Horse Tip Daily #59 – Julie Goodnight on the Hard to Catch Horse
During the episode of Horse Master that we nicknamed, “Loaded Up,” I helped Laura Barnhart of Tuscon, Arizona teach her horse to walk onto the trailer instead of throwing a fit, rearing and bolting when a trailer was in view. It was a wild training session and I had sore muscles all over my body the following day. The horse had learned the very nasty trick of rearing, snatching his nose away and running off–dragging behind him whoever happened to be holding the lead line (I fondly refer to this as dirt skiing). The turning and bolting issue was a disrespectful ground manners issue that was separate from the loading problem, but it made loading difficult and nearly impossible. I had to escalate my training cues and the mental pressure the horse felt. With some groundwork training done first, it was a short time before the horse was walking calmly in and out of the trailer. Again, the turnaround was very dramatic and we got some great footage.
Read on to learn about how I helped this horse learn to walk on the trailer and learn how you can teach your horse to stay in the trailer once he loads. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse likes to back out of the trailer too quickly or has learned to run backwards as soon as he loads. Be sure to watch the “Loaded Up” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight April 1 or May 13, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html
Although there are many good techniques used to train a horse to load in a trailer, the technique I prefer not only trains him to load, but also teaches him to back out only on command and in a very controlled fashion. You’ll need two people, a rope halter and training lead and a training flag. Make sure the trailer you’re using is safe and in a good location; without any sharp edges protruding, with good footing and in a clear, but somewhat confined area. I prefer to use a rope halter and long lead (15’ is good) for training purposes, although I wouldn’t haul my horse in a rope halter (I prefer a webbed break-away halter for hauling, for safety and comfort).
One person leads the horse and controls his head, always keeping it pointed toward the trailer; the other person waits subtly in the background with the flag, prepared to flag anytime the horse backs up and releasing the pressure as soon as the horse moves forward. I do not like any techniques for trailer loading that involve touching the horse in the rear—I want his focus to be forward. And I don’t want to use techniques that physically force him—I want him to make the decision to go in voluntarily.
Don’t ever touch the horse with the flag; it’s just the sound and movement that makes him uncomfortable and acts as mental pressure to help him choose to move forward, away from the scary sound. The person controlling the flag has to have excellent timing and must concentrate fully on the horse’s feet so that the flag starts the instant the horse moves backwards and stops the instant he moves forward.
By using this technique for loading, the horse learns that anytime he tries to backup, there is a scary and uncomfortable thing behind him (the flag waving) and that anytime he goes forward, the scary stimulus goes away. Since backwards is no longer an option for him and the person at his head is preventing him from going right or left, he quickly figures out that the only other option is to go forward and into the trailer. The nice thing about this method is that he won’t blow out backwards because he has learned that backwards is not an option.
You should have practiced your backing and general control on the ground way before working on trailer loading, so that your horse is responsive and controllable. Make sure that once you have presented him to the trailer, he is not allowed to look away at all or go in any direction but straight toward it. Be aware that when the flag starts waving, your horse is likely to lunge forward, so make sure the person leading stays well out of the way and is prepared for the horse to jump forward.
Once the horse has loaded, I’ll usually offer him a bite of grain as a reward and pet him for a few minutes to relax him then I’ll ask him to back out slowly—one step at a time. Be careful not to pull on him—that will make him want to pull back and blow out backwards; try to keep the lead loose. Ask him for one step back then ask him to halt and pet him and let him relax; then ask again. Have your flagger ready and if he takes more than one step and starts to blow backwards, flag him forward, let him settle, then ask again for one step, repeating the process until he is out.
It’s also helpful for unloading if you can let your horse turn around and walk out forward a few times, so he can understand where he is going; but that’s not always possible. It’s not natural for a horse to back down something; in fact, in nature, they would rarely back up at all. If he is allowed to walk forward down the ramp or step a few times, he may be more relaxed when you ask him to back down.
The training flag (available at www.juliegoodnight.com) is a great tool for trailer loading and also for motivating a lazy horse to go forward; mental pressure often works better than physical pressure. It’s also a useful desensitizing tool, but I’ll never desensitize a horse to the flag until I know whether or not it will be needed for trailer loading or for getting him to move forward. The flag is a 4’ rigid stick with a plastic or nylon flag on the end. The flag I sell is lightweight and very durable and balances easily in your hand, making it easier to handle than most other flags I’ve used.
My horse won’t stand still for mounting.
Follow Julie Goodnight’s advice to teach your horse to stand still while you mount up.
Does your horse begin the ride before you do? When you put your foot in the stirrup to mount, are you hopping and scrambling, reaching for a handhold on the saddle, or dangling from your horse’s side while he heads down the trail? Or does he take off the instant you skim the leather—leaving you grabbing for the reins as you struggle to get your foot in the stirrups before he reaches full speed?
If you’re nodding your head, knowing the scenario describes you and your horse, it’s time to make a change. Here, we’ll discuss why your horse may act out this annoying and dangerous behavior then give you steps to take to teach your horse to stand quietly and relaxed for mounting. Soon you’ll have a horse that stands like a statue on a loose rein as you mount.
Many horses have never been taught or required to stand still on any occasion, let alone for mounting. Until you can control your horse’s feet (both moving and not moving), you don’t really have control of the horse; this is as true on the ground as it is for riding.
Horses are very impulsive when it comes to moving—remember they are flight animals. To get a horse to think before he acts—and not move impulsively—takes good training and strong leadership skills. A horse must not only learn what rules to follow, but also that there are ramifications if he breaks a rule—that’s where your leadership comes into play.
