In the Mode to Load

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Saddle, bridle, helmet, boots, buckets, horse treats: they’re all in the trailer and your client is ready to meet you with her new charge at an eagerly-awaited first show. Everything is loaded except…the horse. You’re looking at your watch, then you dial your cell phone only to learn that—oops!—the horse won’t load. If only she’d taken the time to learn how to load properly before now.

The next outing will be better, and that’s a promise from John Lyons, who condensed many hours of seminars and presentations, plus experiences with literally hundreds of problem loaders, into an invaluable primer for us here.

FIRST THINGS FIRST

It may surprise you that, initially, “the goal here is not to load the horse in the trailer,” asserts Lyons. The focus must always be about remaining safe, because no one—horse, owner, spectator—deserves to get hurt.

To accomplish job one, the horse needs to be calm and relaxed. “It does no good to shove it in ‘with a bulldozer’ and then hopefully get it out in pieces,” says Lyons. What you do correctly today will pay off handsomely down the road, with you on the road.

Loading is all about proper preparation, about understanding that everything the horse is going to do is related to its leading and ground manners. Plus, when you add an imposing new element like a trailer, you add the element of fear.

Here’s how to build a strong foundation to make subsequent loading a snap. First, says Lyons, you’ll need a snaffle bit—full cheek, D-ring, O-ring—and a lead rope connected to the side of the bit, reins removed. Throw the rope over the horse’s neck and hold snugly by the bit for maximum control.

A four-foot dressage whip is your next must-have tool; it’s used to teach the horse to go forward, in a location somewhere away from the trailer. “Tap on the hip and nowhere else, and the horse should walk forward, stop, back, move his shoulder away from me and come toward me on cue,” says Lyons.

When these simple commands have been practiced and learned—it really doesn’t take that much time—start toward the trailer but never, ever circle the horse to try and get him in, says Lyons. “If I get his nose to the ‘feed bunk’ in the center of the door and the nose is ‘loaded,’ the rest of the horse will be lined up,” he says. Lyons feels “it’s all about controlling that nose.”

Next will come a time when the horse must choose between the following options of what he’d rather do than load. You want to know what to do to counter those options, says Lyons, as you begin to tap and he: 1) backs up 2) rears 3) bites 4) kicks 5) goes away from the trailer and you 6) throws his head over the top of your head, trying to drag you, and 7) cuts between the trailer and you, to crush you between it and him.

If he tries to back up, rear, drag you or go away from the trailer, use the bit and simply pull him back. Don’t put yourself within kicking range. You can also use that bit—more effective than a plain halter—to turn his head away if he’s biting. Practice backing him up first, so if he tries to cut between you and the trailer, you can halt that behavior by backing him.

If he attempts to swing his head over yours, raise your whip and make yourself taller. If he’s backing up, and you don’t want that, keep tapping; if he continues backing, give him a “pretty good whack, a strong go-forward cue. The instant he thinks about going forward, reward him: Stop tapping and pet him,” Lyons says.

ONE FOOT AFTER ANOTHER

Now line your horse up, feet at the edge of the trailer bed, and start tapping. “If I see him even think about going forward, and his head goes down to sniff the floor, I’ll stop the tap,” says Lyons. He’ll again pet the horse and reinforce that “the cue just means forward motion. It doesn’t mean how much or little.”

“When he puts his nose on the trailer floor and then I tap, I’ll wait until he does that consistently, i.e., leaving his nose there. As soon as I see one back foot coming up off the ground, I stop the tap. Pretty soon, that back foot is coming up and stepping forward, then he’s leaving that foot forward and the other foot is moving forward, then the back feet are moving closer to the front feet and the back feet finally push those front feet into the trailer.” Voila!

Sounds simple, but be prepared to notice subtleties that occur quickly, says Lyons. The horse’s front foot starts pawing the ground, Lyons taps, the horse will paw again and soon—hurray!—a forward movement. Respond with another pet and praise, and your horse remains calm and relaxed. He’s telling you it’s OK to ask for the next step that will yield another correct response.

