Expert advice to smooth out a bumpy ride on your horse.
Question: Hi Julie:
I just recently purchased a horse in October this is my first horse and boy I am not starting off very well. This horse was 200lbs underweight when I got him so to say the least I baby him (oops). He has successfully gained 100lbs and I am very excited. He is a very loveable horse and has no bad habits except for the following. My first problem is every time I saddle him I cannot get him to walk as soon as I say walk he will for only a second and he immediately goes into a trot. Now that the winter has set in on warm days I walk him on the roads (I am not mounted on him) and just keep saying walk good boy…Now this weekend I am going to try and ride again but I am getting nervous and discouraged. My second problem is I cannot for the life of me get him in a trailer it takes me about 1 to 1 1/2 hours but once he is in he is fine. I am now at the point where I am putting grain and hay in the trailer but he will not go in for it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated…
Thanks for your email and it sounds like you are going through some fairly common scenarios with your new horse. Most often, horses are jigging because of the anxiety over the pressure on their mouth. It could be that your bit is too harsh or that you are holding too much contact on the bit and not giving a release in a timely fashion (about 95% of the horses I see jig for the latter reason). This Q&A will give you some food for thought.
As for the trailering issue, my first question is, did he load well when you got him? If so, he may have just learned to be disobedient and what you’ll need to do is basic groundwork to establish yourself as the leader of your horse. If he did not load well when you got him, he needs to be trained. There are many good techniques for training horses to load and I can share with you the technique I have found the most success with. However, it will be difficult to really explain this thoroughly enough to address all the variances that can occur with an individual horse when it comes to trailer loading. You may be better off enlisting some help from a qualified trainer and perhaps some of the things I mention may help you determine if the techniques you or the trainer use are effective. We recently did a Horse Master TV episode and DVD called “Loaded Up” that might help you understand the whole process.
First, let me mention the things I would definitely NOT do. Do not use butt ropes, whips, chains, tie a horse to the trailer or hit him on the rear with any objects. Most horses do not load because they are afraid of the confinement. Forceful techniques generally increase the horse’s anxiety, not alleviate it. Also, when you start forcing a horse with ropes, chains, whips, etc, the chances of him getting hurt are greatly increased and if he gets hurt in the process of loading, you’ll really have a big job ahead of you and you’ll never be able to undo the fear memory that was logged in his brain from getting hurt trailer loading (this is documented research). Finally, I do not like to put pressure on the horse’s rear-end in anyway. I want his attention focused forward and if you start hitting him or putting a butt rope on him, his attention is focused back and he is thinking about defending himself, not moving forward.
What we want the horse to do is move forward, willingly and calmly. It is important before you train a horse to do anything that you know exactly what the desired response is and design a training plan that leads the horse to the correct response. There are a few fundamental principles that I like to keep in mind when training a horse to load. One is that he has no choice except to go where his nose is pointed. So I will do my best to eliminate all other options for the horse by backing the trailer into an enclosure or up close to a fence, to eliminate as many escape routes as possible. Also, I must be able to keep total control over the horse’s nose and make dead certain his nose is pointed toward the trailer at all times once I am asking him to load. Once I begin to approach the trailer, I will not take him away for any reason, until he has loaded. I will keep the nose pointed at the trailer and make it clear to the horse that there is only one option for him- and that is get in the trailer.
Secondly, I need to keep in mind what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is. The right thing is to move forward when asked; the wrong thing is to move backward. Then I will make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard (one of the fundamental principles of natural horsemanship).
As I approach the trailer with the horse, I will ask him to move a few steps forward then ask him to stop. Then reward him with a rub on the neck and give him a moment to relax and look at the trailer. It is important to ask the horse to stop before he stops himself, that way you maintain control. If you ask the horse to move too close to the trailer too soon and he balks and slams on the brakes, he is now being disobedient and we want him to stay in an obedient frame of mind. So ask him to take a few steps forward then stop and relax and praise. At no time is he allowed to turn his nose even slightly to the side. Hopefully, if you have done good groundwork with your horse, you will have control over his nose. If not, you may need to work on some more basic things first (see my website for more info on groundwork and my Lead Line Leadership and Roundpen Reasoning DVDs). Give him all the time he needs to be comfortable where he is and do not ask him to step forward until he is calm. Every horse is different; for some you may be stopping 100 feet away, others won’t get nervous until they are closer to the trailer.
I like to use a rope halter with a 12′ training lead for this type of work, because it gives you much better control. I do not like to use a chain on the horse’s nose or chin, because that will add to his anxiety and it is much more difficult to release the pressure on his face. You can order a rope halter and lead from my website if you need one.
The next part of the equation will require some capable assistance for you. You’ll need someone to operate a flag, which is simply a stick of some sort with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The helper will stand very quietly back behind the horse, some distance away so as not to distract the horse. The assistant’s only job is to watch the horse’s feet VERY closely and at any time the horse begins to move backward, the helper will vigorously shake the flag, stopping the instant the horse moves forward at all. This actually takes a lot of concentration and excellent timing. You must shake the flag the INSTANT the horse moves back and stop the INSTANT the horse moves forward. The shaking, rattling plastic will be an aversive stimulus to the horse and it will scare him. He will quickly learn that he can make the scary thing go away by moving forward and that he can avoid it altogether by not moving back.
Through the use of the flag, the horse will learn that moving back is not an option, only moving forward is. If you have good control of the horse’s nose and he cannot move back, he will, in short order, realize that moving forward into the trailer is the only option for him. Do NOT use the flag to make him move forward. You ONLY use the flag to discourage backward movement. I cannot over-emphasize that the flagger must concentrate carefully on the horse’s feet and must have perfect timing with the flag, both starting and stopping the flag. In my experience, the flag is harder to do well than controlling the horse’s nose, but both are hard. Although the flag is hard, leading the horse is the most dangerous position so you must be very careful not to get hurt.
The first time you flag the horse, he is likely to explode forward, so be prepared and be careful and make sure you keep his nose pointed toward the trailer. This may be too big a job for a novice horse handler. Let him stop and settle before you ask him to move forward again. After he has stepped back a few times and gotten the fright of the flag, he’ll quit backing up and start thinking about what his other options are.
If your trailer is small, you won’t want to lead the horse into the trailer so you’ll need to have a long rope to run up through the trailer and back around to where you are standing beside the horse encouraging him to move forward. Take whatever time you need as you are training the horse. Don’t get in a hurry and give yourself plenty of time; the horse needs to know you will out last him. Once he accepts that backwards and sideways are not options, and that you will be persistent but patient, he will give in and load right up.
Once he gets in, he should find a grain reward so that his efforts are rewarded. But do not use the grain to bribe him into the trailer. When the flagging technique is done correctly, you’ll have the horse, no matter how bad he was, loading right up in no time. Keep loading him a few times a day, with him finding grain in the trailer each time and soon he will see the trailer and trot right in.
Again, I want to stress that this is very dangerous stuff and it is very easy for you or your horse to get hurt. It is advisable to get qualified help, but do not let anyone beat or force your horse into the trailer. With this technique, the horse decides on his own that getting in the trailer is his best option and when you can train a horse this way, you’ll always have a calmer and more cooperative horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host