Thursday, June 22, 2017

22nd June, 2017 Loading Myths and Mistakes

Think about if from your horse’s point of view. Why would he, a flight animal, walk into a small dark space with no obvious way out, be shut in, rocked and vibrated, deafened by noise, and taken away from his friends? It’s amazing that any horse would choose to load! Yet with good training and a bit of practice, most horses will willingly do so. 

It’s tempting to think that if you have a good relationship with your horse he should load for you, however most horses are asked to load in a worry, in a hurry or in an emergency; the time when you’re adrenalin is at its highest and your patience at it’s lowest.

Have you noticed how many people come to ‘help’ when you’re horse won’t load? They appear from nowhere. Most are of the ‘you MUST’ persuasion and bring with them a variety of whips, long reins and brooms. They tend to take control of the situation, force the horse to load, and leave you with feelings of guilt and regret that you allowed someone to treat your horse in this way. Politely tell them to go away, that you have all the time in the world, and will get there in the end.

The best way of ensuring that your horse will load in any circumstances is to train him and to practice, practice, practice in a variety of situations. Training needs to be incremental and to start off with good groundwork, asking your horse to move forwards, backwards and sideways at your request. 

Myth number 1 – My horse is just stubborn
Your horse always has a reason for not wanting to load, even if it is out of date! It may be instinct, fear, or the manner in which he has been handled in the past. Once a horse has developed a strategy for not loading which has worked he has done his job. In his mind he is keeping himself safe. It’s your job to convince him that there is nothing to be worried about.

Myth number 2 – The horse must wear thick travelling boots.

These boots tend to cause more trouble than they solve. They can make your horse feel very hot and uncomfortable encouraging him to rub at them. They tend to move and fall down so that the horse treads on them and panics when he thinks that he can’t move. Well fitting sports boots offer good protection without overheating and upsetting your horse.

Myth number 3 – Hold the lead rein close to the horse’s head

Your horse may feel very restricted if you hold him close to his head. It’s better to give him some slack in the lead rein, which should be 12’ long, and only put pressure on his head to ASK him to come forwards. Have your hand palm down on the lead rein as if you were riding a bike - this will give you greater control and feel. When approaching the trailer, walk next to his head rather than his shoulder.

Myth number 4 – If he stops, don’t turn and face him!
It’s perfectly okay to turn and face your horse when loading. If you feel resistance as you approach the trailer, turn and face him but look at his feet rather than straight into his eyes. Eye contact may stop him in his tracks whereas you are simply interested in whether his feet are moving. Make sure that there is some room for him to come forwards and then start using a little pressure on his head to ask him to move. The instant he takes a step towards you, release the pressure on his head so that there is an obvious benefit to him. If he doesn’t come forwards, you can try a stronger pull on his head with a definite release, and you may well find that he comes in to that release. During initial training, you may want to back him off again for three strides before ask him to come forwards slightly more each time. This has the effect of relaxing the horse as he realises that you are not going to force him all of the way in in one go.

Myth number 5 – if he plants on the ramp, just wait and he will eventually load.

He may do. Alternatively he may just grow roots that are longer and longer – hence the term ‘planting’! In this situation you could use angles to ask him to move sideways so that standing still is not an option. This will stop him going to sleep on the ramp as a result of the release of endorphins as you pull harder and harder. You may find that a training halter will help you here but they need to be used judiciously and you may find that the ones with thin rope over the top of the head encourage the horse to rear.

Myth number 6 – if he steps to the side of the ramp, turn him around and approach the ramp again.

This technique is a really good way to teach a horse to step to one side of the ramp because that is all he needs to do to stop anyone asking him to load. Most modern trailers have low ramps that can be stepped on easily from any angle and your horse is quite agile. If it is safe to do so, continue to ask him to load from this position.

Myth number 7 – if he won’t load it’s okay to tap or hit him with a whip to make him go forwards.
It’s true that a horse that has been encouraged to go forwards with a whip or even a broom is likely to load on that one occasion. However there are some dangerous side effects to this method of loading. If your horse has been hit on a previous occasion, he is more likely to refuse to go anywhere near the ramp at all, to kick out or run backwards when approached from behind, and to be agitated when he is actually in the trailer.

Myth number 8 – using panels to load a horse won’t teach him to load; you can’t take panels with you everywhere.
In a training situation panels are simply an extension of the trailer and can be used to create a safe space. Rather than using them to force the horse to go on, they can be used to encourage the horse to engage with the trailer and to flow on and off. As the horse begins to relax and to realise that he is not in danger, the panels can be removed one by one until he is loading without them. It is unusual for a horse to go on strike about loading once he has been taught how to do it quietly and repeatedly, using the panels. 

