Some trailer loading stories! – Misty

Like some other new horse owners, we bought a two year old filly with little or no practical knowledge or experience of horses.  Misty was our family cob.  I ‘started’ her with a traditional training book in one hand and a lunge whip in the other.  And yes, many, mistakes were made.  We were very lucky to have chosen a patient and good-natured horse.

misty in tideMy children had recently joined the local pony club and one thing I did know was that loading ponies into a horse box/trailer/float was frequently a huge problem.  (See Shadow’s story) This, I decided, would not be a problem for us.  So I borrowed a horse box and parked it in the field.  Initially we fed Misty close to the ramp, then moved the bucket onto the ramp and gradually further and further into the box.  She quickly learned that it was a great place to go….very rewarding.  During the hotter days, she discovered that it offered a great escape from flies.

We never lead her or asked her to go in.  She simply made her own arrangements.  There was a front ramp so she could walk out and with no partition in a two-horse box, she could also turn around to come out herself.

So with a completely confident pony, we decided to formalise the training.  The partition went back in and we lead Misty into the box.  There was always a treat to be had inside and by now the sight of a horsebox was sufficient to have her attempt to tow her handler up the ramp!  The one thing we did not train well was the backing off to unload.  We had a front unload for years and it was never an issue.

Some years later, we had to ask her to back off.  She happily obliged but then fell off the final step and gave herself a fright.  At that point clicker training had come into my life and so it was easy to teach her to back out one step at a time with a click and treat after each step.  We then warned her when she reached that step down with a verbal cue “step”.

Now she will happily back to close to the edge of the ramp and wait for her cue to tell her to step down.

 

 

Some trailer loading stories! – Shadow

When we moved to Kerry we were a completely horse-free family……not for long.  Our eldest daughter, Ruth, discovered the local trekking centre and it quickly became her second home.  I followed on then daughter number two and the rest is history.

I took part in my first hunt by accident (a story for another day) but then Fran, the owner of the trekking centre offered me one of her ponies, a 14 hand 2″ Connemara to go hunting (on the grounds that he was “pure useless at jumping”).  Shadow LOVED hunting.  He also proved to be very capable of jumping as I discovered one day when we came around a corner on a grassy track at speed to be faced with a five-bar gate…we sailed over it!

Subsequently, Ruth took him to her first hunt.  Her father borrowed a horse box and set off with daughter and pony to the meet. A great day was had and Ruth and Shadow returned hours later, both still in a state of huge excitement.  In fact Shadow was nowhere near ready to go home…..he wanted to go round again.

At this point in the family’s equine career, my husband knew that a horse had an end that kicked and an end that bit and very little else.  He was not in any way prepared for a pony that wouldn’t load.  Ruth, at about 12 years of age and with a year of pony club experience knew not a lot more.  She made several attempts at loading Shadow without success, when, as they do, the “experts” all arrived.

Hubby, knowing no better, left them at it.  There were whips, brushes and lunge lines applied to his rear.  He was pulled and tugged.  Feed was produced in an attempt to bribe him….all to no avail.  One by one the “experts” drifted away leaving child and pony at the base of the ramp.  Finally four strong lads strolled over.  “Having a problem?”  “fraid so”.
horse in boxWithout breaking stride, they divided up and each one dropped down beside a leg, got their shoulders in and bodily lifted Shadow onto the ramp.  Like a flash they picked up the ramp and lifted….higher and higher, as Shadow contracted his body to keep himself back as far as he could until, finally, gravity took over and he shot into the box…..clunk, click and a “There you go Boss.”  and the lads went on their way!!!!!
 

The Dreaded Trailer Loading

trailer rope on bum trailer rear trailer refuseTime and time again, trailer loading a horse comes up as a major problem. We’ve all seen the pictures of horses being pushed, beaten or shoved into a horsebox.  We often see the reactions of frightened horses.  A quick look on YouTube will bring up dozens of videos produced by horse trainers showing how to get a difficult loader into a trailer.  The vast, vast majority of the methods used involve getting a horse to ‘move his feet’ when he’s outside the box and only allowing him to stand when he looks at, then puts a foot on the ramp, two feet on, etc.

Why is loading such a problem?  It is after all, just another behaviour amongst all the many behaviours we teach our horses.  In most cases the problems arise because of the way the horse has been taught to load or, more commonly, how he has been loaded from the start without any training.  Many people assume that loading is simply something the horse should ‘do’ and don’t see any need for training.

“We cannot expect to get a behaviour on a consistent basis unless we have gone through a process of teaching it”  is an Alexandra Kurland mantra that is very important to keep in mind.  So how do we teach trailer loading?   By using all the principles of any good training.

Firstly decide what the final behaviour will look like:  I recommend writing this out.

  • Do you want to lead your horse in?
  • Do you want to send your horse in?
  • Does your horse have to step up onto a ramp?
  • Does your horse have to rearrange himself in the trailer, e.g. move sideways?.
  • Does your horse have to stand while you rearrange partitions?
  • Does your horse have to stand while you close a butt bar?
  • Will your horse be tied up?
  • Will he walk forward to unload?
  • Will he back off the trailer?
  • How will you ask him to come out?
  • Will he have to back down that step?
  • And so on….look at all the options and see exactly what you want.

Now look at your list.  Each step in the loading/unloading process is a behaviour in itself. Before you go near a trailer, it is important that your horse is happy doing each component behaviour.  If there are any gaps in his repertoire, then they need to be addressed before a trailer comes into the picture.  If you have a horse who barges when being lead or panics when tied up, then he is nowhere near ready for the trailer.

One particular step that I find people fail to address adequately is getting the horse off the trailer.  Yes, he has to go in in order to come out but he can certainly learn to back in the field or arena.

For many horses that step down off the ramp backwards is a huge issue.  They cannot see the edge or judge how big the drop is.  They often stumble and panic.  Teach your horse to step onto a timber mat firstly.  Ask for just one foot, then build up to all four feet.  When this is easy, then ask him to step up onto a platform.  Start with one front foot up, then that foot down, repeating until the horse is completely comfortable with this.  Then other front foot up and down before asking your horse to bring up a hind foot.

When a horse is happy putting a hind foot up and down, I usually add a vocal cue to tell him the step down is coming.  This can be a huge help when the horse is trying to locate that step off the ramp or box.

trailer grassReward each step!!  We want our horses to load happily and for the whole training process to be a pleasant experience.  Make sure that being in the trailer is very enjoyable.  As with all clicker training we start rewarding the slightest try with a high rate of reinforcement and gradually build up to more and more complex chains of behaviour.

 

Misty and Marte demonstrate good loading:

And unloading….