Problem Sovling: Loading Your Horse
A day out with your horse can be perfect bliss – or a nerve racking, emotionally draining, confidence shattering, traumatic disaster, and it often depends on how your horse loads!
And for every horse owner with a loading problem, there are half a dozen ‘experts’ with all sorts of wonderful recipes for sure-fire floating success. When we consulted our favourite equine behavioural modifier, Andrew McLean, it was really no surprise to discover that Andrew doesn’t have any whiz bang fantastic gimmick for getting horses to quietly load and unload, as with all of the McLean horse education program, the matter comes back to a few breath-takingly simple basics. It’s all to do with how well the horse leads. When a horse is relatively unconditional in its leading responses, he will lead anywhere, including the float. So the thing is to train your horse to be clear in its responses to six simple manoeuvres in hand, and it will walk, calmly and easily on to the float… and, to practise this simple drill, you don’t even need to be anywhere near a horse float! These commands are ‘go’, ‘stop’, ‘head down’ ‘focus’ and ‘yield hindquarters left and right’. Andrew points out his system is an adaption of the method proposed by Tom Robert, who Andrew describes as ‘the father of practical horse psychology’ in this country.
First you have to teach your horse to lead, and as Andrew points out, there is an inherent weakness in the normal leading reaction of the horse due to the fact that the horse can learn to put up with the pressure of the halter or head collar behind the ears, if giving in to it means going somewhere he doesn’t want to:
“Because the leading-rein pressure at the top of the horse’s head is not sufficiently aversive compared with the aversiveness of the sorts of places we might expect him to go, such as into the float, we need to deepen his response to the simple lead pressure so he now chooses to go on the float. This can be done by combining the lead pressure with the incessant tapping on the shoulder (where the brand is) with the dressage whip. First, a note of caution: The horse must be able to lead reasonably well before you attempt this. Also, if you can’t touch your horse with the whip without him panicking, then habituate him to it by laying it on him, then stroking him with it till he is relaxed.”
“If you adhere to the following principles, you should have no difficulty in loading even difficult horses, without raising a sweat. You are training them not only to make a habit of loading properly and without fuss, but also to lead better, which may also sort out other conflicts.”
For this to work, you should be careful…
1. Only ever tap when you also have the forward direction pressure on the rein also. (So it empowers the lead response by association)
2. Only ever tap when the horse is not going forward, NEVER when he is.
3. Increase the intensity of the tapping, but not the lead pressure, when you feel there is no response within a reasonable amount of time.
4. Never have gaps of more than one second between taps.
5. Soften both lead rein AND cease tapping the very second the horse moves his foot/feet forwards. Also occasionally reward profusely with voice, and wither stroking.
6. You must not miss ANY backward steps with your tapping.
“When you remove the pressures of both tapping and mild head pressure, then the horse learns that the pressure of tapping is just another aspect of leading rein pressure, so it deepens his leading rein response to the point where that is certainly strong enough to counter balance any resistance to loading onto the float.”
But it is important that this tapping is immediately stopped, the minute the horse produces the right response…
“It’s crucial that the horse is never made uncomfortable, when he is actually giving the right response. It is equally important that the pressure is never removed when he is giving the wrong response. It’s the timing right throughout those behaviours that is essential to getting a clear response, then it is just a matter of training. It’s not a matter of liking or not liking a float , it’s just a matter of having a clear trained response to lead correctly. Many people confuse the issue by saying ‘oh he doesn’t like the float’ – it’s little to do with the float, it is your basic training.”
Which means we don’t even need a float for our training:
“Firstly, to begin his retraining, I should point out that it is best to have him in a bridle, so our control of his head is maximised. And yes, before pointing him toward the float, it’s best to get a head start on investing these leading basics into his brain beforehand.”
“We’ve got to make the horse fully manoeuvrable everywhere we choose – it’s up to us to be certain that we manoeuvre him in safe places only.”
“Apart from forwards, horses need to learn to step back in hand, which is the deeper response of the stop in hand. If the horse leaps onto the float it is not good enough, the horse is using a panic response to load, and this will backfire on us later on. So if he leaps or launches, I immediately stop him from going forward, and repeat the forward again. I never allow any flight response, as it does not lead to quiet loading. So we need the horse clearly going forward and clearly stopping.”
“To effectively train the stop in hand we train the step back. We put pressure on his nose (or mouth if he has a bridle on) with the lead rein going towards his chest and as soon as he steps back at all, immediately soften the pressure.”
“We also need to teach him to look straight ahead, which we call focus, so that when we get to the float we can quickly correct his looking away. So in our preliminary training, when he looks away, we can vibrate the reins until he faces exactly frontwards with his head.”
