Problems with loading is one of the most common issues horse owners face. It’s a nightmare when you dread having to try to get your horse in the box, need to ensure you have loads of extra time before you leave and awful when you don’t know if you’ll get home again at the other end!
Loading is a big deal for horses because they have to do so many unnatural and difficult things – get into a small space, leave their companions, stand still for long periods of time, learn to balance around corners, stay calm amongst the rattling and other noises of the trailer etc etc.
Here are my tips and tricks for preparing your horse to load easily, whether it’s a green youngster traveling for the first time or an experienced problem-loader:
1. Standing on Stuff
Getting your horse used to standing on different surfaces is really important so that they feel happy and comfortable on the ramp and in the box/trailer. Reward your horse for standing on all sorts of surfaces like wooden boards, metal trays, tarpaulin, rubber mats and mattresses (standing on a mattress is brilliant training for loading as it teaches horses loads about their balance on a moving and uneven surface.). Begin with the easier surfaces and take it slowly, giving them lots of reward until they’re really happy standing on it, before doing the same with another surface. Pretty soon, your horse will enjoy standing on different surfaces and will be much more confident and keen to do so.
2. Going Under Stuff
The claustrophobia of going into a trailer or box is one of the biggest problems for horses, which are creatures of wide, open spaces. You can begin to help this by teaching your horse to go underneath things. Begin with a tall hoop and reward your horse every step of the way. Once they’re confident doing that, you can begin to make it lower and lower. An advanced version of this exercise is to hang things from the hoop such as ribbons, balloons or a sheet and ask your horse to go underneath/through it. Again, do not force your horse, just wait patiently and reward every step in the right direction until your horse is happy and confident to walk through it.
3. Standing Tied
If your horse is not happy to stand still tied up in the yard, it’s likely they’ll find it even harder in a horse box, where they have to stand tied for the entirety of the journey. To help your horse to stand still tied up, begin by tying them loosely and rewarding any moment when they are standing still – this might be a click and treat, a treat or a scratch for example. Gradually increase the amount of time your horse has to stand still before receiving their treat. Then begin to move away from your horse, beginning with just a step or 2. Wait until your horse is standing calmly then return to it and reward it. Slowly increase the distance you can move away from your horse while they will stand calmly, until you can even go in and make a cuppa before returning!
4. Rattly noises
Trailers are very noisy, rattly things and this can spook some horses. To help this, work on it away from the trailer. Find something which jangles gently such as your car keys or a girth and reward your horse for standing calmly while you jangle it around him. Repeat this until he’s super-calm about it. You can then move onto something harder, for example, a tambourine or you can tie some cans together or fill a bottle with stones to make your own jingly noises. Repeat this until your horse is happy for you to move all around him jingling these objects and don’t forget to reward often so your horse really enjoys his training!
5. Body Awareness
To get in and out of a trailer or box and to be able to travel easily, horses must have quite a lot of body awareness. You can improve this by using poles; ask your horse to stop in front of a pole then step over it one foot at a time – reward all the way through. You can also use labyrinths, cavalettis and backing over poles, to help, too. Pedestals are a brilliant way to help improve body awareness, especially for going up and down a ramp (watch this video to see how we used clicker training and a pedestal to teach a horse about body awareness to overcome loading problems). Use a low pedestal (a pallet with a wooden board screwed on top is ideal) and teach your horse to walk over it, stand on it, stand with all 4 feet on it, back off it, back on it and, for the really advanced ones, turn all the way around on it without falling off!
6. Leading Exercises
To load and unload a horse, you will need to be able to ask it to move forwards, backwards, halt and move shoulders and hindquarters over. Practice this lots away from the box, working on one movement at a time until your horse fully understands it and is willing and capable of doing it. To see more about training or refining leading cues, watch this video of me teaching a young, green horse how to lead from pressure on the headcollar.
7. Leaving the Herd
Separation anxiety is a big element of loading anxiety – horses that are frightened to leave their friends. Again, build this up slowly at your horse’s pace away from the box. Begin by taking your horse away from the yard, focussing on when they start to get anxious (look for signs such as speeding up or slowing down, alert pricked ears, head up, lack of focus on you, increased breathing, muscle tension creeping in and so on). At this point, stop and do some relaxing, fun behaviours for your horse, then turn round and go home again. Gradually increase the distance away from the yard that your horse feels comfortable and make it fun and interesting being with you so that he wants to go.
Work on these exercises until your horse is keen and happy to do them all. Watch out for Loading Tips and Tricks part 2 – Making Loading Fun!