Myth number 9 – Once the horse is in, slam the ramp shut and get moving!

If you train your horse incrementally and use the back bars and front bars to contain him, the ramp can be closed very quietly, talking to him all the time. Part of the training is to teach your horse that he may have to stand in the trailer while it is stationary for a period of time. Give him a haynet to keep him occupied.

Myth number 10 – "As soon as my horse is in the trailer he rests his foot, this proves he was just being stubborn!"

In fact this is more likely to be a ‘running foot’, a sign that the horse is not relaxed and is reserving the right to run, like Usain Bolt from the starting blocks, if anything goes wrong.

Myth number 11 – You should use food to bribe your horse to come on to the trailer or You should
not use food to bribe your horse to come on to the trailer.

Well, yes and no. The disciplined use of food to ask a horse to load may well help and it may be enough to have a nice scoop of feed in the front of the trailer for when he is fully loaded. As a personal choice, I often use clickered treats to reward a horse for coming forward on to a trailer but I am careful to make sure that the horse doesn’t train me by taking one step forward and then two steps back. I find the click makes sure that the horse doesn’t look for food unless he hears it but my timing has to be very accurate if I am not to reward the horse for behaviour that I don’t want. If your horse is too food orientated you will need to take care with this, and it is always better to introduce food treats as part as part of a properly considered programme.

Myth number 12 – If I can’t get my horse to load, I can always have him sedated.

I would question whether you would really want your horse to be dopey while he is travelling. Balancing in a trailer is actually hard work for a horse – hence many don’t want to load again to come home after they have done even more work at an event. Horses that have been sedated are often disorientated when they come round, and some come out of sedation explosively, creating a real risk of injury. In an emergency a vet may agree to sedate your horse to get the job done but it is not a long term solution and may cause more problems than it solves.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

21st June, 2017 Hiding Nothing

Got to the fields this morning to find that Zoe and Zelda both had runny noses. The vet has been and taken swabs and we will find out what it is very quickly. Nothing is confirmed or unconfirmed at this stage but in the spirit of openness I will keep you informed. My New Forest ponies had no contact with these two before they were turned out so there should be no concern there. However these ponies have been in contact with our riding horses and Jack and Jack-Jack. As a precaution, because of the long incubation period for a number of infections that may be behind these symptoms, I AM CANCELLING THE END OF AN ERA PONY PARTY which is upsetting but sensible I think. I shall also close the fields to outside horses and visitors for a couple of weeks until Zelda and Zoe have gone home and I know for definite that my horses are symptom-free. I hope you will appreciate that I am being open and will hide nothing and that this will avoid the need for rumours or speculation. Talk to me first!!!

Monday, June 19, 2017

19th June, 2017 33 Degrees!

With everyone in danger in melting, it's good that Zelda and Zoe needed a bath. It's been a while since they have both had one and it was great to know that the lessons they learned last year have stayed in their minds. They were both fitted with fly rugs too and didn't seem to mind becoming zebra. I'm told the black and white stripes help to cool them down and also boggle the eyes of insects. Both ponies are inclined to chew things so it will be interesting to see how long they last.

Now that the stallions are definitely meant to be in, I could turn Nelly and Blue back out with Juma, and Uncle Blue. They seemed delighted to begin with but I'm not sure they were quite so happy when their only shade was a skinny tree next to the pond.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

18th June, 2017 Rubik's Cube

Every so often we have to re-jig the fields to take into account everyones' dietary, emotional and safety needs. Zoe and Zelda need to be kept away from the temptation of the stallions over the fence, new Jack needs to at least be watched if he is going to be next to Théoden who has never been fond of young upstarts, Henrietta needs her feet (and her tummy) worn down, and my Jack-Jack is getting too fat. Fortunately the fields are set up so that we can usually move them without having to catch each and every one of them.

Such changes cause great excitement as the horses meet and greet each other, and go through their emergency drill.

Some are more calm and collected than others...

Zoe and Zelda worked well in the draining heat yesterday, tolerating horrible insects which we tried to swish away with their reins. We long reined them side by side in preparation for their possible driving career as a pair.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

17th June, 2017 He's So Hot!

I thought Juma should take the top slot in all of his gloriousnessness.

First horse of three yesterday was Jack. His owner has been practising her clickered halts over the last week and was able to show me just how well Jack has been doing.

With all of that well established, it was time to see what would happen if she tried to mount him or even thought about it. All of his old patterns were just below the surface - backing up rapidly, turning side-ways, and pushing forwards.

