By Andie Vilela, Education & Campaigns Manager, Redwings Horse Sanctuary
We know horses aren’t born to happily walk onto a lorry. As owners, we’ve come up with lots of shortcuts to make this happen, but often these can undermine our relationship with our horse or, worse, create a fear association with loading, the lorry or trailer, or ourselves.
Here are some simple steps to help train a horse to load whatever the vehicle, whatever the weather and whoever the handler. In other words a sure-fire way to reduce their stress, and yours!
- Plan ahead – and well before your first event to give you time to make mistakes and correct them. Rome wasn’t built in a day and horses learn best in short regular sessions rather than all at once.
- Break the process down into small achievable steps and take one step at a time – such as 1) approaching a lorry in a straight line, 2) placing one foot on the ramp, 3) placing two feet on the ramp and so on. Set a goal for each. Some steps may need to be broken down further to make them achievable for the horse – every horse is different!
- Boost learning by training only when the horse is happy and relaxed – just like us, horses learn effectively when they aren’t stressed or upset. Keep a close eye on their facial expressions and body language to keep tabs on their emotional state.
- Don’t rush – if they achieve a goal (e.g. approaching the ramp straight on) without hesitation as well as off light aids three times in a row then you’re ready to move on to the next step, but not before. Be patient.
- Use ‘positive reinforcement’ when they get it right – that is, always reward the behaviour you want to see again but it’s important to get your timing right. The quicker you give the reward after you see the desired behaviour the better. Choose a reward which is highly motivating to your horse. Some go mad for tasty treats, others LOVE a good wither scratch. Whatever you choose, use generously in the early stages of training.
- Resist any urge to use punishment – you might achieve your goal (or you might not, which could aggravate the situation) but at what cost – the welfare of your horse? Your relationship? At the very least you could deter him from trialling new behaviours in the future, which undermines future training.
- Use the rule of five – once you have a happily loading horse, reload the horse in the same lorry or trailer five times in different locations – at the yard, at a friend’s yard, at an event, etc. This teaches your horse to generalise so that they are more likely to load in whatever location, time of day and environmental conditions.
- Introduce changes one at a time – treat loading in a different trailer or box as a whole new task for your horse, as he cannot transfer skills from one setting to another.
- Go at the pace of each individual horse – some horses are more fearful so wariness may mean you have to go slower for one horse than another.
- Expect to learn something new - bear in mind you can never know the full learning history of a horse; that is, when or why a fear of a situation may have occurred, after all they are capable of storing negative experiences for long periods. Recalling these negative memories when they see, hear or feel something they associate with an experience can appear to be unexplainable or random to us, yet there usually is a reason, but one we couldn’t predict. Always be safe and wear a hat, gloves and good footwear.
For more horse care advice and top tips from Redwings visit www.redwings.org.uk