five steps back

I had a pretty unpleasant morning today, holding Murray while he was clipped.  Last year it took 1cc of Ace and a twitch to get him clipped.  Knowing that, I worked on his tolerance of clippers this year, but I didn’t do it as much as I should have and, honestly, it wasn’t showing much promise as of April.  I stuck to basic positive associations training: touch the clippers, get a treat. Let me put the buzzing clippers on you and stand still, and get a treat.  After a break through the Summer, I tried again a few weeks ago Murray stared at my as I rubbed the buzzing clippers all over his shoulder, withers, and barrel all doe-eyed and “so what?”

To say I was pleased would be an understatement.

After a few more sessions like that, I assumed Murray would be pretty mentally prepared for clipping this morning, but assembled our battle gear regardless: lots of treats, a twitch, and Ace.  We waited until the barn had settled, but Murray was having none of it.  He stepped out of his stall suspicious and jumpy and never let go of it.  Unfortunately, the clippers were included in that cloud of hatred.  I didn’t have the luxury of letting putting this off for another day, my barn manager had cleared her morning for clipping, so we moved to the twitch.  Unfortunately, Murray was already pretty wound up so he didn’t go to his happy place as quickly as he has in the past, and we ended up using some Ace to take the edge off.  We got the job done — functional, rather than fashionable, was always my goal — and we all live to fight another day.

This was definitely not the easy clipping experience I had (clearly delusionally) hoped for.   Nor was it the challenging-but-a-good-learning-experience I (more realistically) expected.  It did, however, point out to me some big holes in my training of and relationship with Murray.  One huge mistake I made today and in the past was forgetting to do a dress rehearsal.  I’m clever enough to do them for our dressage rides (I almost always bust out the coat and a pair of full seats before I show), so I really should have thought of this.  Whenever I’ve practiced clipping with Murray it has effectively been “in a vacuum”: I plug the clippers in and throw them over his body while giving him treats next to the mini-fridge.  Today, there were so many other elements involved: a giant extension cord, three people fussing around him, and a different pair of clippers (a BIG mistake on my part).  Add that to a bit of suspicion to start with, and none of the context I had ever provided him with for clipping in the past was being replicated.  No wonder he protested so mightily.

So it’s back to the training plan for body clipping.  Possibly, in the future, I will have more success clipping him on my own (okay, I may also be delusional on that one), but Murray certainly feeds off the energy of the situation and having three people with clear intentions around him probably set off some alarms.  There are lots of little touch-ups that he could use, and I’ll use those as an opportunity to habituate him to the clippers.  I’ll train him with an extension cord, with lots of people around, and with all different types of clippers. Central to this will be get-your-head-down and station training (hopefully, I will expand upon this later), to keep Murray focused on a task and understanding what I’m really asking (to stay calm and keep four on the floor!).

If I’m lucky, and with Murray I often am, his feelings about the clippers won’t have moved irreversibly into the negative and we can move forward with training from where we left off last week.  If I’m not, I’m probably in no worse shape than I was this time last year.  On the up side: the clip is done, and it definitely will not need to be re-done before Spring (and the Extreme Pony Makeover) arrives.

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