Loading the tricky loader

Potholing is one of my worst nightmares, anything where I am confined into a small space, sends adrenalin pulsing through my body and leaves me twitchy and unsettled. Loading horses can elicit much the same sensation in my body. I have travelled (I’m not advocating this, as I think it is now illegal!) in the back of a horse lorry and found it an alarming sensation. Because you cannot see where you are going you are left feeling strangely vulnerable with no sense of place, as well as nauseous with the motion. As you cannot watch the road ahead, you have no idea that the driver is about to break because a goose has crossed the road, and your balance is not quick enough to react in time. It left me exhausted and strained.

Consequently, whenever I travel horses I feel for them and their lack of enthusiasm for the whole endeavour. I do my very best to drive smoothly and carefully, and indeed have tried tricks such as placing a half full glass of water on the dashboard to help concentrate the mind. However, because of my empathy with the horse for the whole process, I find myself on their side when they refuse to load. I don’t see it as “naughty” but merely as a sensible reaction to an apparently dangerous metal box driven by an unreliable human.

Our job as horse owners is to teach our horses that we will look after them, and that we will do our best to keep them safe from harm. Much of the work that we can do with loading is around our relationship with our horses, not simply a battle of wills on the ramp of a lorry. Once the horse can trust us to remain calm, and to follow us over different surfaces, and into different spaces, we can take that trust and use it to walk together up the ramp.

I found, as I trained my own horses to load, that repeated exposure to the whole process reduced my own stresses around it. Nothing must be more unsettling for a horse than being led to the base of a ramp, where their human begins to panic. If you are panicking at the base of the ramp, spend time working on yourself before you transfer to working with your horse.  Alternatively ask someone more confident to load your horse for you. This can have the additional advantage of teaching both you and your horse that the process of loading is achievable and not terrifying. If you know someone with a good-to-load horse, it may be worth loading their horse a few times. Working out where to position yourself on the ramp, and turning in the small space inside, can be easier to learn with a horse that knows his job. Once you both know that you can do it separately then you can try together. Remember, that we can learn to do anything that we put our minds to, as long as we break it down into small sections.

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How not to practice loading your horse

1. Make sure the trailer is parked on concrete. This means that if your horse does misbehave, spook, or spin, he is far more likely to slip and injure himself. 
2.  Put a Dually halter on your horse, but don’t fit it properly. That way it will be less effective.
3. Don’t attach the trailer to a vehicle, or put the feet down at the back or the front. This makes it far more likely that the trailer will tip as you are practising loading, and scare your horse off for good.
4. Each time your horse backs away from the trailer, or swings his quarters around to the side, give him a stroke and take him away from the trailer to try again. This rewards him for backing away or turning away, and makes that behaviour more likely to happen.
This is exactly the situation that I saw occurring as I arrived at a yard recently to physio a horse there. Thankfully, there were no accidents, and with help from others on the yard, the horse did eventually load successfully several times.
Loading is one of those behavioural problems that is almost always fixable with the right advice. Intelligent Horsemanship recommended Associate’s are specialists in loading problem loaders, so if you have a horse that you struggle to load on to your trailer or lorry, why not get it right from the start and give one of them a call? You can find their details at www.intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk.