Trailer Loading Fiasco – 12-4-2012

Last Saturday, I intended to load Atticus up and take him to the second day of a clinic.  The clinic is very easy, we hardly get out of walk.  (We do trot, but I rarely canter in this one.  It’s more about my stability in the saddle than anything.)  So, to my mind, it shouldn’t be difficult for Atty to load up and go to this clinic.  Well, that’s in MY mind, not HIS mind.  I also tend to think that “he knows how to load onto a trailer.  He’s been doing this for several years.”  Again, so much for what I think and what I think I know.

I do try to not use pressure and to let him guide the process.  But that is in training, not necessarily when I need him to load.  There are times when we need our horses to load – to see a vet or other medical emergency, fire, flooding, etc.  Unfortunately, going to clinics isn’t really a NEED to load occasion.

Atticus did not want to load.  Emphatically did not want to load.  Often he can be sticky to load for a second day in a row, but not this bad.  The one other time he was really “bad” about loading was the second day of a clinic neither one of us enjoyed.  But this clinic wasn’t like that.  And, frankly, he was worse about not loading than the other time.  Or maybe I was worse about not listening carefully enough.

I do have things that I do to encourage him to load.  One is to use a longe line run from his halter through the front of the trailer and back to me.  I do NOT use it to pull him into the trailer.  I can’t do that.  He outweighs me by ten-to-one.  I use the longe line to limit his choices, which include turning right and dragging me off and turn left and running over me – both of which he tried to do more than one, even with the longe line.

Another is using a dressage whip to tap his haunches.  I’ve used this successfully in the past.  I do NOT increase the pressure of the tapping as in hit harder.  I just keep tap-tap-tapping.  This time there was no result in terms of going forward.

I switched to using something called an Endostick.  This is a dressage whip with a small rubber ball stuck on the end of the whip.  Tapping with the Endostick encourages relaxation.  He did put his head down many times in response to the Endotapping.  But this did not result in forward movement.

Atticus has never pawed at the trailer before.  This time, he not only pawed, he pawed rather violently.  This concerned me and I made a note of it.

Rather early in the proceedings I realized that we were not going to make it to the clinic.  That was okay.  We’d just work on practicing trailer loading.  I did not look at my watch and I made sure that I was breathing deeply and slowly and relaxing my shoulders.  It didn’t help.  He got more insistent that he wasn’t going to load.

There were carrots up front and I was hoping (really, wanting) that he would load on enough (all four feet) so that he could at least get the carrots.  Then we could be done.  He did get all four feet on the trailer, but he didn’t get the carrots.  His haunches stayed crouched down and he hopped off very quickly and tried to leave town.

At one point, part of the leather of the longe line split.  I still had his lead line though.  I retied the longe line and we tried again.  I was clicking and treating for the smallest tries.  I’d give him breaks and walk around a bit.  I tried backing him up and clicking and treating for that.

At another point, I had him tied to the trailer with the lead line.  When I went to untie the lead and pick up the longe line, he got loose from me, dragged me a good twenty feed (I stayed upright), but he got away and galloped to a field, dragging the longe and lead lines.  The longe line broke again in a different spot in the leather.

I went to catch him and he would not be caught.  I got a target stick and tried again.  This time I caught him.  I tried to practice leading lessons so that he would not cut in front of me or drag me off.  This was short-lived with a tiny bit of success.  I turned him loose in the paddock.

The lesson for me was not really allowing my horse’s opinion and communication get through.  Even though I think I’m a clicker trainer and try really hard to be one, I still can find myself in the mindset of “you have to” do this.  “He may be upset for some reason that I don’t understand, but he knows how to load and he SHOULD be able to do this.”  “If we can just get all four feet on the trailer AND he gets the carrots, we can be done.”

He told me the only way he knows how that something was wrong and he wasn’t getting on the trailer.  If we really are going to let our students have a voice, then we really have to learn to listen.  Just because he doesn’t get on today doesn’t mean that he won’t ever get on.  Both of us would have been much better off stopping a lot earlier before there was a meltdown.  He did get all four feet on.  I should have taken what he offered and let it be.

In fact, he was so upset with the situation that he took it out on his mates.  I’ve never seen him do that before either.

Then I had my body worker out yesterday (Monday) and she said that he had a lot of pain in the haunches – adductors, hips, stifles, etc.  She thought he might have slipped at some point – in a field or in the trailer, it’s hard to say.  I never felt him fall down in the trailer, so I don’t think it was that bad of a slip if he slipped there.  But he was sore.  It’s hard to hold yourself up in a trailer if you’re sore.  It makes for a very uncomfortable trip.

The last two days, right after breakfast, I have turned him loose in my trailer drive (which is fenced) and worked at liberty about loading again.  Monday, I had one carrot that I bit into chunks and used only those for anything he offered that was in the direction of the trailer – a look, a step, staying in a position pointing to the trailer.  He offered a couple of steps toward the trailer which I rewarded.  When I ran out of carrot we were done with that.  We then went to the paddock and practiced interacting with the Jolly Ball.

This morning I had some bits of apple and we did the same thing as yesterday.  He offered to walk right toward the trailer from nearly 80 feet away.  He even offered to put two feet on!  What a great guy!  So it’s not really the trailer itself.

I love this horse and I love clicker training.  Both are so forgiving it humbles me.

Click on!  J



About Laurie Higgins

I play with clicker training - with my horses, dogs, and cats. I also attempt to grow vegetables with the hope of one day being able to feed my family from my garden. My daughter and I are learning ballroom dancing. Well, we were. But she left me for a paying horse job, so now my husband and I are learning ballroom dancing. I'm also now helping Peggy Hogan, of Clicker Training Horses (and The Best Whisper is a Click) to teach people how to train their own horses using "clicker training".
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