MOST riders pay little or no attention to travelling horses until competition day. A recurring theme seems to be frustration and stress for both horse and rider alike. It is always worth remembering that horses have evolved completely differently from us, particularly when it comes to their brain’s composition and function.
Two key differences are their small pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain involved in deception and planning, and a large amygdala, the part of the brain which processes fear, impulse and emotion. Frequently even experienced handlers confidently state that a horse is “just being difficult” which is a great licence to exploit violence if the horse is seen to “deserve it”. Like training any skill, it necessitates logic and patience in the same way you would train a centreline or a ditch. Taking the time to develop the base steps will lead to success.
As horses are prey species, their primary survival instinct is to flee. This instinct also extends to avoiding situations where they may fall victim to predation such as tight spaces like a horsebox. One bad experience can cause exponential problems into the future whereas making the horsebox more inviting can change the dynamic. When we have a difficult loader our first step is to remove the partitions and open the front ramp.
When horses can move through unrestricted, their flight response often diminishes. Dr. Temple Grandin, world renowned animal behaviourist, has shown on many occasions that changes in ground or even a shadow can present a balk response which can be difficult to overcome without changing the set up. Stud farms with loading bays and infrastructure that are well designed rarely have problems with loading.
Counter conditioning and basic responses
My experience of horses that don’t load easily is a common inadequacy in the training of basic responses like; stop, go, turn front legs and turn back legs. These horses often spend their lives side-stepping situations without their owner even being aware of it. Before you attempt loading these horses, the ‘ABCs’ need to be trained thoroughly so they can be drawn on.
The easiest horse to train to load is the one who has never been loaded before and by the same token has never had a bad experience loading. Horses who have had bad experiences, either due to handler impatience or even more common poor timing, where the handler removes pressure at the incorrect time, can take a long time to have these experiences counter conditioned. Associating aversive experiences with pleasurable associations is one of the best ways to improve the horse’s overall loading experience.
A combined process
Rewarding every good try is the most essential component. Our first step is to get the horse to touch the ramp, we then reinforce this behaviour with food rewards. Once you can reliably repeat this response the next step is to have the horse place a foot on the ramp and reward this with a food reward. Then literally one step at a time rewarding every step up the ramp. One of the key things is not to be discouraged when the horse steps back. This is where most handlers lose patience and do not see the big picture.
Once the horse moves into the horse box, walk them out the front and repeat until the horse moves through freely. Once a horse has had a bad experience resurgence events are very common and how these are dealt will predispose success or failure. Getting help from someone who has experience with loading is an essential step to training the ‘load anywhere’ horse.