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….

 

 

 

More ORCA Conference information

Katie Bartlett also attended the ORCA conference and shared her wonderful notes.  Katie has put all these together on her website Equine Clicker Training .  As well as the speakers whose work was described by Mary Hunter, Katie has also posted notes for the talks of Dr Jaak Panksepp, Alexandra Kurland, Phung Luu and some private talks by Barbara Heidenrich, Steve Aibel and ORCA students.

Dr Jaak Panksepp

Dr Jaak Panksepp

Dr Panksepp is a neuroscientist who studies emotions in animals.  I was very interested to see that part of his talk also focused on the importance of PLAY and fun in teaching and learning…..he is also the man who discovered that rats laugh when tickled!

 

Alexandra Kurland

Alexandra Kurland

Alexandra Kurland has worked with horses for many years.  Her talk was about helping your horse to overcome anxiety and allowing your hands to feel relaxation.

Phung Luu

Phung Luu

Phung Luu works with birds and on free-flight shows.  With birds, your training has to be truly excellent, or they can simply fly away!

Thanks Katie for all you hard work taking and posting notes!

Wonderful information

ORCAOver the past couple of months, there have been several international conferences with outstanding speakers.  Sadly I have not been to any of these but I am fortunate enough to know some wonderful people who have attended some of these conferences and taken great notes which they are happy to make available to a wider audience.

The first was ORCA 2014, The Art and Science of Annimal Training conference, held in Texas.  Mary Hunter whose blog is stalecheerios, has written several excellent reports on presentations by Bob Bailey, Ken Ramirez, Kay Laurence and Steve White.  (Clicking on the name will take you to each speaker notes)

kay-laurence-and-mabel-300

Kay Laurence

steve white

Steve White

bob bailey

Bob Bailey

Ken R

Ken Ramirez

None of these are ‘horse people’ but the general philosophies and training that they use can by and large transfer across different species.  Steve White  and Kay Laurence are trainers of dogs (and their humans) while Bob Bailey and Ken Ramirez work with multiple species of animals

One thing in particular caught my eye….in Bob Bailey’s talk he suggested the following:

Ask yourself these questions for whatever you are doing:

  1. Are you having fun? Are you enjoying what you are doing?
  2. Do you want to have more fun? Do you want to keep doing this?
  3. Are you willing to pay the price for more fun?  That is, what are the consequences for what you are doing?
  4. Are you better off today than you were yesterday?  Meaning, are you moving in the direction you want to be moving in?

Having fun is such an important element for both motivation and learning.  Make sure that you and your horse keep enjoying what you do!!

Playing on the beach

Years ago my husband made a comment that struck a chord with me.  He said that dogs can enjoy an outing much more than horses.  When I tried to argue this he said,dogs get to run around, sniff and pooch at things but horses only get out when they’re ridden and they never get a choice about where they go!  He was so right.

I now love working at liberty and giving my horse the choice to stop and pooch.  Newbie and I have a great relationship which allows us to do a lot of work at liberty…on the beach.  I live on the shores of Tralee Bay, a shallow bay, several miles across, which pretty much empties on low Spring tides.  In addition, Tralee Bay opens to the Atlantic Ocean and the next parish west is  in the U.S.of A!  So we have a wide and wonderful playground, swept clean daily with lots of (seaweed) mats randomly arranged just for us.

We can lunge, trot, walk together, go from mat to mat at liberty and add in the leg flexions he loves.  We can be walking casually along when he decides to collect up and offer shoulder-in at walk….magic.  Yesterday we were out together just strolling along when he suddenly stopped.  When he stops to look at something like that, I usually just keep walking and he joins me soon after or I call him to come. And he trots over to me.  Yesterday that did not happen.

The local primary school is close-by with a small sheep field between the school and the beach.  Obviously taking advantage of a fine spring day, there were the sounds of a game being played in the yard, complete with sharp referee’s whistle.  In a classroom there was a tin-whistle lesson taking place.  (For anyone unfamiliar with the Irish tin whistle being played by a group of young learners, it can be a tad piercing and excruciating)  Brave teacher!

