The days are getting shorter and your horse’s coat is getting longer. You’ve pulled sheets and blankets out of storage and are ready for the first cold nights. You find yourself studying the weather 10 days out: Is it time to clip yet? If so, what type of clip? And then, which blanket? Of course, you’re concerned about your horse’s optimal comfort at rest and at work as well as how to maintain his healthy skin and general well-being once he’s been clipped. Here, top international horse-care experts Alan Davies, international traveling groom for British Olympians Carl Hester and Charlotte Dujardin, and Carmen Thiemann, who oversees care for all of German Olympian Ingrid Klimke’s horses, share their insights on clipping and blanketing.
Clipping: It Depends on the Individual
Davies has been a professional groom for his entire adult life and has been with Hester, Dujardin and their horses since 2011. He has been recognized by Team Great Britain as Groom of the Year in 2015 and by Horse & Hound magazine as 2016 Groom of the Year. When it comes to providing exceptional care and, in particular, to clipping and blanketing, Davies emphasizes the importance of tailoring his approach to each horse as an individual.
According to Davies, “When and how often to clip varies greatly from horse to horse. We have horses in our barn who may not need to be clipped at all if we start blanketing early enough in the autumn, as they grow and maintain a beautiful thin coat beneath the blankets. Valegro, on the other hand, is a hairy horse—last winter I clipped him seven times.”
Generally speaking, Davies begins to clip horses sometime in September, which is in accordance with England’s climate and the intention that the horses will compete internationally throughout the winter season.
In her book Training Horses the Ingrid Klimke Way, Klimke writes: “Every barn needs a good soul who is there for the horses, looking after them, keeping them in sight, feeling for them.” She is referring to Thiemann, who has overseen the management of Klimke’s horses for more than two decades and was distinguished with the FEI’s 2013 Best Groom Award. Klimke and Thiemann are known for their holistic, horse-friendly approach to equine management. For example, all of Klimke’s horses, even world-class competitors, are turned out to pasture on a daily basis and all receive regular attention from an acupuncturist as well as their conventional veterinarian. Thiemann’s approach to clipping and blanketing reflects this holistic philosophy. “I first clip horses during the fall when they begin to get their long and thick winter coat,” she says. “When exactly I do the first clip depends on how quickly the horse begins to sweat while working and also how long the coat is. Only very seldom and reluctantly do I ever clip a horse during the summer—doing so disrupts the horse’s natural metabolic processes and really throws horses out of whack in terms of their natural ability to regulate temperature and hair growth.”
For Thiemann, the type of clip depends on the horse’s workload, turnout schedule and whether or not the horse will be showing. Thiemann explains, “At our stable, the horses are still turned out daily all winter long. I have to think about this when it comes to clipping and blanketing because they will need more protection and warmth on their backs and in the kidney area in order to be comfortable and maintain wellness when turned out.” Therefore, for young horses and horses who do not compete much, Thiemann prefers a blanket-clip pattern, which keeps the horse cool at work but also provides hair coverage along his complete topline for turnout.
For horses who do compete regularly throughout the winter, Thiemann does a full-body clip, leaving only a patch of hair in the shape of a saddle in the saddle area.
Davies says he prefers a full-body clip for horses schooling and competing throughout the winter. Removing all the hair simply makes it easier to maintain cleanliness and keep the horse comfortable before, during and after work. Hester’s and Dujardin’s horses get turned out daily in most weather, so choosing the right blankets becomes crucial once the horses are clipped. Davies also mentions that Hester’s stable is designed with a traditional courtyard, so each stall has a window that allows the horses to look out into the area. The stalls also have a window at the back that is opened during the day, which increases ventilation and offers the horses an alternate view. Because of the open design, the horses are exposed to and enjoy a lot of fresh air even when they are inside.
The flip side of this is that horses who have been body-clipped will need to regulate their own temperature against the elements 24 hours a day, so Davies needs to blanket accordingly.
Davies explains the importance of sound grooming protocols before and after clipping both to ensure the horse feels good and to support skin health and coat regrowth. According to Davies, “I want the horse to be as clean as possible before the clip—that just makes it easier to execute. After the horse is clipped, I go over his whole body with a hot cloth, mixing a little antiseptic into the water to reduce the likelihood of skin irritations. I then go over the horse with a very soft brush.”
