Wednesday, June 14, 2017

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...