“We also need to teach him to put his head down when we put downward pressure on the lead rein. I once used to train this by putting my hand on top of the horse’s head and pressing the soft tissue there until the horse lowered, but a problem arose that most people, particularly many women, are not tall enough to reach the horse’s poll in the event of him raising it, so my brother Jonathan began using direct downward pressure of the reins or lead rope, and it works far better. To do this, rather than trying to pull down the horse’s head, it’s best to bring his head down by rocking it down, so that you create the softening reward at the end of the down stroke, and the horse quickly sees the window of softness there and seeks to lower his head himself as a response to pressure.”
“It is crucial to soften the lead rein immediately when the horse lowers. Then we can put his head down and raise it and put it down whenever we want to.”
“Putting the horse’s head down has a tremendous effect on calming him, he looks quite sleepy when his head is down, but the most important effect for us in training is that it further deepens the yielding of the horse to pressure in general. It’s about the interesting phenomenon in mammals of ‘learning to learn’, where learning certain themes that are repeated leads to the likelihood of the horse offering a similar response, such as yielding, to a novel stimulus. It helps train him to yield rather than fight first.”
Andrew likes to vary the places in which he does this basic work:
“I would start in the arena where I’ve got a fence, and move to different places around the property. If horses are always taught in the same places, they are trapped by their associations in terms of learning. Often to get the response clear it is a good idea to train it in the one spot, then start to test it in another, nearby, spot.”
Now we have the front end under control, we want to make sure we can move the back end at will:
“The only other thing to do, is achieve control of his hind quarters. So if we face the rump of the horse and hold the lead rein (we are on the near side) in the left hand and tap him gently on the hock to start with, then when he has got the message of stepping across his opposite hind leg, we work our way up the hindquarters, so that in a short while he yields from a tap on his hindquarters. Repeat this exercise on both sides, so we then have the ability to straighten him when we get to the float.”
“It is really not about the float – all the early work is just about establishing the handling basics. Forward, back, focus, head down and stepping sideways. Now we’ve got control of the head and the feet, I can take him to the float.”
“I don’t expect because of my training out in the open, he’ll immediately go in the float, because the float is often so aversive to the horse, particularly with horses that have learned not to go on the float. I am expecting that I’ll have to use the dressage whip to tap him forward again. I just make sure I’m ready and I’m facing his rump, so that if he does run backwards, I’ll be running forwards, tapping, not in any punishing way, just to set up an annoying situation which he will want to avoid. I can run faster forwards than he can run backwards (I’m hoping!).”
“Many horses run off the float in a panic. If this happens, it is once again because he doesn’t respond to the forward cue of the lead rein; if he did, he would stop running the moment he felt the lead pressure at the top of his head. So the thing to do is that as soon as he begins to run, however explosively, is to run with him and keep mild head pressure and quite strong tapping. You run as far as he goes, so that if he runs 50 metres (he won’t!) you must run and keep tapping until he steps forward, and he will. You must be careful he doesn’t turn away too. A horse may even trial rearing to avoid loading. Still you must keep tapping until he lands and steps forward. You will soon see a dramatic change in him in only a couple of repetitions. If you are afraid he will hit his head on top of the roof of the float you should abandon the thought because if your tapping stops when he hits his head, he will throw his head up to avoid the triple negative of (albeit mild) head pressure, tapping and going into the float. I always find that if I ignore the prospect of him hitting his head, and I keep tapping, he quickly lowers his head to avoid the roof. In training, you should always remember the principle of trial and error learning that whatever behaviour precedes the release of pressure, then that is the one the horse learns to give, that behaviour makes the pressure go away as far as he is concerned. This is the basis for all the training of the basics: the horse constantly seeks his comfort and freedom from pressure.”
“It is important to separate the area on the horse’s body which relates to forward and the area which relates to sideways yielding of the hindquarters. While I’ve been saying the shoulder (where the brand is) is the most convenient place to tap him for forwards in hand, it can be anywhere from the flank to the shoulder, but NEVER the flank. For yielding it is the sides of the rump, but never the flank. This way it is always clear to the horse (he can form habits around this) the direction we want.”
“Then I ask him to step onto the float. My aim is to get him to step onto the float tailgate, to step exactly the amount of steps that I ask for, and to stop when I ask, and to go back when I ask, not just to run onto to the float or off it. So I spend a lot of time going back, going forward however many steps, and soon the dressage whip is no longer needed. This is the proof of the pudding so to speak: the horse now goes softly and very very calmly forward and back from the lightest touch of the lead rein only.”
But of course, Andrew’s reputation as a ‘trouble shooter’ means that he is often called out to ‘fix’ a floating problem in less than ideal circumstances, without the opportunity to establish the basics over a reasonable period of time:
“In my position I usually get called out to load a horse onto a float and I haven’t got the benefit of doing it over a few days. So I’d do all the ground work in half an hour and then I’d start on the float.”
