Michael Peace gets 19 year old 16.2hh Dutch Warmblood, Smartie to load
Michael Peace is a specialist trainer with over 30 years’ international experience in helping owners and their horses with behavioural issues - irrespective of type and across all disciplines. He has consolidated his unique talents and understanding into his Think Equus philosophy for people who want to improve their horsemanship and maximise their relationship with their horse by creating a 50:50 partnership. Petplan Equine has teamed up with Michael to help horse owners understand their horses and therefore help them overcome loading problems.
The following is a step-by-step study of how Michael helped Andrea Worrall with 19 year old Smartie who had developed a fear of travelling in a trailer.
A three stage approach
There are three distinct stages to getting a reluctant horse to travel:
- Loading onto the trailer
- Shutting in
In the context of this case study we will deal with stages 1 and 2 as travelling ideally should happen after repeat attempts of the first two stages; also Smartie has always travelled well.
Equipping yourself for success
At the beginning we discussed the merit of using travel boots (explaining that the process of putting them on winds Smartie up) and whether the front ramp of the trailer should be open or the partition removed? Having established that Smartie was unlikely to throw himself around, Michael felt it was best to keep things as simple as possible so as to assure the best chance of success. The verdict – no boots and keep the trailer as it will be when we need to use it; though we swung open the back partition and opened the front ramp. It is important to know your horse and how he will react when making such decisions but a good rule of thumb is to protect yourself and your horse as much as possible by wearing appropriate footwear, hat, and gloves and using boots and possibly a poll protector on your horse, particularly when dealing with young or spirited horses and those with whom you are not so familiar.
Fickle loaders – what’s the problem?
‘Smartie, like so many horses, had developed a fear of entering the dark claustrophobic space that a trailer presents; not surprisingly – after all horses are flight animals.’ explained Michael. ‘At first the horse appeared relaxed and it looked like he might go straight on – but then he planted himself on the ramp and pulled back. This is quite typical of what I call a ‘Fickle Loader’ who will often then swing his haunches around and face the ramp side-on which is exactly what Smartie did.’
Buying himself time
When Smartie planted himself on the ramp, I did what is apparently common among handlers – I stepped towards the horse to reassure and coax him forward. First mistake! He saw this as an opportunity to step away thereby buying himself time. He then turned his quarters to face the ramp at right angles.
‘He knows, the longer he messes about like this, the longer he remains outside the trailer where he is comfortable,’ explained Michael. I then walked him across the ramp, away from the trailer in order to re-present him straight on. Wrong again! ‘You need to show him that just because he presents himself like that does not mean he doesn’t have to go on; despite the odd angle he is quite capable of going on from there‘ insisted Michael ‘and so you must insist on it.’
Time to teach
After seeing the way Smartie behaved when I attempted to lead him on it was time for Michael to work his magic. While there is something magic about the work and the outcome, Michael’s Think Equus philosophy appears to have its roots in kindness, empathy and common sense. Once you manage to understand the approach it’s easier to get into the mindset of your horse. ‘The important thing is to remember that loading should not be a traumatic experience for your horse’ emphasised Michael. ‘You need to put yourself in your horse’s shoes and think how you would feel – would you prefer to be gently led and encouraged into a situation you felt frightened about or pushed into it?’ Unsurprisingly when asked, most people prefer the former and this is exactly the case for your horse. So it’s our job as their handlers to be our horse’s best teachers.’
Stand your ground
Michael spoke soothingly but confidently to Smartie and led him to the trailer, again Smartie ‘planted’ but Michael stood his ground; he didn’t pull but rather maintained the pressure the horse had brought to bear on himself by stopping. I was intrigued to notice that Michael looked straight at him, not away from him like I had been taught. “It’s important for him to realise he has a say in how this is going to go so don’t move yourself, make him come to you. By doing so he is reducing the pressure on himself brought by the head collar and is closing the relative distance – allowing you to reward and reassure him with a pat, which in turn makes the experience even more pleasant for him. So the message to him is ‘close the distance and you get rewarded’ but HE must close that distance” Michael stressed. ‘Also‘ he said, don’t pull too hard on the head collar because it will escalate into a battle - and as he’s 600kg of horse, it’s one you will lose’.
The Character in Question
Michael shares his observation that there are, two things going on inside this horse’s head: 1. he is worried and 2. he is rude so it is important that we get the message across that he does not need to be worried and that you will help him and that being rude is not acceptable so if he struggles, you will not help him.
Smartie attempts this aversion by moving round in a circle. ‘He’s playing a game’ says Michael. ‘He is trying to look for loopholes. So I say to him “if you are worried I will help you, but you have to listen to every step”. Make him stop half way so that he learns to listen and come forward at any point. This way he is learning to think through the process - you have to give him time to think and understand in order to learn. You are teaching him the rules of engagement here and they are founded in the principle that you will help him but he has to give 100%.’
