of sweat would run down to the end of the hair without any problem. I remember very clearly that the horses used to sweat a lot in the winter after work, which is normal. We would then rub them down with straw to prevent them from getting cold. So it was a very different approach from what we see today.

In their natural state, when horses are chased by a predator and gallop for miles to save their lives, just because they have hair doesn't mean they won't make it. Of course, they get soaked through after the effort, but they dry without getting sick. Even in cold countries, I find the example of the horses living in pasture very interesting. They don’t take shelter when it rains or snows. They only go in when it’s windy or too sunny. They have no problem with getting wet, they are made to live outside.

Above all, I think that we mustn’t be over-protective of them all the time. We regularly see people putting three or even four blankets on and the horses sweating underneath. I don't think this is the best solution and I don’t think that the horses are happy. When riders do this, they think they are doing the right thing, but unfortunately it’s a case of anthropomorphism. It's not uncommon to see horses putting their ears down when we cover them. We’re not hurting them, it's not a pain reaction, it's just that they don't like being covered. Some even tear their blankets off... These behaviors alone should tell you that it's not comfortable for them. Ask yourself what is most comfortable and logical for these animals. Riders should be a little more aware of ethology. They need to know how a horse works and lives a normal life. We need to know what reassures them, what makes them "happy". Happy in quotation marks because I don't know if they are really happy. However, we can make sure that they are soothed and reassured. In my opinion, all this should be basic for all riders. It’s a science I’m very keen on.

When we are competing every weekend, we have to fit in with everyone else and present groomed, braided horses... A kind of Barbie horse (laughs)! It’s true that you get more noticed if you present a hairy horse. Clipping is a way of way of making our work easier. Our horses that do the big events are clipped more than the others. These horses are given a hunter clip. This type of clip leaves a maximum of hair to save having to cover them as much as possible. We have noticed that the horses we clip completely, especially at the limb level, tend to catch scabs or mud scabs more easily in the paddock in winter. We try as much as possible not to clip the tendons, pasterns, and feathers. We place a gaiter to be able to shave around it. Since then, we have had fewer worries about that, because our horses go out in the paddock a lot."

Maud Ligouzat: "Clipping our horses? Yes. In our sport, they sweat a lot and the thickness of the coat they have in their natural state prevents them from drying quickly. This is above all a practical reason to avoid them catching cold. There’s also an aesthetic reason – a clipped horse is prettier. Philippe Rozier's horses are so used to being clipped that it is not a problem. It’s part of the routine and they’re not afraid of noise, vibrations, or anything else. However, there are horses that can be sensitive, so you have to be careful. However, they are very intelligent and when they realize that clipping doesn’t cause any pain, they stay calm.

At Philippe's, the horses are clipped completely every three to four weeks. We just leave an area of hair at the level of the withers, an area commonly called "withers pad". We also leave an unclipped area beneath the saddle pad as a shock absorber... it’s important to keep a protective zone at this level. The withers skin is very thin and is much less exposed to skin problems, unlike limbs with mud scabs for example, it is not a problem to leave it unclipped. Clipping gives a clearer view of the areas that are prone to injuries, inflammations... The first thing we do when the horse has a scab is to clip them in order to see the extent of the damage. If the hair is too thick, it will hide the affected area, skin problems, etc. We might miss it for the first few days, and it can get worse afterwards. I prefer to clip, look at it, care for and cleanse the skin by freeing it from the hair. We also need to have horses with fine hair to optimize their preparation and recovery. We also massage them with gels at this time and too much hair would make the task harder.

Having recently clipped a horse, what seems important to me is to do it gradually. I was once in a pre-competition where the owners of a mare were unable to clip her. They might recognize themselves here (laughs)! So they described their mare to me and stressed that they always had to sedate her. However, I managed to clip from top to bottom without the slightest problem. You really have to go gradually, paying attention to the reactions but without overreacting, reward, occupy her in another way, check the clipper temperature... It is however obvious that this can really be traumatic for some horses the moment they hear the noise of the clipper. Some have violent reactions. Sedation may be recommended to avoid risks, but a veterinarian must be present. There are horses that can react even more strongly or fight against it."

Interview by Raphael GARBOUJ. Featured photo: Private collection