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Trailer Unloading & Loading

16 August 2011 No Comment

Trailer Unloading & Loading
We asked horse training expert Rhett Russell.
More on Rhett.

I have an elderly mare that has been with me for almost a year. When we picked her up she went into the float (trailer) no problem. Since then I have only taken her out twice, on the same truck. She was a little reluctant at first, but after two ‘tries’ she loaded well and off we went to the beach. She loaded well to come home too.

The next time, same thing – reluctant at first, but went on after two attempts. This was the same truck too by the way. We were on our way to experience our first hunt. We had to make a stop on the way to pick up another horse, and the owner of the horse and the truck wanted her horse to be in the first ‘slot’ on the truck. This meant unloading my mare (silly, I know!). We took her off and they tried to get her horse on board, but she is very green and inexperienced and really fretted. They decided against taking her. But by this time, my mare had decided that this must be a big deal if this other horse hated it so much, and she would not load back on.

We tried and tried and what she would do was, she might get one foot on the ramp and then she would just turn around and RUN off! This happened a couple of times and we decided not to go to the hunt (or SHE decided for us). We went for a ride instead. When it came time to try loading her again, the same thing happened. I ended up having to leave her at this place overnight!

The next night we came up with the float, but the same thing happened. We ended up calling a professional who had her on the float within 10 minutes.

I had planned on doing some float training with her after this incident but haven’t had a chance. Also, another reason for me being reluctant to do it is, if she refuses to do it she will have won. And I will have lost. And she will do the same thing the next time.

What made her refuse in the first place? Do you think it will be different at home? The clattering noise of the other horse’s hooves as she clambered up the ramp set off the horses in the neighbouring paddock, and I think that’s what made my mare excited in the first place, but why wouldn’t she load after everything had settled down?

Thank you, Niki,
Auckland, NZ

Dear Niki, There are a few things that seem to make all of the difference in the world when it comes to quality loading and unloading. All of these should be accomplished on the ground before you ever get to the trailer. You have some goals to work towards; your horse must be able to stand quietly and be able to back softly before you are ever going to get quality loading/unloading. All of these exercises are important for building a foundation for your horse. The by-product of this good foundation is good behavior, manners, attitude, and things like trailering.

Your horse must yield to you. You have to have the six basic yields working for you; forwards, backwards, hindquarters to the left, hindquarters to the right, shoulder to the left, shoulder to the right. In addition, the horse needs to be able to stop, and stand quietly.

Using backwards pressure in a confined area like a horse trailer can be a little difficult. ItÕs easiest to teach your horse to move off of the pressure of your hand first and then move to the lead rope. There are a number of ways to teach this:

Pressure on the horseÕs chest: Use you thumbs and press into the chest muscle of the horse. Reward immediately when the horse begins to move backward. Lower your posture and reward the horse.

Pressure on the horse’s nose. Place your hand on the bridge of the horse’s nose and apply pressure. Reward immediately when the horse begins to move backwards. Lower your posture and reward the horse. Again, this is allowing the horse to follow the feel of your hand. It’s very important to have a good release.

Your horse also needs to move off of pressure from the lead rope and back away from you. To do this, stand about 10 feet in front of the horse. Wiggle the lead rope with a side to side motion. Start by asking with a small side to side motion with the rope, be prepared. It may take some extreme motion with the lead rope in order to get this message to the horse. When your horse starts to move backward off of this pressure, quit moving the rope immediately, lower your posture and reward the horse. You will notice that the more you work with your horse on this exercise the smaller the motion (pressure) with the lead rope you have to use to get the horse to move.

For difficult horses, and by this we mean horses that are so braced and resistant that they may as well have their feet planted in concrete because they aren’t going to yield. You need to take the pressure up a notch.

The important thing to remember with any of these methods is that you need to meet the resistance of the horse with a corresponding correction. By this I mean that if the horse is standing still and putting 100 pounds of pressure into you, you will need to respond with 101 pounds of pressure. The trick is not to get mad, but to stay focused on the task of backing up.

You need to be able to longe your horse over obstacles and onto different surfaces. Longeing is used to teach a horse direction, posture, power, yielding and to move off of pressure. For this exercise, we assume that you have already worked through the basics of longeing on the ground. Practice longeing your horse on good footing i.e. dirt, sand, shavings etc. then move on to concrete or pavement. Once you have that working for you, practice longeing over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood.

You also need to be able to drive your horse from the ground. You can’t ask your horse to ground drive until you have taught him the concept of longeing. The reasons are simple, unless your horse understands direction and power, you’ll be wasting a lot of time. And itÕs easier to teach those concepts with longeing than it is by ground driving first.

Practice driving your horse on good footing i.e. dirt, sand, shavings etc. Move on to concrete or pavement. Once you have that working for you, practice driving over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood. We have made a bridge that we use for training. The bridge is two feet wide and eight feet long. We drive the horse over the bridge, ask him to stop, back up, stand quietly for a while and then walk off. Once the horse has this under control, we add a piece of wood under the center of the bridge to turn it into a teeter-totter. This adds the effect of motion to the exercise which is very similar to the horse trailer giving under the weight of the horse. This is one of the best exercises to build confidence and bravery into a horse.

Practice backing your horse over obstacles on the ground. We like to back our horses over ground poles. This does two things at once; it gets them used to picking up their feet and they are going backwards at the same time. We repeat this exercise until the horse will softly pick up its feet and step backwards over the ground poles. This can be a time consuming exercise for some horses.

Another exercise that you can do is to practice going through gates both Frontwards and backwards. We added the tarp to our gate opening to make it even scarier to the horse. Many horses will rush through a gate because they donÕt like being in a confined area. This is a real good clue that your horse will probably rush into and out of the trailer. Try to use a gate or area with a 4-6 foot opening . Drive your horse through the gate, ask the horse to stop at the gate. Ask the horse to stand quietly. When you can do this with your horse responding quietly, ask your horse to back through the gate. Then ask the horse to stand quietly. Remember to reward your horse for appropriate behavior.

This may sound very strange, we also like to ask our horses to load into our trailer backwards. It’s not really important that the horse actually backs itself into the trailer. The concept is that it’s difficult enough for a horse to go in forwards, but if they have to back towards that big scary box then they are really working through their fear and flight responses. Start by asking the horse to take a few steps backwards towards the trailer and work up to where they are just touching it. This can be very difficult and you may wonder what in the world that this has to do with trailer loading and unloading. When you do turn the horse around to go in forward, they seem to be eager to attack this problem from the front. You are working on a couple of issues at once with this technique, backing up softly and going into the trailer (you just happen to be doing it backwards). ItÕs tough for a horse that hasn’t been exposed to these situations to accept being asked to back into a confined area. This is a very realistic exercise for both you and the horse to learn. We have done this in both straight and slant load trailers with and without ramps.

If you follow through with your groundwork exercises, trailer loading and unloading will not be issues to either you or your horse .

Good Luck, Rhett

CAUTION: There is some risk involved in horse training for both you and the horse. Horses can cause serious injury. Be sensible and donÕt attempt anything that is outside your comfort level. This information is intended to illustrate how we apply our training techniques, you are responsible for using this information wisely. If you donÕt feel comfortable with your abilities or an exercise, donÕt do it! Seek advice or assistance from a professional horse trainer.

Good Luck — Rhett Russell

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