We purchased a 15 year old thoroughbred gelding from a local auction to use as a subject in a video series we produced last year. The gelding, Cruiser, is a retired racehorse and is currently an excellent trail horse prospect. Cruiser was hard to load when we picked him up at the sale barn, so part of our training plan with him included working on getting him to load and unload easily.
When you purchase a horse like Cruiser, who has been raced and transported many times, you don’t expect to encounter trailer loading problems. When you do, it’s crucial to determine if the issue is fear-based or simply a result of poor training. Either the horse is scared due to a bad experience loading in the trailer, or it is an attitude that has allowed him to get out of loading in the trailer.
Since Cruiser is a tall horse, one might expect that he dislikes the trailer because he has previously hit his head on the trailer roof. On the other hand, he has somewhat of a stubborn streak, so maybe he has been able to buffalo his previous owners. Since our problem solving strategy will be different for each of these possible scenarios, the first thing we do is try to figure out if he is actually scared of the trailer, or if he has just become stubborn.
Our trailer is a 3 horse gooseneck with a high ceiling, so there’s plenty of room for a tall horse like Cruiser. The first time I started to walk Cruiser into the trailer, he pulled back, backing well away from the trailer. I then put a flake of hay in the front part of the trailer and tried again. This time he walked right in, proceeded to eat the hay, relaxed and happy. I then unloaded him, took out the hay, and tried to reload him. He pulled back again and would not load.
Well, that pretty much narrowed it down to an attitude problem, which is usually a lot easier to fix than a horse with a fear issue. So our plan was to put him through the Horse Sensible Level 2 Groundwork program. The lessons in this level will accomplish two things: change his attitude, whereby he views us as the leader; and reinforce his response to give to basic pressures which ask him to move and take certain shapes.
At completion of Level 2 Groundwork, we proceeded to load Cruiser. These are the steps we took in the first training session on loading:
I ended the first session with him loading and unloading willingly. Always end a session on a positive note.
For the next couple of weeks I loaded him after his training session without a problem.
So the main take-aways for solving this problem are:
Mike explained that his mare was deathly afraid of both the saddle blanket and the saddle. He further indicated that this fear was a result of the saddle rolling underneath her because the cinch was too loose. She spooked and crashed into the fence virtually tearing up his roundpen. Since that experience, they have never been able to get close to her with the saddle and blanket.
He set the saddle and blanket on the roundpen fence, and proceeded to lead her into the pen. She snorted and refused to even walk up to the blanket and saddle. After observing her it was obvious that this was a fear issue rather than attitude. As far as her nagality, I concluded she was more submissive rather than dominant, but Mike disagreed with me.
I proceeded to do some groundwork with her to begin building her trust. I finally got her to relax somewhat, and proceeded to pick up the blanket and carry it while I was leading her. When a horse is scared of something it is much easier to get them following it rather than being approached by it. Once I had her relaxed and following the blanket, I held it up next to her body while disengaging her hindquarters. Once she would stop, I would pull the blanket away giving her a release. By the end of the hour session, I was able to hold the blanket next to her right side with her standing relaxed.
We ended the session with me explaining to Mike that it was going to take a lot of time on his part to get her over this intense fear of the blanket and saddle. I further explained that the only chance of fixing the problem was taking an approach of building the horse’s trust, progressing in baby steps, and incorporating a method of approach and retreat. I left him with the following set of instructions to follow:
1) Ideally, take her through our Level 2 Groundwork program to build trust
2) Get her following him with blanket in relaxed fashion
3) Hold blanket next to her until she relaxes, reward by taking it away
4) Rub blanket on her until she relaxes, reward by taking it away
5) Lay blanket on her back remove right away, repeat
6) Lay blanket on her back and remove when she relaxes
7) Gradually leave blanket on her back longer periods until fully relaxed
Once successful through number 7, I told Mike I would give him the next set up steps to follow for reintroducing the saddle.
Since we are dealing with a very bad past experience that has created intense fear in this mare, a quick fix is not likely, however with patience and perseverance, it can be overcome.
Randy explained that his mare had been professionally trained and was good to ride. However, at some point in her life, someone had tied up her feet and now she is so bad that you can’t pick her feet up at all, let alone have the farrier trim her feet.
We took the mare in the roundpen and Randy attempted to pick up her front foot. She attempted to bite him, and would not let him lift her foot. He then tried to pick up her back foot and she resisted by trying to kick him.
I proceeded by doing some exercises to build her trust and get her relaxed. I then slipped a drop nose band on her so she would be unable to nip at me. I then proceeded to rub all of her legs starting at the top and moving down to her fetlock without trying to pick her feet up. She did not resist or kick at me, so it was apparent that she did not mind being touched on her legs, but rather picking her feet up is the issue. I also concluded that this was not an attitude deal but fear from a bad past experience. I also speculated that she was more of a dominant type mare.
I explained to Randy that our approach will be to take baby steps, incorporating pressure and release. I then took the lead rope and looped it around her front pastern. I applied pressure, pulling slightly until she started to lift her foot, at which time I released the pressure immediately. By the end of the session I had her lifting all four feet momentarily with the lead rope.
We ended the session with me explaining to Randy that to fix the problem would take a time commitment on his part to work through a series of pressure and release steps to eventually get her to the point where you could pick up her feet and hold them up. I left him with the following instructions to get started.
1) Continue getting her to lift her feet momentarily with pressure from the leadrope, releasing immediately when she begins to lift her foot.
2) Begin holding her foot up longer, only releasing it when she holds it up in a relaxed fashion. Don’t release at the kick, only when they get soft. If you release at the kick, or wrong time, you just taught her to kick. All horses learn from the release of pressure, not the pressure itself. So giving the release at the wrong time teaches the wrong behavior.
Once she was doing good through step 2 with all four feet, I told Randy I would give him more steps to work on to ultimately get her ready for the farrier to work on.
This is a somewhat easy fix as long as Randy works on his timing of the release, and has the time to work with his mare.