With a little more work, stage by stage, he began to relax and no longer saw every bit of preparation as a cue to begin one of his postponing strategies. Suzzanne is light and agile and is prepared to get on him bareback until his freshly reflocked saddle turns up next week. We asked him to stand with her standing on the top of the mounting block, when the reins were picked up, and when she lifted her leg up to go over his back. Suddenly he believed us that there wasn't going to be any trouble, and relaxed so that she could get on. From 35 minutes to mount to 35 seconds. That's better.

"Wow what a session it was fantastic thank you so much, I so enjoy it and feel I am learning and developing such a great relationship with Jack and in such a positive way." ST
Zoe and Zelda wore their bits for the first time and just carried them while we led them around the inclosure. They both have 4 1/2" Myler Low Port Comfort Snaffles and it was noticeable that after initially playing with them, they both relaxed and just held them. Our walk took us in opposite directions, crossing paths occasionally, and is a really good way of working on independence.

These lovely bucks are developing their new antlers ready for the rutting season. Doesn't seem five minutes since they were losing them.

Friday, June 16, 2017

16th June, 2017 Sweet Breath

Yesterday Zoe and Zelda settled to their long reining very easily despite being inundated with every kind of annoying insect you could find. They were happy to take the lead or follow on behind, and with big gaps between them so that they were effectively independent. When leading one, it was glorious to be able to sense their breath on my arm as they walked calmly beside me - that's when you know they are in the best place for leading.


Talking of which, I touched Juma and Juma touched me, his little mouth just tap tapping on my clothing, and his breath just reaching my arms. I don't want to do anything to actively tame him at this stage as I don't want him walking up to strangers.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

15th June, 2017 Casterbridge

Last trip to Dorchester for the day, yesterday, to help Jane with her PRE, Tia, a horse I first met four years ago.

First I had to make sure that the rest of the family had been fed - actually I just said, me, me, me as soon as I saw Mike take the bottles down to the lambs.

We did three separate sessions with Tia who has had a bit of time off work - leading her out...

...and doing some mounting work.

We had a very colourful audience...

Dory, the Dartmoor cross pony is particularly delightful.

and twenty-seven year old, Lipizzaner, Easter looks amazing for her age.

Meanwhile, Tracey was on foal watching duties and almost had a heart attack when she couldn't find any of the ponies. They were sardined in to the field shelter but quite happy away from the flies.

The sun was definitely out...

14th June, 2017 Trailer Loading - Getting it Right First Time

Horses are quick learners when they think their life is at stake; things only have to go wrong once for them to not want to ever try something again. Sometimes horses are loaded for the first time in an emergency, a rush or a panic.

An ideal world 
In an ideal world you, the horse and the trailer need to be ready. By practising well in advance, the drama can be taken out of the first journey – loading needs to become boring, humdrum and run of the mill; no excitement, no tension and no bother. By thinking like a Health and Safety officer, accidents can be avoided and the stress of loading and travelling minimised.

The horse 
Leading and leadership are critical to good loading. Your horse needs to be able to stand still, be manoeuvrable, co-operative and to trust you in order to go in and stay in. Good basic groundwork is incredibly useful: the horse should move forwards, backwards and sideways step by step at your request and understand pressure and release. Exercises such as L-shaped poles and going over a tarpaulin are helpful.

Your horse needs to be accustomed to the equipment he will wear – a poll guard, boots and a Dually halter if necessary.

The trailer

Your trailer needn’t be purple but it must be roadworthy and safe. Roll underneath the trailer and bodge the floor with a screwdriver – too many horses have gone through neglected floors and ramps. Fittings must work and be safe and sensible to use – proper solid back bars rather than webbing with nasty clips or chains which could cause terrible injury. The trailer needs to be big enough and there should be no sense of making do. 

Don’t be tempted to load off a hard surface when practicing or if you have ever met resistance - horses have reared, gone over backwards and been killed outright. The trailer hitch must be supported by a tow bar so that it doesn’t see-saw. The brake should be on.

New trailers smell new and horses like to go where another horse has been. An old “calm” horse poo can help whereas a runny adrenalin filled poo won’t. 

The human 
The person with the horse is in charge, not only of the horse but of the whole process and everyone else involved. You need to say where everyone should be and what they should do and they must put up with it! Only involve people that you know that you can trust. As team leader keep your voice low, unexciting and keep breathing; the horse will look to you to see how he should feel. Saying please and thank you to everyone around you helps to lower any tension.

You need the right kit too – hard hat, sturdy boots, gloves and a 12’ line to your horse.

