Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Lesson in Loading

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.


Laura Crum said...

I have a three horse slant load trailer, and I just lead the horses in and tie them, except the last horse, who gets his lead rope flipped outside and then I shut the door behind him and tie him from the outside. (This horse must be untied before the door is opened.) All the horses walk right in. I've never had a long lasting problem with any horse I've owned with this sort of trailer. We do feed them hay in the trailer, but they are never bribed to get in. I think a matter-of-fact attitude is key. We really expect our horses to get in like its no big deal, and after they've been with us awhile, they all do. It was a different deal back when I had a two horse trailer (not a slant load) with no exit door. This required that I put the rope over the horse's neck and he walk into the tight little stall on his own. Much harder to teach. The slant load trailers are a vastly better thing.

As for the spooking/spinning out on the trail, Cesca, it really depends on whether he's scared or just jacking around with you. If the former, patience is in order. If the latter, a good over and under is in order (in my book). Or a firm spur in the left side (before he spooks/spins), along with a one rein pop in the face. But you have to know what you are dealing with. Its stupid to punish a truly fearful horse. On the other hand, plenty of horses will use spooking as an evasion--particularly if they figure out they can dominate you this way. Sunny has tried this--punishment works on him. But he was not scared--just testing.

Alison said...

Cesca, I always hated loading, too, so it was my anxiety that transformed itself to the horse.

I hope you conquer that spin, which can be nerve-wracking. Please blog about it--I'd like some tips, too.

Anonymous said...

Why do they always spin to the left? Seems they always know I can't stay on them going that direction ;). More than a few left spins have caused this gal a speedy dismount!

whitehorsepilgrim said...

I found that Brena is particular about having enough space. That meant removing the partition so that she has a whole two-horse traier to herself. She is a draught-cross, after all. Letting her feel comfortable in a space where she could steady herself removed much of the former reluctance to load. A bit of pressure halter work helped to encourage her to listen, useful for leading around though frankly I found the thing useless for encouraging her to load. The most helpful tool now is to keep a lunge line hooked onto the far side of the trailer. If need be I can slip that over her botton and give a tug. That little bit of pressure behind can really be useful when I am loading her by myself. Often now I just have to pick up the lunge line only for Brena to decide that she will go in and eat the hay. I don't bribe her but I do put hay in the trailer.

I've not had to deal with spinning. But snatching at vegetation, yes. The solution for that particular mare is to be very quick at spotting the signs and giving a tap with the appropriate spur to keep her moving in the correct direction.

Francesca Prescott said...

Laura, I don't have a three slant load horse trailer, just a two horse straight load trailer. I'd love a slant one; actually I'd love a truck, as it would mean I wouldn't have to worry about reversing the trailer (nightmare!).But for now I just have the two horse straight load one, which is fine, really. I'll just have to get the loading teacher to come back to reinforce the lesson; Qrac isn't a real pain, he just has opinions sometimes!

As for the spinning, what do you mean by over and under? And what do you mean by a rein pop in the face? Throwing the looped reins sideways into his head? I don't think my reins are long enough to do that! I've hit him on the shoulder with my whip, I've kicked, I've tried to move his quarters sideways to difuse the spin, but he's such a wiggly worm it's hard to get ahead of him. I think he's scared sometimes (but seriously? A rock on a trail?!), and that on other occasions he's just testing, or maybe feeling that I'm wondering when he's going to pull it on me, as I'm beginning to expect it. Hmmmm!

Francesca Prescott said...

Alison, I know what you mean about the anxiety factor in loading. My daughter and I had a couple of bad experiences with Kwintus which stay in my mind now, which is another of the reasons why I chose to get professionaly help with this.

I'll definitely tell you about the anti-spinning lesson after it happens.

Francesca Prescott said...

Riversong, I thought that Qrac's spinning to the left has to do with the side on which his mane falls. This is what I was told when I bought him (Iberian horse people seem to say this, anyway. I don't know about non-Iberians!). They say the horse is more inclined to bend the way his mane falls.

Touching wood here, but I've yet to come unstuck on one of his spins, despite some of them being pretty crazy fast! The only time I've come off I landed on my feet, and he hadn't spooked or spun, just slipped on a metallic water groove thing in a trail. He got a hindleg caught in it and his whole back end slid sideways; I thought he was going to fall too but luckily he didn't. I landed beside him, but got a nice bruise on my thigh. I think I caught one of his feet on the way down, but it happened so fast I can't be sure.

Francesca Prescott said...

Whitehorse, yes, I also always have hay in the trailer.Funny thing: I bought a new hay net just before the loading man came as mine was driving me nuts, it was super old and I could never find the opening to put the hay in, and once I did, I could never close it again. Basically, it was wonky. So I bought a nice new one in bright turquoise. Easy to open, easy to close, easy to hang. But I don't think Qrac took a single bite of hay! I think the nylon netting is too thick and too close together, making it difficult for the horse to nibble. I'll test it again the next time I go somewhere, and if it's still full when i get there, I'll either switch back to my old one of find something else.

