Desensitisation

We can’t all be perfect, so I wasn’t surprised when I found Phoenix’s flaw the other week. I mean, she’s so good, and tries her heart out at everything I ask of her.

She’s getting a very hairy coat so I set a date in my diary to clip her.

I decided to check how Phoenix behaved with the clippers so I’d know how much help or time I’d need to put aside to clipping her. So I took my battery powered trimmers up to gauge her response.

As I introduced her to the silent trimmers she snorted suspiciously, but with some bribery she let me place them on both shoulders and move them over her neck and shoulders whilst still turned off.

I stood back, and turned them on. Then waited while she danced around nervously. I talked to her, and just waited for her to get used to the sound.

She didn’t, and was so suspicious of me while they were running that she wouldn’t even let me touch her with an outstretched left hand while the trimmers were in my outstretched right hand. So I turned them off, reassured her and then showed her them again whilst they were turned off.

I had some work to do!

In the grand scheme of things, having to sedate once or twice a year is no big deal. A slight inconvenience in the sense I have to plan a clip. There are worse traits. Like not loading in the torrential rain at a competition – I felt very smug when Phoenix walked straight on last weekend whilst our neighbours tried all sorts of tactics while it was stair-rodding. However, I want to try to desensitise Phoenix to them a little bit so we don’t require major sedation, just Sedalin or Domosedan, and so that she isn’t troubled when horses nearby are being clipped.

I’ve given her a month. At the beginning of November she needs to be clipped, whether that’s a sedation job and it all comes off, or she lets me do a chaser with no medication.

Every couple of days we’ve been having “trimmer time”, when I run the trimmers around her. Over the last fortnight we’ve progressed to not leaping out of our skin when the trimmers are turned on, and standing still while I run the running trimmers all over her neck, chest, shoulders, barrel, belly and stifle. She still doesn’t like them running to the top of her neck. Trimmer time is then followed by lots of praise, pats and a couple of treats before having her dinner.

Although Phoenix is more accepting of the trimmers, she still finds the procedure stressful. You can see her short, shallow breaths and by her body language. I’m hoping that as we do it more frequently she will find it less stressful. I also want to have her standing near a quiet horse when they are being clipped so she can hopefully learn by observation as well as just getting used to the noise. Her stress levels are also why I don’t do trimmer time daily, and why I do it when she’s had a groom, is relaxed and calm, and will have something nice afterwards – such as dinner or being hand grazed.

The one day I did trimmer time with a couple of other horses near her on the yard, who didn’t bat an eye, Phoenix did seem less stressed so I will bear that in mind when it comes to clipping her. Perhaps have her best friend (who likes clippers!) tied near her.

The biggest factor in deciding on whether I’ll sedate her to clip is safety. Do I think she’s accepted the clippers enough to remain level headed, or is the adrenaline going to be pumping and her be in flight mode, which risks me being kicked or hurt. I don’t want her to learn a bad habit or bad associations with clipping, so I’d much rather she is put to sleep, has a positive experience, and then we continue with desensitisation over the winter and through the summer.

We shall see how the next couple of weeks goes. I think given time she’ll learn to accept clipping because it’s her nature to try to please, and so I’ll give her all the time she needs.

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