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Start them young!
The youngsters are fed in the trailer and learn that it's a nice place to be. Later, they will be taught to load on command. I don't believe in going into a confined space with half a tonne of unpredictable horse flesh unless I have to!
Teaching youngsters to lead
Sorry, the aspect ratio of this video is wrong! Our ponies do NOT look like sausage dogs (except in this video!).
Pressure and release is an essential concept to understand in horse training. It is also important in teaching ponies to load.
We use rope head collars for training. When light forward pressure is exerted, that puts pressure on the poll. To remove the slight discomfort, a horse will instinctively try various things. When it moves forwards, even the slightest bit, the pressure is removed. Horses learn by try and error. Too much pressure and the horse may go into "escape mode", i.e. it panics and may try a variety of things that it is programmed to do by instinct, such as rearing or struggling. So "less is more". Gentle steady sustained pressure works better than force. The key is to be gentle and reward the slightest body movement in the direction you want the horse to move. That might initially be just a shift in body weight without the feet moving at all. In the video, Jen works two yearlings applying gentle pressure-and-release to get them to walk over various obstacles. Timing is critical. Release pressure immediately the horse complies.
Teaching a foal to load
Familiarisation is the key. Get your horses used to trailers while they are young so they realise they are not dangerous and to be feared.
Warning: Before working with ponies and trailers, make sure the trailer is stable. This one has the rear stabilisers down, also the jockey wheel, but could still do with extra support at the front just to be sure. You might be able to achieve similar stability by placing blocks under each corner of the trailer.
Here are a few pictures of Aza ("Foxy"), the German Shepherd, and Fergus, the gelding, showing Morrich Finn the Foal that trailers are fun!
There is nothing like starting them young and letting a young animal's natural curiosity do the work in a gentle and gradual manner! But, if trying this at home, be aware of safety. Always have the trailer attached to a suitable vehicle or have the jockey wheel and stabilisers firmly in place. And make sure all catches are secured so there are no sharp points to hurt your pony. You can help things along by putting food inside the trailer but never use force. The last thing you want is for your pony to associate transport with something unpleasant.
Aza: "Hey, Finn, why don't you go inside?"
Finn: "I don't think so. It smells funny!"
Aza (the German Shepherd): "Oh, come on, this is fun!"
Finn: "Well...If you are really sure...".
Finn: "Oooh! Here's another door!"
Aza: "There, I told you so!" Finn: "Yes, it is fun!"
Finn: "I think I'll try it this way this time".
Finn: "Hi Uncle Fergus, look what I'm doing!"
Fergus: "Yeah, big deal!"
Finn: "Well, I don't know why I made such a fuss! I can see so much more up here!"
Training a horse to load by itself - on command:
As a dog trainer and falconer, I am fascinated by the learning process! Two bought in mares (10yo and 13yo) had real problems loading into a trailer when they arrived. One would stop when she was led within 25 yards of the trailer and the other would just stop on the ramp and freeze! Three of us more-or-less lifted this last one onto the trailer to go to the stallion and it took two of us 2.5 hours to load the 13yo to bring her home!
The usual way to load a horse is to lead it in. But that is a problem because most accidents happen when a handler is in a confined space with a nervous horse. I read of another way; simply train the horse to load itself! So the mares have been trained to load on command.
The first step was to familiarise them with the trailer which was attached to an old Land Rover and leave it in the field over winter. Then hay was left in the trailer so they learnt to go in and out to feed. Next, the trailer was left backed up to a gate. An electric fence was moved every day offering a tempting strip of fresh grass. The ponesi were moved into a bare paddock every night and could only access the new grass by walkking through the trailer. The ponies had to go in at the rear ramp and out of the front ramp! The ponies with no loading problems caught on quickly and the bad loaders followed them. Initially, they'd go through at the gallop, then after a while, they'd walk through. Then they would linger to pull at a hay net in the trailer.