Even when a horse has a full-body clip, Davies is an advocate for daily grooming that includes a rubber curry comb, “flicky” [hard] brush and a soft body brush. He calls himself “old-fashioned” in that way but explains: “I still like to use the curry comb to massage them and rub the skin—I think it helps the coat grow through naturally and helps stop the skin from getting too dead. Regular grooming prevents the coat from growing in dull and it gives the horses a nice distraction as well. I end with a good, old hot cloth run over the whole body.”
When it comes to clipping legs, faces and ears, Davies and Thiemann both strive to match common-sense considerations with the aesthetic requirements of the competitive dressage arena. Thiemann says, “I always shave the pasterns because they stay cleaner that way. Also, horses can easily develop scratches [a fungal infection] under a long coat in the pastern area, especially if they are regularly turned out on wet grass.” Thiemann prefers to clip horses’ heads and ears, but only externally, so the horse appears tidy and does not sweat as much under the bridle.
Germany has passed legislation that bans the shaving of the inside of horses’ ears as well as the long hairs on the muzzle and around the eyes. The basis for the law is that horses need this hair (technically called vibrissae) in order for them to have optimal spatial awareness and discretion about what they ingest and for insect protection. Therefore, competitors at equestrian competitions in Germany can be fined if these hairs are clipped, a policy that Thiemann adheres to and supports because she believes the facial hair does have an important function for horses and leaving it in place promotes overall well-being.
Blanketing: Layers Are Key
According to Davies, properly blanketing horses throughout a long winter season, especially those who may travel to compete in a different climate, is a matter of “constant checking and rechecking.” Generally speaking, signs that a horse is overblanketed or getting too warm include the presence of dampness/sweat under the blanket or the horse’s skin feeling very cold under the bottom-layer blanket (as if he may have started sweating underneath and then dried again). In contrast, signs that a horse is underblanketed and getting cold include prolonged shivering, changes in his activity level (i.e., unusual restlessness or lethargy) or, over time, changes in his body condition. If one slides a hand under the bottom-layer blanket, the horse’s coat should feel warm to the touch and completely dry. Thiemann adds: “When a horse is too cold, his entire coat will stand up on end. His muscles will appear tense and the whole horse will appear cramped in the way he’s standing.”
Thiemann says she cannot identify a specific temperature at which blanketing becomes relevant as this varies greatly from horse to horse. She explains, “Some horses run warm and never need as heavy a blanket. Others may grow a coat faster and require a thicker blanket to prevent it from coming in so fast.” She says horses in Klimke’s barn use all types of blankets: stable blankets of every weight, anti-sweat sheets, rain sheets for turnout. Yes, she’s a fan of neck covers for horses who have been freshly clipped, both with their regular blankets and anti-sweat coolers.
Davies generally starts out with horses wearing a cotton sheet, then adds a midweight blanket on top and, further into the winter, a heavy-weight rug. He is a proponent of layering and will add layers as needed between the cotton sheet and the top rug. Some blanket brands come with a layering/liner system, but it is also possible to create layers with other pieces, such as a fleece dress sheet. Davies explains that some horses can tolerate more blanketing than others and that it is important to avoid horses getting too hot under the blankets, which can cause a chill, lead to illness and/or cause skin irritations and rashes. No, he is not “a huge fan” of neck covers because they cause mane rubs. Davies explains, “In the depth of winter, we’ll get out the neck covers, but I don’t like to keep them on all the time because they tend to rub the mane in places. In dressage, the beautifully plaited mane is such a huge part of turnout, so if we can avoid using the neck covers and still keep the horse comfortable, we do.”
Among the horses under Davies’ care, “Valegro ends up with a cotton sheet, woolen blanket and top rug. Uthopia is much finer, so he’d get more blankets than Valegro. In contrast, Nip Tuck has been used to living out most of his life. When he was a young horse, he used to live out all the time and, as a result, he’s a bit hardier. He’s a hot horse and doesn’t need that many blankets. You have to know your horse, see them as an individual and know what’s best for them.”
Thiemann agrees that knowing one’s horses well is key to a customized approach to clipping and blanketing. She says, “In Germany, we often speak of listening closely to our horses under saddle. It’s a term that implies the rider can hear what the horse is telling her, even though it may be just a wordless whisper. I think the same concept applies to horse care—grooms, riders and owners need to listen closely to understand what the horse needs at any given point.”