For young horses, it’s important to learn good ground manners, including standing still when asked. A good trainer will start with lots of ground work to gain control over the horse’s feet. When the youngster is started under saddle, from the first time he’s mounted, he learns to stand quietly and wait for a cue before walking off.
Many older horses that do not stand still for mounting have been inadvertently trained to act this way. I call it “anti-training.” Generally the rider has been condoning the horse’s impulsive movement for months, if not years before realizing there’s a problem. It starts with little infractions—small but unauthorized actions– and gradually it snowballs until your horse hardly listens to you at all.
Often the horse has gotten into this habit from an eager-beaver rider that mounts and takes off. Soon the horse expects it and he makes an association with mounting and moving his feet—this the action of mounting becomes his cue.
Instead of correcting the unauthorized actions of the horse, many riders cave in to the horse’s actions, thus condoning it. This is often rationalized by the rider as being okay because “I was going to ask him to walk anyway,” but the horse sees it for what it’s: he’s making the decisions therefore he’s the leader.
In short order, you have trained your horse to walk off as you mount. Since he thinks he’s doing the right thing, he’ll begin to walk off sooner each time you mount until you won’t even have a foot in the stirrup before he’s headed down the road.
Whether your horse has never learned proper ground manners or has inadvertently learned to walk off through inaction or a lack of authority on your part, there are some simple steps you can take to fix this common complaint.
First, take assessment of your horse’s general ground manners and respect for authority. Is he always respectful of your space? Does he lead with good manners, matching you step for step, stopping when you do and going as fast as you ask? Will he stand patiently and wait for you whenever you stop and does he stand quietly for the vet and farrier?
If you have complete authority over your horse, you can control his feet entirely, both moving and standing still. If this is not the case for you and your horse, you probably need to start doing groundwork to develop this critical connection with your horse. There are numerous articles on my website on how and why you do groundwork. I also have DVDs that will explain horse behavior and training techniques; the videos and all the equipment you’ll need are available packages at Shopping.JulieGoodnight.com.
I teach my horse that he can’t move a single foot unless I authorize the move. I practice this stand-like-a-statue game a lot, especially at times when I know my horse does not want to stand (like when all the other horses are headed back to the barn). These exercises are thoroughly explained on my website and in my DVD called Lead Line Leadership.
Once your horse is obedient and mannerly from the ground, you can start retraining him to stand still for mounting. The first step is to realize that whatever you have been doing, hasn’t worked. You have probably condoned the behavior many times or not given adequate corrections or insisting on obedience. You’ll have to make a commitment to change that—to be the captain of the ship.
It may have been your impatience that has led to this problem, so you’ll need to get in the habit of standing for a moment after you mount and never letting your horse walk off without waiting for a cue. If he just walks off because you’re mounting, he’s making an unauthorized action and it needs to be met with a swift and certain correction. Pick up on the reins, back him up and say “whoa!”. Be adamant about not letting the horse walk off until you cue him and you should only cue him when he’s standing still (just a momentary pause will do).
If your horse is walking off before you even get a foot in the stirrup, there’s a simple exercise you can do to change his associations. It’s a classic case of making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard for the horse. Like all horse training, this exercise requires an excellent sense of timing and consistent reinforcement.
Outfit your horse in his normal riding gear, with the reins secured to the saddle and a 25’ longe line clipped in the left ring of the bit. Approach your horse in slow motion, as if to mount; it’s important that you move slowly so that the timing of your corrections is precise. Keep the reins and line loose and do not make any effort to prevent the horse from moving off—let him make that decision—through this exercise, you’ll make him rethink that choice.
As you go through the motions of mounting, your horse will begin to move—you’ll have to concentrate hard to find the right instant. At that time, step back (well out of the kick zone) and get after your horse; send him out on the longe circle, making him trot long and hard until he’s eager for a stop cue. Then ask him to stop and repeat, approaching in slow motion to mount.
Each time he walks off without authorization from you, longe the pants off of him—give him a reason to think about how he can get out of this dilemma. You may need a training flag or whip to keep a safe distance from his flying hooves and to motivate him to action.
Each time you start the mounting process over, look for an opportunity to reward him. As you go slowly through the motions, if you reach a milestone—say, you put your foot in the stirrup and he holds still, reward him by turning and walking away from him and leave him in peace and comfort for a moment.
In the process, while he’s thinking and holding still, pet him and tell him he’s a great horse when he’s doing the right thing and hiss and spit at him when he’s not. Put him to work when he decides to move on his own.
When he begins to understand that you’re asking him to do something really easy, you’ll be able to go further and further in the mounting process until you’re on his back with him standing still. Once you swing your foot over his back, your hands control his movements. When he stands for mounting, reward him by getting off right away. Repeat this numerous times during each training session so he really understands what is expected of him.
If your timing is good, it should only take a few repetitions before your horse begins to make an association with his decision to walk off and having to work really hard. Suddenly the easy thing to do is stand still. If it takes you more than 6-8 circling episodes to make progress with your horse, it probably means you do not have the skills needed to have good timing in the release of pressure. He may be learning the wrong thing and you probably need to enlist some professional help.
With repetition, good timing and lots of enforcement on your part, your horse will soon learn to stand like a statue when you mount. For a wealth of information on the skills and knowledge needed to gain complete authority over your horse and cue him correctly visit TV.JulieGoodnight.com.