I picked up the new horse trailer Monday. It's a Hawk two-horse straight load bumper pull, the Elite model. It's a very nice trailer, and I already like it a lot. I ordered it with full back doors plus a ramp, rather than the standard configuration of the ramp being the bottom half of the back door with dutch doors above. I prefer the configuration I chose, since when you're bending down to handle the ramp, the doors are between your head and the horse's hind feet. (I forgot to take my camera today, but will try to get some photos tomorrow.)
Today Pie and I, then Red and I, worked on trailer loading. This trailer is different from my last one - it's a straight load, instead of a slant, and has a ramp instead of a step-up. One nice feature of the Hawks is that they have a low load bed, so the slope on the ramp is pretty flat, and it has a nice textured rubber surface. To practice our loading, I put a hay bag up front, opened the escape door on the side I was using - there is a walk through with escape doors at the front of the horse area - and swung the divider over and tied it in place. Since working on trailer loading can be mighty dangerous - unless and until you teach your horses to send in, you're in a confined space with a might big and perhaps mighty nervous animal. So I always wear a helmet when working on loading, and if circumstances are particularly dicey I might wear a body protector as well.
Pie, after a moment's hesitation, loaded beautifully twice and even grabbed some hay from the bag on his second load. He did everything so nicely that I immediately put him away. The ramp didn't bother him in the slightest, although I don't think he's ever been on a trailer with a ramp before. In our next loading session, we'll work on duration - having him stand longer before I ask him to back out - and some one foot forward/one step back/one step forward work to be sure he's listening to me and not on autopilot when backing out. The next step with Pie will be sending him in - I don't think that's going to be a problem at all for him.
Red struggled a bit, as I thought he might. It's been over 14 months since he's been in a trailer, and the last times he's loaded, Pie has already been on board. He went through some of the behaviors he used last spring when we were working on loading, but today we're already farther along than where we left off last year. But there was some stuff to work through before we got to that better place . . .
With a horse like Red who has some trailer loading issues, I don't try sending him in at first - even though he sends well in general - having me with him in the trailer helps give him confidence. Leading rather than sending helped as well since his behaviors/evasions tend to be attempts to get away from the door of the trailer - he will pull backwards, or try to turn his head and body away from the trailer, throwing his shoulder towards you. So my first job was to keep him facing the trailer door, and if he pulled backwards, to stay with him, keeping an even pressure on the rope. All the work we've done on leading helped a lot - I'm able now to pretty easily keep him from popping his shoulder into me or from running past me, although I did have to pay attention. I also put him in a rope halter so that it was easier to maintain pressure when it was needed.
I focussed on keeping him facing the door, asking him to step forwards, releasing pressure and praising each step and giving him a bigger release - a walk around with a bit of grazing and lots of praise - for significant progress. He was also still leaving the trailer pretty rapidly at this point. What I wanted for today was for him to lead nicely into the trailer with minimal pressure and no stops, stand there for a few seconds and then back out slowly at my request. I thought we could get to that point today.
After a bit, he was loading into the trailer, but it was still pretty sticky - there were lots of stops and starts and it took some pressure to have him take steps forward. So we just kept on working - I never attempt a loading work session like this unless I can take as much time as it takes.
Then we had our "darkest before the dawn" moment - where things get much worse all of a sudden - I was waiting for it and glad when it appeared - it meant we were close to breaking through to the better place I was looking for. Red started really acting up - lots of screaming for another horse, any horse, to save him - and there were some dramatic runs backwards with some rearing thrown in for good measure, lots of attempts to move sideways, and the loading progress fell apart. This meant that I was asking for more that he thought he was going to be asked to do - the "good" loading we'd achieved so far, with some pressure and fits and starts and rapid exits, was about where he'd gotten to with loading last year. When he got outside his previous comfort zone, he got worried - he got braced and resistant - the prior bad behaviors reappearing. I knew if we could work through this things would likely suddenly get much better.
The solution was for me to continue asking, patiently, and with as much softness as possible, and to know what I wanted and be willing to keep working until I got it. So we kept working, and all of a sudden he loaded, staying straight, without any significant pressure and with no balks. He came all the way to the front of the trailer and extended his head and neck to look out the escape door. I praised him profusely and hugged him around the neck and shoulders - I was right there, up against the side wall of the trailer. Then I asked him to back out after less than 10 seconds right before he decided to back out on his own. And this time he backed out nice and slowly, although he isn't yet waiting for my direction for each step.
Once we got out, we walked all the way around the truck and trailer, sniffing and examining everything. Then we grazed for a bit. Then I led him around the back of the trailer and we loaded again, very nicely, and stood for some seconds and then backed out nicely. Tomorrow we may do some one step forward/one step back work, starting with doing this in the arena so he's got the idea firmly in hand. I was very proud of him and praised him lavishly.
The things I find most important in this sort of thing are: first, to keep myself focussed on what I do want and ignore/redirect what I don't want - I never punish or "make the horse work" - that's just a distraction from what I'm trying to do and takes our eyes off the ball. Second, I don't put any negative emotional content into any of this, no matter what the horse does - no anger, frustration, irritation, etc. - the horse is just being a horse - I just praise and give releases for what I want. That doesn't mean that I don't direct/redirect, sometimes forcefully (but never as a punishment) - getting Red to stay straight took some rope swinging at this shoulder and side and putting quite a bit of pressure on his head to get him to bend towards me instead of away. And a horse running into or over me is never, ever acceptable - Red knows this from our prior work. Third, I'm very careful to always give a release, or set it up so the horse gives himself a release, for every try, no matter how small. For big progress, or changes in attitude, big releases - very big ones - celebrations - are in order. And don't quit until you're done - persistence and patience are essential - if I'd quit when Red was having his difficult time towards the end of our work - the "darkest before dawn" - that would have confirmed for him that that's how he was to act and that he couldn't do more than he'd done before. Quitting too soon due to giving up or time pressure are frequent errors people make in this sort of work. Knowing when to stop and what is a realistic goal for that day, depending on what horse shows up, is also important and is a matter of judgment.
Anyhow, I was delighted with Pie and also delighted with Red and his progress. Neither boy got a ride today (Dawn did), but that didn't matter - it was a good day's work for all of us.