Horse Clipper Buying Basics

Do a little homework, take stock of your needs and you're bound to choose clippers that will keep your horse tidy for years to come. By Joanne Meszoly for EQUUS magazine.
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Do a little homework, take stock of your needs and you're bound to choose clippers that will keep your horse tidy for years to come. By Joanne Meszoly for EQUUS magazine.

For sale: Clippers that mow easily through a bushy bridle path and quietly and crisply trim whiskers and ears. But not ideal for body clipping...

Horse Clipping Basics

If only horse clippers came with such straightforward descriptions. Most don't, of course, so you're left on your own to evaluate the dozens of models on the market.

The task may seem daunting at first, given the array of designs and options available. Clippers come with different motors, speed ratings, power levels or other features. Plus there are the more subjective elements, such as how a unit feels in your hand, how easy it is to use and how good a clip it produces.

As numerous as the options are, you can simplify your shopping equation by deciding at the outset how you will use your prospective purchase. Will you be shearing off your horse's winter coat? Or just trimming the unruly long hairs that grow on his lower limbs? Tidying up a bridle path and muzzle? Will you want to tackle all of these jobs and more? When shopping for clippers, as in making many other decisions, you'll want to begin with the end in mind.

Fortunately, clipper manufacturers help steer consumers in the right direction through their promotional literature and labeling. Thus, when you're getting ready to select a set of clippers, it's wise to start by becoming familiar with the basic product categories. For example, most models described as trimmers are designed for light applications, such as tidying up whiskers and ears. These units may also be called finishing trimmers or carry recommendations for use in "quick touch-ups." In addition, some are specifically called "ear trimmers" and those referred to as "quiet" and "for light use" are also intended for use around the ears.

Heavy-use products are generally constructed to handle body clipping or trace or hunter clips, where large swaths of hair coat are removed from the body. These clippers are built for big jobs, and they are usually made with a durable and larger casing. Because they are more powerful, some tend to be noisy and too big for the precision work of ear trimming or whiskers on the muzzle.

Many of the medium-range clippers on the market fall somewhere in between. Some of these middle-range machines are labeled for general clipping, and the product description may say that they are suitable for thick, matted or coarse hair. Medium-range clippers can be used to trim whiskers, clip around the head and clip legs; some may be suitable for body clipping, but larger clippers tend to handle those jobs more quickly and efficiently.

Types of Horse Clipper Motors

Many features are important to clipper performance, but a model's motor ultimately determines the jobs it can do. There are four different types of clipper motors:

  • A universal rotary motor operates using a stationary electrical component and a rotating component, which is mounted on the motor's shaft; the center component follows the rotating magnetic field, driving the blade. The motor spins very fast--at 10,000 or more revolutions per minute (RPM)--and the power is "stepped down" through a series of gears. Clippers powered by a universal motor are generally suitable for heavy-duty jobs like body clipping and cutting through thick or matted hair. But they generate a lot of heat and require a fan to cool the motor, which can make them fairly noisy. Some models are relatively large because they house a gear system.
  • Pivot and magnetic motors are similar in design to one another: When the magnet in each unit is energized, it pulls the arm toward it, which drives the blade. The magnetic model has only one arm that pulls the blade in one direction, then a spring pulls it back the other way. The pivot motor's arm is magnetized both ways so it pivots back and forth. Pivot and magnetic models tend to be fairly quiet but generally have less power and are more suitable for light to medium jobs.
  • A permanent magnet motor is another rotary model, but instead of operating with a gearing system, most permanent magnet motors are direct-drive--when the motor spins, an attached shaft moves the blade back and forth at the same speed. Permanent magnet motors are found in a variety of uses, from light to heavy-duty. In fact, these motors can be so small, they are often used to power the vibrating mode in pagers. Because they do not have a gearing system, the larger models are less noisy and produce less vibration.

Clipper Inputs and Outputs

Evaluating a clipper's speed and power can be a bit challenging. Some manufacturers supply information on watts and strokes per minute, but these terms are easily misunderstood. Wattage, for example, measures how much power is consumed, not how much is produced. "It all depends on motor efficiency," says Octavio Alen, a senior engineer for Oster. "A product may say 40 watts, which means it's consuming 40 watts, but it may be producing 25 watts."

