If I say “no horse is perfect,” I won’t be surprised to hear that I’m wrong, and that one of my readers has a horse who is perfect.
That’s because one of the things I believe is that once you believe you know everything there is to know about horses, you will make the mistake of making a blanket statement that applies to all horses, and then one horse will come along and prove you wrong.
So let me say instead, “no horse is perfect but there may be the exception that proves the rule.” In fact, I’d love to meet that exception.
Until that time comes, I don’t expect perfection. In fact, I expect problems. Especially trailer loading problems. They’re as common as high-fructose corn syrup in processed food and just as troublesome.
I’ve worked with horses who were in trailers that blew apart while traveling…who thought it was more fun to play than to load…who would rather lie down and die than put a hoof on a ramp…and who were allowed to decide if they wanted to get on or would rather not.
I learned the Monty Roberts way, and use the dually halter with a lunge line or long-line for horses who need to re-learn how to load. The pressure-release method usually works, and once you get a feel for how much pressure you need and when to release the pressure, you can turn most problem loaders around. It’s not that difficult, and it’s easy to pass along the skills needed, so once you’ve fixed the horse, you can help the owner to keep the horse fixed.
Unfortunately, the pressure-release method didn’t work with the most recent horse I had to retrain to load, who spent nearly two weeks with a well-known Monty Roberts protege, working on loading. When it was time for him to go home, he still needed three people and two longlines to get him on the trailer.
That’s the kind of horse that is the exception to the rule, and the one that teaches you to be a better horsemen, like all those rule-breakers do. Once you’ve crossed paths with enough of them, you’ll be smiling like I do when people tell you what “works for every horse.” The fact is that not everything works for every horse. If you start all those horses, sure. But not once they need re-schooling.
Lawyers say that a horse is an “attractive nuisance,” but there’s nothing like working with a horse that doesn’t just walk on a trailer to make that horse even more attractive and everyone who wants to help you a real nuisance. If your horse should hesitate, or back off the ramp, as surely as the sun will rise, everyone will come out of everywhere, like the Munchkins in the Wizard of Oz, ready to help you. They’ll be carrying brooms and grabbing lunge whips and eager to educate you on their method, which “works for every horse.”
After I’ve helped retrain someone’s problem loader, the advice I always give is this: If you have a hiccup some day loading your horse and I’m not around, forget about being nice and tell anyone who offers to help “Thanks, I don’t want your help.” If you have to, tell them to go away and leave you alone with your horse. Don’t worry about being rude. Sometimes you have to be rude because once there’s a horse around that’s not jumping on the trailer, people are determined to help. There’s no nuisance more attractive than a reluctant loader and nothing more unattractive than the swarms of people who will gather to fix it. Let them, and you’ll have more to fix later.
The problem with people throwing solutions like brooms and lungelines onto the problem of problem loaders is that brooms and lungelines are often the cause of the problem in the first place. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have a big toolbox but most problem loaders have a real problem with pressure from behind. The technique has usually backfired at least once, and if it’s backfired more than once, with different tools, chances are that any pressure at all from behind will just make it worse.
Pressure. It’s a form of coercion that we seem to expect horses to accept, even though it usually doesn’t work with people. Positive reinforcement does, with people and horses. And that’s why clicker training works. It’s especially valuable for the horse who has fought too much or who has won too much, who has had too much punishment or who likes to rumble. There’s no fight in it, and that’s why it works. In fact, it’s become my training method of first rather than last resort with a troubled horse.
It’s most effective to introduce clicker training as a fun game, and to engender the horse’s trust before you put it in the context of phobias or problems. As always with horses, it’s best to keep the lessons brief and avoid getting greedy. Remember what my Yankee-Irish horsewhispering boyfriend says: the slow way is the fast way and the fast way is the slow way.
Here’s how things began with the problem loader who proved Monty Roberts wrong (“it works for every horse”). I was lucky enough to be able to park the trailer and truck in his paddock, just as if we were starting from scratch. The horse enjoys clicker training (we started with focus on me, be polite, give me space, watch your head, wait when you want to run, move away from the gate and stand there so I can lead the other horse out), so he knows the drill and enjoys the game. We could have started with a fraction of that foundation, but having that foundation made it easier.
He was clicked and rewarded for being near the trailer, for sniffing the trailer, for standing near the trailer and for putting a foot on the trailer. Buck Brannaman teaches loading with a horse on a loose lead. I did the same, remembering what Buck says about letting the horse decide. It was all up to the horse. Any decision that brought him closer to loading got rewarded, and any decision that took him further away did not. There was no pressure — not just on his nose, but more importantly, on his psyche.
The first two days I worked with him, he got rewarded for every step in the right direction and we stopped when he got all four feet on the ramp (day one) and the front feet in the body of the trailer (day two). On the third day, he walked right in, all the way in, with the halter and chain he usually wears (and no pressure). Then he got a click and his favorite cookie (big treat). He got to decide when to back out (if you’ve ever been cautioned to never let this happen, you can forget that advice).
The next day, same thing (remember what I said about not being greedy?).
We repeated the game for a few more days, adding getting back on to getting off. We took a break. I’d see him around the trailer and when he saw me, he’d put a foot on the ramp. I was a good distance away, so I just shouted “good boy.” And hoped that he’d keep trying.
Before things got boring, I moved the trailer. As everyone knows, that chair isn’t scary until it appears in a new location. Then, it’s scary. What a horse sees with his right eye isn’t the same as what he sees with his left eye. So you’ve got to mix it up.
Imagine my surprise after a few days of working in the new location, when standing at the foot of the ramp, the horse spontaneously decided to walk onto the trailer without me. They call that “self loading.” Except usually it’s not an entirely unilateral decision.
Now, months later, the horse is still not a confirmed self-loader but it’s confirmed that he’s no longer a problem loader. He’s gone on a few trips in the trailer, some for as long as three and a half hours. And even when he doesn’t want to get back on, he does.
Once, I had to park the trailer near lush clover and he really wanted to keep hand grazing rather than get on the trailer. I asked and his answer was to back up. Under stress, he reverted back to old behavior. I had to check myself to make sure that I didn’t do the same thing.
So I let him back up and then I gently redirected his focus on me. Rather than telling him he was bad, I told him in my sweetest voice, that we weren’t going to do that again. I went back to neutral and back to the beginning and waited for him to make the right decision.
I could tell he was in a quandary, torn between doing something he was good at and doing something he really preferred to do — eat the clover that was right there. I could see him stuck inside the dilemma, so I listened to my instincts (oh how long it’s taken to listen to my instincts as a trainer and not to someone else’s words) and told him I was going to give him a cookie. No click, just cookie.
As it happened, my instincts at that moment were right, because the look in his eye changed from perplexed to happy. I was on his side and his friend and that was an even better place to be than with his muzzle buried in clover.
I waited, with a slack leadrope, and the horse walked right on the trailer for another cookie and home we went. The road home wasn’t all smooth, and the road to having the perfect loader may never be all smooth, but it’s wonderful when you can help a horse fix a problem for both of you. Click!