Encourage him to paw to his equine heart’s content, suggests Lyons. “His head is in the trailer and he’s making noise as his foot gets tired, and you’re tapping away. Pretty soon, your horse will leave his front foot in the trailer.” Success: but are you ready for this? “When he leaves it in, I ask him to back out,” says Lyons. “It doesn’t matter which foot or if he alternates.” What?

The reason makes perfect horse sense, says this trainer. “The first step in is the last step out and you’re teaching him to get out at same time.” Aha. Of course the horse wants to solidify his escape route and doing it this way—calmly, slowly and correctly—is a great idea.

This is the point where most of us “regular” horsemen and women get impatient. Not Lyons, who’ll repeat this process 25, 30 or 40 times, because it’s all about positive reinforcement. (Remember Pavlov’s dog?)

“I’ll work for hours so the horse doesn’t have to go through this entire lesson again the rest of his life,” Lyons says. “Impatience doesn’t train a horse, but knowledge does.”

FORWARD AND BACKWARD

During his seminars, Lyons is able to predict what the horse will do in 30 seconds or five minutes. The rest of us also need to know what’s going to happen and to plan for it.

First and foremost: Don’t lose your temper, which is not easy when you’re thinking, “I’m not going to be able to get this horse into a trailer.” That’s when, in a fit of rage, the person thinks he or she must “do something” to push, pull or scare the horse into a trailer. Not so.

“If the horse is on Step 36 and I know he’s not going to put his foot into the trailer until step 52, I won’t get mad now. When someone runs out of steps, they often don’t know what else to do.”

If the horse has loaded that foot many times—as many as 75—you’re teaching him a critical cue, Lyons says. That’s the time to pick up the lead rope, tug, and cue him to back out, just as you will in the future. Even if he’s backing out on his own, this isn’t a negative. Just carry on cueing him forward during this lesson.

The natural progression here, says Lyons, is that soon the horse will put two feet in the trailer, even if only two inches inside, and those back feet will be right next to the back of the trailer, oh so close. Once he’s entered the trailer one or two times with three or four feet, you may reach a pivotal point in this lesson, one which may sorely tempt you to come undone.

“He started off badly at going in, now he’s gotten good, and now, he could get worse, much worse,” predicts Lyons. He reckons that the horse will “put as much effort as he possibly can to try every different escape route or option he can think of.”

Remember that list of the horse’s options? This is the time that your knowledge of how to handle them will become paramount. “If the handler cuts off each option, the horse will get better at loading,” promises Lyons, who wants you to be prepared for the horse at this juncture to walk in, maybe five times at the most, and promptly exit again. Soon, he’ll get bored. “This segment of ‘bad’ lasts 10 to 15 minutes at the most,” Lyons says, so do take the time to ride it out. “Once he���s learned, he’ll walk into the trailer for the rest of his life.”

TIMING IS EVERYTHING

The best time to teach a horse to load is when you don’t need him to, reminds Lyons. Do it when you are not going anywhere, there’s no one watching, no one helping, and you have no time limit.

During the loading lesson, feel free to quit at any time, to retain your goal of having a horse that within five seconds is calm and relaxed. “The horse shouldn’t be upset more than 20 seconds at the most,” he says. And think like a horse, which has no way of knowing what your goals are. “He doesn’t know if it’s to get five feet from the trailer and quit or to put all four feet in. In the end, as long as you turn him away and walk him away and pet him, he’s thinking, ‘Wow, that was easy.’ Tomorrow the whole thing will be that much easier.”

During your lesson, whether you accomplish only one foot in, or two front feet or work him all the way through, as long as you’re using tapping and he understands what the cue is, you’re teaching an invaluable skill: move ahead.

Rome was not built in a day, but teaching a horse to load can take much less time when done properly right from the start.