DEAR DANA: My horse won’t let me near his ears with the clippers. He throws his head in the air and jumps sideways! Do you have any suggestions?
DEAR JOHN: Your horse can learn to accept the clippers near him. It is a process to rebuild his acceptance of them, but it can be done if you will be patient and stick with it. He has learned to have a negative feeling about the clippers, and every time he throws his head or jumps away from the clippers, this is reinforced in his mind. In fact, he may even be making the issue bigger because he is getting a positive reinforcement (in his mind) by getting away from them. By this, I mean that his negative behavior is being fed and reinforced. And, a negative behavior that is positively reinforced creates an engrained behavior.
The only way to turn this situation around is to recondition him, have him learn to accept the clippers near his ears by turning it into a positive experience. I know it can be done – I’ve had many horses with issues just like yours and have turned them around.
The first step is to be able to handle his ears without a threat. I would rub and massage his ears until he is relaxed with nothing negative going on -– nothing at all that he doesn’t like. Turn it into a positive experience. Talk to him, tell him how good he it — I would even feed him treats while you rub his ears. Then I would hold the clippers in one hand while rubbing his ears with the other to just let him hear that noise while he is getting loved on, helping him see nothing “horrible” ends up happening. Get him to change his mind by realizing it’s not all bad.
You described that he moves away or jumps back away from the clippers. If that is going on while you attempt to do this, there is a fix for that, too. Plug your clippers into a long extension cord. Turn them on and just hold them close to him and touch and rub his ear with your other hand. When he moves away, just walk with him as he moves around. Don’t take your hand off of him. Just keep walking with him and talking to him, rubbing on him with the clippers running. As soon as he stops walking and all four of his feet are still, take the clippers away from him. When he became still, you move the clippers or turn them off. In the past, he has gotten the clippers to leave him by jumping sideways; this time, they left him when he stood still! Instead of him calling the shots and even scaring himself more by jumping away from the pressure, you controlled the situation by turning them off when he was quiet.
If you continue this over and over, you will eventually reprogram him. You can, little by little, get closer and closer to his ears with the clippers. Then you can eventually clip his ears with no problem! Allow plenty of time –don’t rush it or put your own time frame on it. The biggest secret to it all is to “go through the other side” to a win each time you work with him. Make sure you end positively, even if it is a tiny victory. Build on the victories until you have turned him around.
Do you have a question for Dana? Simply go to www.horsetrader.com and click on the “Dear Dana” section, then submit it! If your question is selected, you will be entered into a monthly drawing for a FREE “Winning Strides” DVD from Dana’s training video series.