Qrac isn't a very big horse, he's 1.65, with a very short back. He's loaded before without me opening the middle partition (I was reluctant to open it for ages, since once at a show with Kwintus, our old horse, some idiot slammed the partition onto his quarters when closing it again, upon which he shot out backwards and really hurt himself, not to mention the fact that he almost fell on top of me.), but Antoine Cloux told me he likes to open it wide at first to encourage them to go in more easily, which makes complete sense, of course.Your lunge line attachment makes sense; it's a good idea and I can see how it helps.Thanks for your thoughts.

Laura Crum said...

Cesca--If you have a two horse straight load, I'd move the center partition over, as others have suggested, to make the space bigger if you are hauling one horse. That is, if he has troubles loading.

As for the one rein pop, its just using one rein rather harshly, giving the horse what amounts to a reprimand with a quick hard pull on one rein. It HAS to be one rein, not two. If I were on a horse that I thought was using the spin/spook as an evasion--Sunny did this once or twice-- and I could feel it coming, I'd pop him hard in the mouth with the right rein and hard in the side with a left spur (if he was moving to the left). And when I say hard, I mean hard. Its a punishment for misbehaving, not a cue. The timing isn't all that important--just as close as you can get to the moment in which he does it. And then I'd go right on as if nothing had happened--in fact, I'd insist quite firmly he march right on. However, this won't work if the horse is truly afraid of that case I might reprimand more gently (the message being I understand you're afraid but you may NOT spin/spook such that I could fall off) and then insist a little more patiently that the horse go on by. But I'd still be pretty clear that the horse has to mind--afraid or not.

Over and undering requires long reins, or you can carry a leadrope--I often do. It is especially effective with a horse that balks--refuses to go forward--when the horse is not afraid--is just resisting. You just whack the horse on both shoulders, or both sides of the butt. I find it easier to do on the shoulders. But it doesn't really sound like that's what Qrac needs.

Stilllearning said...

Now that you've had a good start on trailering, lots of repetition should build on that. Not in-and-out practice but hauling places with no-drama loading expected every time should keep it simple. ( If you are slipping into drama, ask for help soon.)

I had an up-and-to-the-left spinner once, quite determined about it. Finally broke him of it by me being equally determined that he could go anywhere except up and left. It took a few trail rides with a solid right rein, semi-anchored to the saddle (the left always loose) but eventually that little trick quit being as fun. Mostly it was my attitude that fixed things. Instead of planning how I'd ride the spook/spin I planned how that wouldn't happen--shifting the focus to a more positive note, maybe?

Laura Crum said...

Oh, stilllearning--I like your idea for the spinning thing. I never had a horse that had the habit of doing this, and I can see where what you did would address the "habit" very effectively. In my case I was just responding to one more of Sunny's testing behaviors, which isn't really the same thing. Sunny just needed/needs the occasional reprimand to feel comfortable that I was/am in charge, and he would do whatever to provoke me into giving that reprimand. I don't think that's exactly where Qrac is coming from--or it doesn't sound like it, anyway.

Stilllearning said...

Laura, just goes to prove I can be every bit as stubborn and determined as a horse :)

Lori said...

My horse loads like a dream... unless I am alone. He will just walk right in, cock a hip and wait for you to tie him. Nice you say? When I am by myself he walks confidently to the trailer, looks around and stops! Period! No going forward! Sigh. This has been going on for about 2 years now. I finally blew up at him. Trying to get to my lesson on time with not enough time and he just would not budge. I said fine. If we are going to miss the lesson that I already paid for you are going to WORK. Took out my lunge line and made him work hard. Not angry, not mean, just YOU WILL DO THIS NOW. After about 15 minutes he all but ran into the trailer. When he hesitates now I just look at him and say “Seriously? Do you really want to do this now?”. He is a very broke and willing horse but he thought I could not do much by myself. Now he loads no mater who is or isn’t there.

Funder said...

Go more places! You need to get it to where "oh we get in the trailer and go somewhere" isn't a big deal for either of you. There might not be many places for you to take Qrac to ride, but you should haul him down the road to the gas station, run inside, get a soda, come back out, and take him home again. You will both get more used it it.

Also, whips - do you longe with a whip? Does that make you a bad person who beats your horse? Asking a horse to load with a whip is exactly the same. I taught Dixie in much the same way that Antoine taught Qrac - I made the outside a much less peaceful place, by using the longe whip to tap her hocks in a very irritating way whenever she'd start to hesitate on the way in. Most of the time now, I can toss the rope over her back and she'll walk in, but sometimes I have to get the whip and have it in my hand. I haven't touched her with it in a year; it just has to be there! ;)