I had a loading lesson with an amazing man last week. His name is Antoine Cloux, he rides Western, and he’s famous in my area for getting horses to load easily.
I’ve never really had any massive problems loading Qrac. He’s played me up a couple of times, but never for too long. Nevertheless, I’ve never felt totally confident about his attitude towards loading. Unlike his stable-mate Woody, who belongs to my friend Heike, you can’t just lead Qrac up to the trailer, tell him “forwards”, throw the rope over his neck and have him walk in all by himself. Same with unloading; Heike just unties Woody at the front, then calmly walks to the back of the trailer, unhooks the metal bar, and tells him to “come on”. Woody gently backs down the ramp, Heike picks up his lead rope and that’s the end of that. There’s no drama, no rushing around looking for someone to help her. Woody’s cooperative attitude makes trailering far more relaxed.
I want relaxed trailering experiences. I want Qrac to load and unload like Woody. So I asked Heike how she’d taught her horse to load so easily. She shrugged. “Oh, I just put food in there,” she replied. “Now he loves it!”
I’ve lured Qrac into the trailer with food many times, the most nerve-wracking time being when I hot-footed it out of the crappy, leaky-roofed dump of a stables I’d made the mistake of moving into last November (I wrote about it on this blog; Qrac and I lasted all of two days there). Being a little embarrassed about leaving so soon, I wanted to make a low-key exit. By some miracle I managed to align my car onto the trailer hook without getting in and out of the car a gazillion times, then, armed with a giant bag of carrots, enticed Qrac to follow me up the ramp singlehandedly. But my heart was in my mouth as I slipped out of the side door and rushed round to the back of the van to lock him in, certain he’d shoot back out again and gallop around, creating stallion mayhem. Thankfully he didn’t, and minutes later we slunk away, him presumably munching away, me sweating profusely!
There have been times, however, when even a bag of carrots hasn’t encouraged Qrac to bound enthusiastically into the trailer, when he’s danced around me and my hastily gathered trailer-loading assistants, eyeing us nanny-nanny-poo-poo style. One time we had to resort to using lunges to get him in (ok, so we hadn’t given him much time, but I was in a hurry, and couldn’t hang around proffering fruit and pretty-pleasing), an experience I didn’t enjoy. Also, having seen certain individuals at my stables shooing their horses into vans with whips and broomsticks, I didn’t want to find myself in the uncomfortable position of having them offer to help me get my uncooperative horse into my van! If Woody could learn to load so coolly, then so could Qrac.
Of course, Woody is far more placid than Qrac. Not that Qrac is a hot-headed fire-cracker. In his stable and in the grooming area, he comes across as a total dope-head, usually standing with his head low and his eyes half-closed. It’s when I get on him that he switches gears, striding out purposefully. Also, a new environment, or anything out of the ordinary tends to worry him, and Qrac is very good at whirlwind spins to the left, especially on outside rides. He’s hard to read, temperament wise, as he can go from super-cool to super-hot and back to super-cool again within seconds. Woody on the other hand doesn’t seem to get flustered about anything. I mulled things over for a while, wondering whether I could single-handedly teach Qrac to load consistently without getting myself into a giant pickle and making his loading ethic worse.
It didn’t take long for me to decide to get professional help. My trainer had told about Antoine Cloux’s remarkable track record with recalcitrant loaders, so I phoned him up and made an appointment.
Antoine met me at the stables last Thursday. He put Qrac in a Parelli halter (I think that’s what they’re called) attached to a long rope, and briefly explained his technique. Basically, the horse has to be motivated to go into the trailer, he must consider the trailer as a refuge from anything unpleasant happening outside. Of course, typically, Qrac followed Antoine into the trailer like a puppy dog from the word go! However, he wasn’t particularly motivated to stay inside the trailer despite the carrots and random other treats on offer, and soon began to try to back out, whereupon Antoine applied a steady pressure on the rope, holding it quite high, which Qrac clearly found slightly uncomfortable. As soon as Qrac took a step forwards, Antoine immediately relaxed the pressure. Thus began a “conversation” of backwards and forwards between Antoine and my horse. When Qrac insisted that he really preferred to be outside the van, Antoine told him that was perfectly fine, but that he’d soon find out that life was far more pleasant inside.
Antoine never did anything hectic or violent. He never got loud or bad-tempered. All he did was wave the rope a bit, urging Qrac to move around him in a circle, making him cross his hind legs. Less than a minute later, he asked Qrac to follow him back into the van. Qrac went in happily, staying there a little longer this time before deciding to back out again, whereupon Antoine repeated the entire process. Before the hour was up, Qrac was going in and out of the trailer by himself, and once inside, staying there quite happily.
Antoine told me to never let my horse stop behind the trailer, to always lead him up to the van from a good distance away at a determined pace and to not turn to look at him (I tend to start off at a determined pace, then start worrying about whether or not my horse is actually going to follow me in, turn to try and determine what frame of mind he’s in, then find myself floundering at the base of the ramp with a prancing horse in one hand and a carrot in the other). I must believe he’s going to go in there without making a fuss.
Before Antoine left, he made me have to go. I took a deep breath, then set off at a decided pace only to hesitate for a nano-second at the base of ramp simply because I’d misjudged the trajectory and realised that Qrac was headed for the wrong, far too narrow side of the trailer (we’d opened the middle partition so it was wider for him). Qrac immediately balked, danced around the side of the ramp, whereupon I was told to lead him away from the van and start all over again. “Don’t hesitate,” Antoine encouraged. “Just go for it.”
This time I got it right. I’m not sure Qrac would have stayed in the van alone while I exited via the side-door and locked the bar under his tail, but the hour was up and it was time for Antoine to go.
I took Qrac to the farrier that afternoon. He loaded easily, but I doubt I could have thrown the rope over his neck and told him to go into the van by himself, so I’ve asked Antoine to come back in a couple of weeks for another session. I’ve also asked him whether he might be able to help me with Qrac’s annoying habit of suddenly spinning up and sideways on trail rides. He’s been doing it more often recently, and I don’t like it at all, especially when I can't see anything spooky in sight. Antoine seemed quite confident he could help me with this by provoking the up and sideways spinning in the arena, so we’ll see. I hope it helps.
Do you have any special tips for getting horses to load easily? How about for horses that suddenly spin sideways on trail rides? Antoine told me I needed to concentrate on his getting him to keep moving his hind legs, which makes perfect sense, but depending on the circumstances is easier said than done! I’d love you to share your tips and experiences with me. Thanks for listening.