What’s your sign of spring? Mine is the return of the oystercatchers to the fields. I can hear them “peeping” as I write. Another sign could be getting trailers and boxes prepared for summer use. But how comfortable are you that your horse is happy to get up and go?
Horses can learn to love loading and travelling. I once helped to load the horses from the Jive Pony performance team. And the job I had to do was to STOP Ronan loading until Becca had the box completely ready! I stood at the bottom of the ramp with him and had to literally “hold my horse”, he was so keen to get in.
For him, and all of the Jive Pony horses, the box is both their vehicle to fun and their comfort zone. They always load like this, so it seems that, at home, they are keen to get out and about and , once the show is done, they love to get home and relax.
This week, I’ve been writing the training guidelines for loading for our Connection Training students. With Ronan in mind, I created this goal:
“HAIRY GOAL: I want my horse to load confidently and consistently at all times and places. I want my horse to align correctly and wait patiently while I close up the partitions etc. I want my horse to be calm and relaxed about leaving home and other horses. I want my horse to be able to balance and be relaxed while travelling. I want my horse to stand calmly whenever the box/trailer is stationary in transit. I want my horse to wait calmly as I prepare for unloading. I want my horse to wait for my cue to leave the box/trailer and come out calmly. I want my horse to regard the box/trailer as a comfort zone and to want to be inside. I want to feel confident and relaxed about loading and travelling.”
You can see that stating the goal clearly like this creates the component parts that you need to train. The first job is to take an inventory of what you already have and then work on the parts that need improving. My new pony, Rowan, loads easily but is anxious in transit and the anxiety starts when she thinks I am going to shut her in.
Of course, this is very common. It is easy to train a horse to load comfortably if you never close the doors! Being enclosed in such a small space triggers horses’ natural claustrophobia. This triggers fear behaviours of fidget, freeze and flight, things we are all used to seeing with horses at the bottom of the ramp.
Claustrophobia and Separation Anxiety BOTH need to be addressed.
Once we do get them comfortable with being enclosed, the next problem is about leaving home and companions. We talk about fear and anxiety as if they are the same thing, but, in the brain (ours and theirs), these are actually two different emotional circuits, which create lots of different aversive feelings which we try to avoid. Separation anxiety is linked to the GRIEF/PANIC system so the feeling that your horse is expressing when he whinnies as you leave the yard are those of real loss and panic. The equivalent might be a toddler, separated from her mother in a supermarket. Her cries go straight into our heart and we too feel her panic and wish to help her as quickly as we can.
So I don’t want to hear any vocalisations as I leave home. Instead, I want my horse to be settling into eating the nice food I’ve placed in the box. That is often a longer training process than the simple loading and it needs constant attention as horses become “herd bound” very quickly. The stronger the bond your horse has with you, the easier it is for him to transfer that attachment need to your relationship and the goal becomes easier to achieve.
How confident a driver are you?
My final component in my hairy goal is ” I want to feel confident and relaxed about loading and travelling.” Since you have asked your horse to place his trust in you and leave the security of the herd, you need to be trustworthy. After all, your horse is totally tuned into your emotions. Empathy to his familiars is a survival strategy. If your body language, pheromones and thoughts are telling him “BIG FEAR HERE” he’s unlikely to be happy to load and go. Much safer to stay at home with his buddies.
The first step in this is to become supremely confident in simply driving your horse vehicle. Jive Pony’s Becca has a Heavy Goods Licence and drives her massive lorry like it was a Fiat Panda. She is too busy worrying that she packed her red corset to worry about what traffic she might meet! Do whatever you need to do to feel the same way. Get lessons and get practicing. There are even videos on Youtube with some great ideas. My top tip is to make your horse vehicle your ONLY vehicle for a month so that driving it becomes as easy as driving your car.
One thing that reward-based training is great for is changing emotions around fearful objects and this is your greatest friend in helping your horse to load and travel like a pro. Connection Training students get lots of training and support from Shawna Karrasch and Hannah Dawson for making loading and travelling fun and easy. In this video, Hannah shows you some great ideas for how to turn your box from torture chamber to play pen!
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