Watts are meaningful in product-to-product comparisons only in certain circumstances, says Ken Duncan, Wahl director of sales and marketing. "The only way that you can compare clippers and say that one has higher wattage and, therefore, more power, is if all other categories are equal--if both clippers are equal in efficiency and materials in drive system and in motor type. Measuring watts isn't that cut-and-dried."

In addition, the meaning of strokes per minute (SPM) varies among products: SPM may represent the speed of the clippers without the blades attached or when the blades are not cutting through hair. What's more, companies measure stroke speed differently. Some measure one stroke when the blade moves left; other manufacturers count one stroke when the blade moves left and returns.

Nonetheless, a good rule of thumb is that the higher the SPMs, the faster the blades cut, but size and type of blade also factor into the equation. Rick Habben, an engineer for Wahl, explains, "The distance between the teeth makes a difference. The wider the distance, the easier it is to feed the hair and the faster it will cut." On the other hand, he adds, "The faster the blades go, the more friction and heat you create, and blades can get too hot to use on an animal."

Clippers that run at the highest speeds are not necessarily suited to heavy-duty jobs. "You may have a product that runs at a high rate of strokes per minute, and that sounds great to the consumer," says Duncan. "But if it doesn't have any torque, it may not be able to cut through a bridle path. For ears, on the other hand, you don't need as much torque, but you may want a faster speed so that the blades are not pinching the hair as they cut it."

Torque refers to the clippers' ability to maintain speed under a load, and if anything, it is a better gauge of power than watts or stroke speed. The more torque, the more hair the clippers can cut while maintaining speed.

Unfortunately, torque is usually not included in product claims--it is difficult to quantify, and there is no standard measurement of torque for clipper products.

Horse Clipper Blades

Compared to the mysteries of clipper motors and power and speed, blades are fairly straightforward. Each clipper is fitted with two blades: the stationary lower blade, called the "comb," and the moving blade above, called the "cutter."

The comb feeds the hair through, setting it up for the cutter, which slices the hair with each pass, cutting it at a length determined by the thickness of the comb. "The cutting point is measured not at the tip of the blade but at the point where the top blade moves against the lower blade," says Stephanie Sexton, marketing director for Premier 1 Supplies.

Blades used to clip horses range from the fine cut of a number 40 blade, which cuts the hair to 1/100 of an inch, to a number 3 3/4 blade, which leaves 1/2 inch of hair after cutting. Blade preference depends on the purpose of the cut; an owner clipping a horse in a colder climate may leave the hair a little longer, whereas a show horse in Florida will benefit from a closer cut. In the horse industry, says Fred Koeller, vice president of marketing for Andis, the number 10 blade, which leaves hair 1/16 of an inch long, has become the most popular medium blade, and many general-use clippers come with a number 10 blade attached.

The ease of changing or adjusting blades depends on the clipper's design.

  • In an adjustable-blade model, a lever on the side moves the cutting blade closer to or further from the outer edge of the comb.
  • Detachable blades snap on and off, allowing the user to easily change blades.
  • Fixed blades are screwed in place, so they can be removed, but the process is a bit more labor intensive. Some fixed-blade clippers are designed to use just one blade size. Blades dull with use--more rapidly when they are not regularly cleaned or lubricated. The life span of a clipping blade largely depends on hours of use, type of hair it is used to cut--including length, condition and cleanliness--and the overall maintenance of both the blades and clippers. Manufacturers and many local appliance repair shops offer blade-sharpening services, and do-it-yourself kits are also available. However, some consumers prefer to simply replace worn blades.

Making Your Horse Clipper Choice

You may not be able to "test-drive" new clippers before purchasing them, but you can poll friends or barnmates about which types they have used and which they prefer. When possible, borrow a few clippers so you can gauge firsthand their noise level, weight, size, and width of blade in relation to your intended use. If you do "try out" a friend's clippers, keep in mind that the performance of older, perhaps hard-used units will vary according to blade wear and the length of hair you're cutting. Nonetheless, you'll likely get a general idea of how the unit operates and whether it will suit your needs.

This article originally appeared in the July 2004 issue of EQUUS magazine.