“It’s essential to prepare the float by removing any dangerous projections, ensuring the floor is dry and opening the central partition to maximum width and securing it.”
Then make sure the horse focuses on where it is going:
“When the horse doesn’t want to go somewhere the first thing he does is look away, because out of sight is really out of mind to a horse. When he looks away it makes the scary thing go away. When he’s able to look away, the second thing that happens is he’ll turn away with the shoulders. If he achieves a step of turning away that quickly escalates to the hindquarters and he attempts to run away. In the end it can all happen so fast. So it’s really important to keep his focus on the task. It’s the same as maintaining flexion when you ride: if you prevent him losing focus, he won’t turn his shoulders and then won’t run away (The BIG shy).”
“If the horse becomes crooked, which often happens, the first thing many handlers do (I think it comes from Pony club) is to re-present the horse. Most people think he can’t load from the side of the tail gate, so they go off on a great big circle to try again. The trouble is, all the horse really knows, is he was faced towards the float, he didn’t want to go on it, and by turning away it made the float go away. Bingo! Go crooked again.”
“Develop crookedness, perfect trial and error learning! The truth is, horses load easily from the side, even if they are crooked. Once he is going in smoothly from the side, it is time to straighten him by yielding his hindquarters. The fact that once horses learn to go into the float crookedly, they continue doing so, shows how readily horses form habits.”
“It is instinctive in most horses not to go into dark places, although many never develop a loading problem. A horse may however develop a loading problem very quickly. For whatever reason, he might just turn away, and if you let him, you may have a problem. If he hasn’t been properly taught to lead before you brought him to the float, then you may be in trouble.”
Lots of people like to teach their horses to load by putting the float in a gateway, where the horse can’t go past it, but for Andrew, this is not a thorough enough training method:
“I don’t like having barriers, I think that barriers do the job of substituting for training. Really the horse ought to go on the float where ever you are.”
“I like to train horses in loading to walk forward and back all over the tail gate, because if you are not careful, you will often find that horses will walk a particular track and not go on one side of the float. The side where they have never set foot becomes a bit of a bogey to them. I like them to be comfortable with the whole float.”
“I have found that many travelling problems are related to the way the horse leads onto the float. When people say they have a bad traveller, and I ask if it leads well, they say ‘Oh yes it follows me every where’.”
“But following is not leading, following is following. Following you onto the float is fine IF the horse leads onto it as well, but it can be disastrous (eventually) if it doesn’t. In training schemes for other animals it’s very clear that the things that we train by classical conditioning must sit on top of the things we have trained by operant conditioning (trial and error learning). This is because of the inherent reward in operant conditioning, and in the case of pressure release training, the reward is in the powerful form of freedom from pressure. That is why operant conditioning comprises the basics of training in hand and under saddle in horses, and is the basis of training for ALL performing mammals. Anyway, that means that the cues we use – such as the horse seeing the picture of us going forward in front of the them whereby it just follows us (Classical conditioning, no inherent reward) – is not sufficient basis to go into the float, and on top of that you can’t enforce it when things go wrong. You then face retraining leading in the horse. It is the quality of those pressure release responses invested in the repertoire of the horse’s behaviour which, altogether, are responsible for either conflict OR relaxation in the trained horse. So it is not surprising that conflicts like pawing, kicking and bucking in the float (but not scrambling, that’s a driving/cornering problem) tend to subside when the horse’s leading responses are retrained. Similarly, stereotypes like windsucking and weaving, and other neuroses like self mutilation and aggression in stallions also subside when clear soft leading and stopping cues arise from pressure release training.”
“I make sure I can go everywhere I want in the float, forwards and backwards. I have made sure I can choose the steps, two steps forward, one step back etc. etc. and that the horse will stand immobile, anywhere, not because I’m holding him, as the lead is loose, but because he’s trained. I reward and make a big fuss of him when he is inside.”
“I also think that when they learn to lead and stop properly, you develop a ‘feel’ for the contact. I think it’s similar to the ‘feel’ of the reins when you ride. I don’t like to lead a horse on a loose rein, I like to lead on a contact, a light reasonably short contact, whereby he’s stopping and leading softly and easily.”
“I do prefer to load in a bridle because I like to have a lot of control of the horse’s face so that he’s not able to look away. That’s the trouble with head collars, it’s too easy for them to look away and lose focus. It’s also easy for them, in a head collar, to turn their head and barge off, whereas in a bridle it’s not so easy.”
So there we are, we started out trying to teach our horse to get on the float, and discovered that it really had nothing to do with the float in the first place – and then found that the techniques we put into place, started us down the first steps of training our horse under saddle.
When you use a logical, scientifically based system, like Andrew McLean’s, then all training is like that. The basics in one area will expand and work through the horse’s entire training scale. So think about it, get the loading right, and it could help your chances of riding Grand Prix dressage or conquering a four star cross country track…