Note in the photographs that the front jockey wheel is down and the rear is supported on stands. If you don't have stands, either attach the trailer to a vehicle or support the rear with blocks, otherwise the trailer could tip which might upset an already suspicious horse. You really don't want that to happen!
Left: Gracie is a good loading so she doesn't mind walking through the trailer from the bare paddock beyond the trees to fresh grass nearer the camera.
Left: Gracie has gone through the trailer and now has access to fresh grass behind the electric tape. Breagha, also a confident loader, can be seen walking through the trailer.
Left: Molly comes through the trailer to join Breagha. She is a very reluctant loader but learns from the others that there is nothing to fear. Even so, she initially cantered through! Both will now have access to fresh grass on the left so are rewarded for going through the trailer.
After a few days, Molly relaxes and walks through like the others.
When they reached that stage, the front ramp was closed and the ponies were worked in the small corral you can just see beyond the trailer. If they so much as put a foot on the ramp, the pressure was taken off immediately and they were allowed to rest. Everything up to this point was done with the centre partition removed.
Gradually, they were asked to go further into the trailer where there was hard feed and a hay net. Each day, the pressure was removed when they put a foot an inch or two further up the ramp. After a while, they would go half way in -- but come out immediately. This is all part of the process and they should be allowed to come out without any force being applied. It reassures a prey species to know that it has a safe escape route from danger.
Below: Molly finally relaxing in the trailer
Gradually, the ponies relaxed and would pull at a hay net hung part way down the trailer. Inch by inch, they were encouraged to feed further and further in. Each time they went to go into the trailer I'd shout "Load up!".
Finally the day came when I had a visitor. As we stood leaning on the outside of the coral I explained what I had been doing. Then I shouted "Load up!". Molly obligingly walked straight into the trailer on cue. My visitor was most impressed. The avoid being loaded, Molly would plant and, if pressured, would rear, so this is pretty dramatic progress.
Now, at this stage, the mares are taken from the field to the corral where they go into the trailer for treats (a small ration of bruised oats, chopped apples and carrots). They canter down the field and go straight into the trailer without being asked while I bang the sides, clatter bum bars, and generally de-sensitise them to strange noises. Molly even tolerated my rocking the trailer from side to side on its springs!
The mare and foal were put through a similar routine. At first, the foal would not go into the trailer, but after mum had gone through, he was pushed through and soon got the idea. After a few goes he was walking through quite unconcerned. Success!! I really do enjoy training as it makes me think how the animal's mind is working and that is always interesting.
Training in the Round Pen
Since building the round pen, trailer training has become a lot easier. The technique is simple. The trailer is backed up to the gate of the round pen (my pen has two gates) and the ramp let down. The trailer is stabilised by being hitched to a vehicle and the two rear stabilisers are put down. The pony is gently worked in the round pen at a trot but the pressure taken off when it goes near the ramp.
By "pressure off" I mean the trainer immediately turns and walks away and stands looking away from the horse for 30 seconds. Then the pony is asked to work begins again. This continues with the "ask" being increased slightly each time. To get a rest at the trailer, the horse must move closer, or up the ramp, or inside the trailer a bit more each time, depending on the level of progress at the last try. Again, less is more.
If the horse makes no progress in six tries but moves forward an inch on the seventh, that is good progress! Start with a little and move on slowly. It is the horse's choice. If he wants a rest, he must make progress. Even an inch is enough for 30 seconds of rest with no pressure and no work. The bigger the advance, the greater must be the reward -- until finally the horse moves into the trailer, eats the offered hard feed, and starts to pull on the hay net. That is the time for the trainer to quietly withdraw, leaving the horse to it, and go and have a cup of tea!
Many of the recommended "cures" for a failure to load involve ropes and sticks and force head collars. These nasty things then become associated in the horse's mind with loading. Small wonder they don't want to load. If you haven't got a round pen, the above can be done on the lunge, but a round pen is better. Bell had been so sickened off loading that when she came here, she would not move closer than 25 feet to the trailer!
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