Let's face it, to the human eye, horses look much smarter clipped but do you think horses stand around at a competition or hunt meet going 'OMG, don't look now darling, but Archie hasn't been clipped this winter and looks a real fright, no, don't let him see you looking, we don't want to embarrass him!'
I'd always clipped my horses over winter as they did quite a bit of work including competition and hunting. Like most people I didn't just clip for aesthetic reasons but because I'd been taught that it was healthier for a horse in medium to hard work. But then I met Natural Horse Management expert, Lucinda McAlpine and started to re-think the way I managed my own horses, particularly regarding clipping.
Lucinda believes that the horses coat is a good fitness and stress gauge as a horse will sweat heavily when he is anxious or has done too much for his fitness. A slight dampness to the coat will indicate that he has done enough for the level of fitness he is at and so you can stop before pushing too far. A full coat can also provide an indication of our horses health - recently I took one of our horses to the vet and she immediately picked up on his coat as an indication that his system might be out of balance. And a muddy full coat, according to Lucinda, will reveal areas of muscle tension. If mud brushes off easily then the skin and muscles underneath are healthy but if mud really sticks to the coat then that means the fascia and muscles underneath are tight.
It's amazed me how controversial this no-clipping decision is though - people really are snobby about an unclipped horse, it's the equestrian equivalent of walking around the supermarket in dressing gown and slippers! And when you leave a horse out in winter without ten duvets on, you're often seen as being cruel. It actually does take a leap of faith not to treat horses according to how we feel when the temperatures plummet but it still surprises me that once their coat is established horses, including thoroughbreds, will happily stand out in the snow even if they do have a big barn shelter they can walk into. Give them lots of hay over winter and this acts like an internal radiator. A heavy rug on the other hand flattens a full coat and stops it acting as it should.
The big sticking point I have is whether to clip for hunting from a health point of view. When our young horse went out for the first time this season we didn't clip him as it might not be a regular thing. Anyway, he did sweat a lot, probably a mix of excitement and exertion - he wasn't super fit so only did a few hours. I imagine a lot of the clipped horses still sweated but it's just less noticeable because it evaporates off more quickly. And after galloping when horses stand around for sometimes long periods with the cold wind whipping their exposed flesh, which horse is worse off? Will the unclipped horse with a sweaty coat get a chill or the clipped horse whose muscles cool down too quickly get tight and sore? Our horse was then cooled down gradually with a hack back to the horsebox and overnight in his stable, as he was still slightly damp, we put him in a cooler rug, thatched with straw underneath as our main concern was that he might catch a chill.
The good news is that he certainly looked good the next day and hadn't dropped any weight. BUT I'm still sweating over whether to clip or not to clip if he goes out again! What do you think?
Now that the nights are drawing in and our clippers are being serviced in readiness for the first clip of the winter, let’s consider why we are clipping our horses, and the type of clip that they need.
Horses grow their coat at this time of year, as a natural instinct in the wild, to protect them from the elements, keeping them warm and dry during the winter. Needless to say that when we exercise horses in a domestic environment that have a big thick coat, they will sweat heavily and become uncomfortable, in the same way that we would if we exercised in a big down jacket! Of course we will need to clip them to ensure that told they stay sweat-free and comfortable whilst they are working. However, we also need to consider is how hard they are working before we decide how much of a clip they will need.
Blanket clips are great for horses in light - medium work (eg dressage horses)
So often in my work as a trainer and massage therapist, I see horses in light work that are fully clipped out, ears and face included, simply because it looks smart and avoids having to worry about lines. These horses will be snugly wrapped up in rugs in the stable, but will probably spend every ridden moment during the winter feeling cold, because they are not exercising hard enough to keep them warm. It is a bit like when girls go for a night out in winter wearing a tiny dress and no jacket – but at least for them it is a choice, and quite often they have their beer jackets on! We all know how it feels to be cold…our shoulders hunch, our muscles tighten and it is thoroughly unpleasant.
Chaser clips are great for horses in light work
A few weeks into winter, many horses that are clipped out and don’t get their heart rates up during exercise, develop a sore back, which is often a result of bracing themselves for such long periods. This results in hefty bills from back specialists, which can be avoided. Most horses in light to medium work will suffice with just a trace, chaser or blanket clip. Horses that hack and do light schooling would benefit the most from a trace or chase clip, and dressage horses probably a blanket clip. There is a reason a hunter clip is called a hunter clip! If you have a horse in medium or hard work that needs to be clipped out, exercise sheets are a great way of keeping your horse warm on a cold day until they are properly warmed up.
Hunter clips suit hunters, eventers and horses in hard work
So… let’s consider how much coat we take off our horses this winter, and always use an exercise sheet until the horse is thoroughly warmed up. A warm horse will be a happy horse, and a happy horse will perform far better for you, which will be reflected in your results!
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Lucy Field-Richards : Lucy owns Ride Fit Equestrian, and is from Nottinghamshire.
Qualifications : First class BSc (Hons) Equine Sports Science (Equestrian Psychology), BHSAI, Diploma in Equine Sports Massage Therapy
Lucy is a lecturer in Equine Science at Nottingham Trent University.