Let’s go…. 
The first time the horse is loaded, take the partition and bars out altogether. The front ramp needs to be closed with the top door open and the jockey door open-able but closed to. Some horses load better if the front ramp is down but there’s too great a risk of the horse learning to dash through, banging his hips or squashing you.

Having done your groundwork, approach the ramp. All but the most confident of horses stop en route but there’s no need to pull, push or say anything. Step out of the horse’s space and face him but look at his feet not his face; eye contact at this stage is bound to stop him in his tracks. 

Ask him to take just one step forwards by using ring finger pressure only on the Dually; a hint of pressure with a little give rather than intermittent yanking or heavy pressure (remembering that horses are “into pressure” creatures). If he even moves an ear forward give a release in the line and then gently back the horse up a couple of paces to say thank you. This allows the horse to lower his adrenalin and to think. Ask him to come forward again. If the horse takes one step reward in the same way: “gooood boy”, give a release in the line and ask him to gently back up. Generally the horse will step forward the first time, touch the ramp with his nose the second time and put his foot against the ramp the third time. Next he will place a foot on the ramp and step by step go up the ramp and into the trailer. The good horseman is the one that has the courage to back him off each time and trust that he will come forward again. The horse becomes utterly familiar with the trailer in an incremental way. Learning there is a back exit even when there is a front ramp is vital to the horse. If he goes to the side of the ramp, ask him to step on to the ramp from the side rather than turning him away from the trailer.

Once the horse is happy, he can be led out of the front but needs to understand that ramp down does not mean horse out; build in a good pause before leading him out. Beware, the horse may jump the front ramp the first time he leaves that way.

'Bribery and corruption'?

Food may be used to make a pleasant association in the trailer and this is something I have been using regularly for years. However, be aware that if you use it to 'bribe' the horse, rather than reward. Take time to learn how to use clicker rewards properly, i.e. when the horse has taken a step forwards, possibly relaxed or backed off nicely when asked. I have used clicker training with great success but a horse won’t compromise his safety for food, so the refusal to take food is a good indication of the horse's emotions. 

Be wary of leaving a trailer open in a field with food in it, especially when there are two or more horses with access to it, you have no control of entry or exit and they can injure themselves, get stuck or panic. Bumping into the side of a narrow ramp can be enough to put a horse off loading, or cause him to rush out of the side door, forever.

Introducing the partition
Next, the partition can be replaced and offset to one side, front and back if possible. The horse is loaded and unloaded with it in place but nothing closed up at this stage. Once the horse is comfortable, a helper can approach from behind and talk to him calmly. If he moves, they need to stay there until he stops and then walk away to reward him. This should be repeated until there is no reaction. They can then touch the horse on his bottom from the side. If he moves they need to calmly stay with him until he stops and then move away. Once he accepts this, they move the partition towards his rear end. If he moves, they should hold the partition in place until he stops and then move it away again to reward him for stopping. You need to remain calm and passive – “steady! steady!” in a high pitched worried voice is the Equus equivalent of “panic!panic!”

Once your horse is happy to be approached by the partition, the helper puts up the back bars on both sides and makes sure that all clips are done up properly. The horse is asked to take one step back so that he can find the back bar with his tail and know that it is there – some horses will jump when they touch it for the first time. My tip of the century would be to test this situation first by using something like a swimming woggle as a mock back bar to see what the horse's reaction will be. Then it doesn't matter if he does push through it, and it can be used to overcome his fear.

Putting the ramp up is the final stage. Never put a ramp up without a back bar in place unless you are absolutely certain that the horse will not back out. A man ended up with a badly broken foot when he was putting up a ramp as the pony decided to leave. Never tie a horse up until the ramp is secure as horrible accidents can happen if the horse panics and tries to go backwards.

Travelling with another horse
I prefer to load a horse on his own before loading with another although a quiet companion can really help the first journey to go well. Preferably they should know one another and get along; the adage “I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a lift with him” applies!!!

The first journey
The first journey should be about 20 minutes as adrenalin levels and heart-rate drop after that time. In an emergency you must unload the horse but taking a panicky horse off a trailer inadvertently rewards the panic. 

The driver 'chauffeurs' the horse and needs to be particularly careful about braking and significant right and left turns; horses have to learn to balance themselves and not to go 'into pressure' against the wall or partition. The passenger can keep an eye on the horse through the back window or on CCTV. 

The first journey needs to be a round trip rather than some major event – it’s always harder to load a worried horse away from home where everyone turns up with lunge reins and whips and plenty of rather loud advice.

More notes and tips to follow...