Loading – be aware of the risks

The horse is a flight animal. This means that if scared he will run away from the fear, as supposed to a fight response, where the animal will attack the object of fear. Your horse refusing to go near the trailer, is not being “naughty” but acting correctly according to his innate behaviour: “One of the most important things to remember is that horses evolved as a prey species. That means that many of their instinctive reactions are based in a desire to protect themselves from danger.” (1)

The problem arises that we are asking our horses to supress their fear and if they can’t do this, their reaction can be volatile and extreme: “Fearful large animals are dangerous animals. They are more likely to injure themselves or their handlers than unafraid animals. Fear is a universal emotion in the animal kingdom: it motivates animals to avoid predators and survive in the wild.” (2)

In order to be responsible horse owners, it is our job to teach the horse that the trailer or lorry is not a source of fear. To do so we must ensure that we train our horses to trust and respect us. To do this we must take the necessary precautions to optimise the conditions in which we load our horses. “Accidents from these types of deficiencies (Slippery surfaces on loading ramps) usually are due to poor judgement or lack of necessary precautions.” (3)

There are a multitude of opportunities for injury during the loading and unloading of horses: “Hazards to people in the vicinity include kicking, biting, or injury arising from crushing or being struck as the horse rears in the air. Further hazards arise from the weight of the doors falling onto people including when horses barge their way past.” (4) And many other ways, and other horrific accidents that have occurred while people are trying to load their horses.

A horse that is correctly trained to be loaded reduces some of the dangers of loading. Accidents can happen when “…bystanders or young people are sometimes asked to help, and they may be inadequately trained for the purpose…”(4) It is not the job of spectators at shows to help you to load your horse, it is your job to ensure that your horse is trained to do so.

“Where loading and unloading is incorporated as part of a horse’s basic training they are more likely to accept it and be compliant.”(4)

Do your homework at home. Thereby you will give yourself the possibility of having a safe and enjoyable day out with your horse, without the added stress and risk of having a difficult to load horse to persuade onboard at the end of the day.

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Loading problems?

Lizzie Hopkinson

Many of the issues that occur with loading can be resolved by improving the relationship with your horse on the ground. Here we take a look through some exercises that can be done to help with this, and to build confidence both in yourself and your horse before you start going anywhere near your trailer or lorry.

A trailer or lorry is not an inviting place for a horse. We are asking that they place a great deal of trust in us to even place one foot upon the ramp. And the thing about trust, is that it is not a given, it must be earnt. If your horse wouldn’t walk over a strong piece of wood for you, why should he trust you to walk up the ramp into a trailer?

We must begin with ensuring that we are safe. Make sure you have on a hat and gloves, and a body protector if you wish. Ensure that you are in an enclosed area with no risk of the horse slipping or escaping. Horses can be dangerous, if you are struggling contact your local IHRT for professional assistance.

Before you take your horse anywhere near a trailer or lorry, they need to be able to stand quietly on a long line, and move one foot at a time, when asked to do. Time spent working on this will pay huge dividends later down the line. Once you have mastered this then build upon this by teaching your horse to move backwards, forwards and away from you.

Trailers and lorries do not have much space. Laying out a scale version of the space that you are operating in on the ground with poles can be really useful to help teach both you and the horse. The horse will learn that he can be safe in a small space, and you can learn where to position yourself in relation to your horse. Your horse needs you to be the leader, so your positioning is particularly crucial.

Doing basic groundwork around or near the lorry or trailer can be beneficial in teaching your horse to remaining focused upon you while in the vicinity of something that he dislikes. This in turn will benefit you in other ways, as being able to draw his attention back to you is an excellent skill to have.

Lastly, reward and repeat. Over, and over, and over again. Do not teach your horse to load the morning of a show. Practise, practise, practise, till both you and your horse are confident loading in and out of the trailer or lorry. Then a brief trip, then a journey to a nearby arena for a ride, and only then are you ready to load your horse up and go to a show. This process will take as long as it takes, but it will be worth it.

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Photo by Sebastian Abbruzzese on Unsplash

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.