Michael stood his ground and soon Smartie was standing on the trailer. At first it was very much a step-by-step process. Michael would lead him up, then Smartie would stop, Michael would then stand his ground, Smartie would join him and be praised. If he pulled back or took a slight step back, again Michael would hold firm, applying just enough pressure for the horse to realise that coming forward to Michael was a lot easier than setting himself against him. Very soon Smartie was happy to walk on to the trailer and stand there for some minutes; he was as happy to back out as walk out forwards down the ramp.
Then it was my turn!
Coaching the Owner
Michael then coached me as I attempted to recreate what I had seen him do:
‘Predictably, Smartie stops on the ramp but this time, instead of going towards him Andrea stands firm; in a matter of moments Smartie takes a brave step forward but quickly catches himself and backs off. Andrea tries to hold firm and importantly maintains the relative distance that Smartie needs to close if he is going to feel safe and secure. Although he moves to the side of the ramp I remind Andrea to stay still maintaining a firm contact but not pulling at him.’
‘You must never pull at him as this will only lead to a fight. By waiting, you are giving him time to realise it’s easier to do what you’re asking and he will re-present himself straight on to the ramp.’ asserts Michael and after a few attempts to prolong the inevitable, he does.
To my delight when it was my turn to try this, I was pleased brute strength was not required, although mental resolve was needed; a determination I was convinced I was conveying to Smartie as he really did seem to listen!
Soon Smartie took his first brave step into the trailer and before much longer he was walking in.
‘Now what you have to do is bring him out and then come straight back on. After you’ve done this a few times and he seems comfortable coming on and off, bring him on again but this time but stop him half way up the ramp; reassure him and then proceed, perhaps stopping again’ he instructed. Explaining why this was important, Michael said “Although he knows what we’re asking of him and is not finding it difficult, sometimes, due to horses’ anxiety, they will often try to rush. So taking control and asking them to stop along the way gives them time to think, relax and listen.‘
Michael took the lead next and before long he had Smartie walking onto the box by himself, with Michael standing to the side at the back of the trailer holding the long rope which he allowed to extend as Smartie went in. When it was my turn I suddenly had a moment of thinking “God how do I do this?” and Smartie picked up on it straight away as I fiddled with the lead rope uncertainly. ‘He’s just taking advantage of your lack of confidence there so remember when ever you try something new, think it through and learn the process before trying it so that when the time comes to involve Smartie, you are confident in what you are doing.’
‘It is a good idea to do more challenging things at home such as practicing entering the trailer when it’s all shut up, wearing boots, have the horse plaited up so that when you are out and about and you open everything up it won’t feel like a challenge.’
‘Once the horse is comfortable loading and completely relaxed, it’s time to leave him in the box and close it all up. The next phase is to travel with him but this will have to wait to another time’ Michael explains:
‘Over the next few days, consolidate what you have learnt and build his confidence. It is important to do this step by step and repeat the exercises regularly. You spread their emotional energy too thinly if you rush them or do too many things too quickly. ‘
Michael took pains to explain what he was doing, why he was doing it and what outcome he expected…and importantly, what to do if he didn’t get the outcome he was hoping for. The result was that not only was Smartie was doing what we wanted him to do but that I knew how to communicate to him what we wanted and to reassure him that it was okay to do so.
LOADING A FICKLE LOADER – STEP BY STEP SUMMARY
- There are three parts to loading – walking in and out of the box, shutting the ramp, travelling and you need to ‘explain’ each part to him. Ask him correctly and it doesn’t need to be complicated or take long
- Remember, this should not be a traumatic experience for either you or your horse
- Think through the process before beginning
- Start by making the environment as uncomplicated as possible
- Horses naturally want to cooperate as they know how to live in a herd
- Put yourself in your horse’s shoes and realise your role is to teach
- Present him to the trailer or box
- When he stops or pulls back, stand your ground
- Maintain pressure on the head collar but do not pull too hard – you don’t want a fight, he’ll win
- Praise him when he takes a step forwards and closes the relative distance between you so he realises that it is easier for him to cooperate
- Don’t rush it, give him time to think it through and realise that you will help him if he’s worried
- Repeat this several times changing the way he enters by slowing the process down, make him stop, reverse out, come back on, walk through and down the front ramp etc.
- Repeat various exercises and consolidate the process using different triggers such as plaiting up, travel boots etc. so you can work with him when he is in a more excitable frame of mind.
- When he is taking loading in his stride, shut up the trailer and then open up again and praise him
- It is important to build up the experiences and not to rush