Monty Roberts wrote that the most common remedial problem he had to deal with was horses who refused to load. This is hardly surprising, seeing as getting into a horsebox goes directly against several of the most important rules of being a horse, namely:
- Don’t go into dark places
- Don’t stand on anything that’s a funny colour or makes a weird noise
- Enclosed spaces = death. Avoid at all costs
- Never be alone
Considering that the inside of a horsebox cripples some of the horse’s most important natural defences (its sight, speed, and strength in numbers), it’s understandable that loading can be one of the most psychologically problematic actions in the horse world. And yet it’s a testament to the enormous trainability of the equine mind that thousands of horsepeople across the globe load their horses up and drive happily off without a second thought; and that most horses can be persuaded to march right on and stand quietly for the journey.
Loading is a vitally important thing for a horse to learn in order to be a good equine citizen. A horse that simply does not load can’t be taken to a new owner or a show or even an off-site trail ride. More critically, a horse that won’t load can’t be rushed to a vet hospital in an emergency, such as torsion colic. And while the majority of relaxed, handled horses can be wrestled into a box for the first time with a couple of unafraid people and some lunge ropes, it’s never good to stress out a sick horse.
So when we got our grubby paws onto our first horsebox, I wasted little time in getting started on the Horde’s box training.
There are a few things about our box that makes it extremely horse-friendly for loading. Firstly, it’s a four-berth. In other words, it’s huge, airy and much less claustrophobic. Secondly, it has a front ramp for unloading; when this ramp is open, the horses can see their way out and walk straight through the box instead of backing off, which can create fly-back artists (horses who zoom backwards out of the box at high speed).
Arwen has a cross-country lesson coming up next week, so I got started with her. I put her in a pressure halter for a little extra control, since she has tried flying back once or twice, and led her up to the box. She did her wide-eyed snorty OMW-there’s-a-box performance for a second or two, so I did a little turn-on-the-forehand exercise that disengages the haunches and settles the mind until she was acting more reasonable. Then I led her up to the ramp. She put one foot on it and promptly flew back, so I tossed a lunge line around her butt to put some pressure on her behind. It worked like a charm. I marched up, she hesitated, I put pressure on the bum rope and she walked right on. When I halted her in the middle of the box she wanted to fly back, but I gave her another pull on the bum rope and persuaded her to go forward and down the front ramp. She did a flying leap off the end of the ramp, but after that, the flying back was done.
After a few repetitions with the bum rope, I took it off and led her up just in the halter; she loaded like a dream, stood in the box, got a carrot, and unloaded. It’s kind of hard to manhandle the partitions alone, so I only swung them closed once without fastening them. She hated that, but didn’t do anything silly.
To round off our little session, I had her stand in the horsebox with some carrots and a haynet for a few minutes to let her relax and realise that it was quite pleasant. Hopefully now she’ll just hop right on come lesson or show time.
Since I had a little time left after rewarding Arwen by giving her a good workout up and down some hills (I know that goes against the usual rest-is-reward mentality, but she loved it), I went to fetch Thunder. He has never even seen the inside of a horsebox before, so I kept my goals modest. I was hoping to get a hoof or two on the ramp; I suspected that he would be scared of the box itself and we’d spend the session walking around and around it until he realised it wouldn’t eat him.
I thoroughly underestimated my little loving guy. I expected uncertainty, hesitation and a little fear. What really happened was that I walked up to the box, he walked up to the box. I got on the ramp, he got on the ramp. I walked into the box, he walked into the box. I walked off the ramp, he walked off the ramp. I stood there gawping at him while he looked at me wondering why I hadn’t asked him to do anything hard yet.
We repeated this just to make sure it wasn’t a fluke the first time, and he was the same: went straight in without batting an eyelid. I gave up trying to teach him anything about horseboxes and let him go, feeling a strange mix of pride, love and a kind of quivering, grateful awe. Even so young, Thunder has already reached the mental stage of training that few horses ever reach. Oh, I’m no horse whisperer; it has a lot to do with the sheer amount of quality time we’ve spent together, and with his gentle, willing nature. But it’s still amazing when a horse reaches this level of trust, respect, and obedience.
All the aids and commands that we teach horses in classical and natural horsemanship work on pressure and release. You apply pressure, the horse responds, and you reward by releasing the pressure. The horse learns to do what you want because it’s the easy way out. It’s easier to give to the pressure than to fight against it. Eventually, he responds to pressure every time because he’s learned that it’s the path of least resistance.
But if you go beyond mere training and into the realms of a real horse-human relationship, with – crucially – the human as leader and defender and provider and the horse as trusting follower, something awesome happens. Your horse stops doing things for you because it’s the easy way out. He starts doing things simply because it was you asking him to do it. This is the point where he hardly ever tests you anymore; he just does what you want to the best of his ability and understanding, because you are his leader and he is your horse and that is the way that a horse’s world works best. When the relationship works like this, one’s horse can achieve greatness in competition because he will jump anything unhesitatingly, perform every movement with expression for you. But this isn’t the point of the relationship. The relationship is the point of horsemanship; when it is perfect, this trust is horsemanship at its best.
I thank God for giving me baby Thunder, the horse that’s teaching me how deep this trust can run.