The unusual noises alerted Newbie who stopped to look, but then the sheep decided they had had enough and took off across the field.  Newbie turned to look at me when I called, his head high in alarm, but then clearly felt that home with his herd would be the better option.  He headed off in that direction, happily only at a walk, so I walked back, not towards him but parallel to him until we were past the sheep field.  I called him again.  This time thankfully, he came to me but he was not happy…head high, looking towards the field and foot moving.  He lowered his head for me to pop on a headcollar and attach rope reins but clearly he was not happy to have his head down when all those sheep thought the best option was running around!

So it was one of those ‘what to do?’ moments.  Insist on head lowering?  Head smartly for home? or put him to work?  We were in an area where there were some of my beach ’mats’ available and Newbie loves his mat-to-mat work so this is what I decided to do….put him to work with something that he loves and feels comfortable with.  We went from mat to mat at walk.  I used the reins to ask for collection prior to moving off and to give him a direction to the next mat but then released him to step on it.  We did this for some time and the familiarity and rhythm of the work quickly settled him down.  When I felt he was relaxed, we then walked away to a different area (away from the sheep), where he was happy to stay with me at liberty once again…although I did leave his headcollar on!  A few minutes of just walk, halt, back-up games and we headed home.

The next day we came onto the beach with Newbie ‘dressed’ in headcollar and reins.  We strolled casually to in front of the sheep field.  It’s spring and there are now lots of lambs bleating, so his head was up listening to all this relatively new noise, coming from what had been a scary place just a day ago.  We started mat work and very quickly his focus returned so that we could play with reverse arc circles and even trot (which would have been unthinkable the previous day).  After a few minutes (time unknown….I often think we’ve been out for 5-10 min and check my watch to find it’s been closer to 30min!,  we headed off up the beach, both of us with enough confidence for me to take off the reins and enjoy some casual liberty time.

Splashing along

Splashing along

Shaping ……What is it?

‘Shaping’ is the process of growing a behaviour in small increments.

It’s a little bit like the children’s game where you are directed to a place by someone saying that you’re cool (not too close) cold (wrong direction altogether), warm (right general direction) or hot (right there!).

The main difference is that when we shape a behaviour with animals, we only use ‘yes’ (warm/hot) answers.  We start by capturing a tiny bit of the behaviour we want to shape.  So, for example, if we want to shape head lowering to the ground, we simply observe the horse until we see his head dip down a fraction…click and treat.  Then watch to see if this is repeated, CT.  Capture this a few times and then wait for the horse to drop his head a little lower before clicking.  Very quickly your horse will recognise what’s happening and we continue clicking and treating each increment of head lowering until the horse is consistently lowering his head to the ground.

Aoife Stephens used this technique as part of her Young Scientist project in 2011 while she was in transition year in school  This video shows her working with a pony with no previous clicker training experience.

We can use as many steps or thin-slices as needed to go from the start to a finished behaviour….In scientific terms these are known as successive approximations.

Guidelines for successful shaping:

  • For this exercise, it’s important that your horse is completely free to leave the game. He can be at liberty in a paddock or loose in his stable.  The space doesn’t have to be huge but if he chooses to walk away, he must be free to do so.  In the video above you see Aoife working with a pony in an open shed where the pony can move away from her.
  • For a novice horse/pony or an animal you don’t know well, use protective contact. This means work behind a barrier as Aoife is doing here.  In this case it’s a very simple set-up with a rope strung across the front of the shed so that she can stay out of the pony’s space if he starts to mug her for food.  You can work behind a gate to a field, over a fence etc.
  • Keep your sessions short.  Take about twenty treats and when they’re all gone, finish your session (use a consistent signal to show the session is over e.g. show your empty hands)
  • When you finish a session move well away so as not to tease your horse.  This gives your horse a mental break.  The break need only be a few minutes…enough time to refill your pocket/pouch and assess how your session went.
  • Accept the slightest try to start with….a muscle twitch, or a few millimetres of movement, etc
  • Festina Lente…for the latin scholars.  It means make haste slowly.  Be prepared to put in lots and lots of steps/thin slices between the starting point and the finished behaviour.  It may seem like you’re taking longer but the learning is much better and its often quicker.
  • Have fun!  Think of this as a game, not work and it becomes a pleasure for both you and your horse!!