When Harley entered my life, I taught him how to float. Honestly, it was easy. He was already good about walking onto a trailer, so I just taught him the cues to move forward and he walked onto the trailer.
|Are we there yet?|
Piece of cake.
Texas clinician: Eat your heart out!
I was actually born in Texas, so maybe some of the state's big britches and big talkin' has seeped into my blood for the short nine months of my life that were spent on Texas soil.
Free-loading or floating Harley into the trailer worked smashingly and was a crowd-pleasing trick. However, on one occasion things did not go so smoothly. I was trying to load Harley to go home after a show, but after he obediently walked into the trailer, he immediately backed down the ramp, stopping to stare at me at the bottom of the ramp. I calmly repeated my request and he calmly repeated the yo-yo technique of entering and leaving the trailer. After four or five yo-yo stunts, I became annoyed and was not in the mood to further entertain onlookers, so I took his halter and led him into the trailer by hand. He walked on without objection and stood quietly while we raised the butt bar and snapped the emergency-release tie to his halter. It was not until I walked around the trailer and went to close the last side door that I noticed him staring at me, following me with a forlorn expression. I immediately worried that he was sick, but upon inspection of the hay cradle realized the problem. Harley saw no reason to stand in a trailer with an empty hay cradle. Oh. There went my awesome trailer-training skills. Looks like Harley had everything figured out, though.
Following the event, I spent some time re-schooling Harley to walk onto a trailer on his own, but I also never again forgot to check the hay cradle before giving my request. Is that cheating? The justification that I have developed for myself is that a 1000+ pound animal needs tangible motivation to walk into a narrow tin can. I could use the strength of my will (and my whip) to motivate him, but I really do not want to. Especially because I will never trailer him anywhere without hay and if he does need to enter the trailer in an emergency situation, I will most likely be walking him on anyway. Okay, so there is my excuse. Take it for what it is, I guess.
|Excuse me! Flight attendant? I already finished my complimentary hay bag.|
Can I have another?
Enter new step-up trailer. I referred to this trailer in the post leading up to the October Dressage show. All of the trailers which I had previously walked or "floated" Harley onto possessed a ramp. I have heard many, many clinicians comment that horses prefer step-up trailers to ramps. Something about the wobbly, angled nature of the ramp irks many horses. They much prefer stepping up to the height of the trailer in one fell swoop. I had this in mind as I walked Harley up to the new step-up. The step-up was purchased for the barn owners to go camping with their horses, so we will probably rarely, if ever, need to load onto this trailer, but the barn owners are always willing to entertain a training opportunity, so I attempted to free-load Harley onto the step-up.
Harley marched up to the trailer with purpose and a raised neck. I know my horse and he was looking for the telltale wisps of hay sticking out of the stuffed hay cradle. Unfortunately for him, the trailer was brand-spanking new and had not yet seen the likes of hay, although a couple horses had practiced loading earlier in the day. When Harley reached the step-up, his front legs gently bumped the foreboding step and he stopped, clearly perplexed. He touched me with his nose and his eyes said,
"This thing is wrong. I cannot walk."
I firmly grasped his halter and gave a supportive upward tug as I clucked, the cue which means, without a doubt, that he had not arrived at the correct answer to my request. Having perched his front legs on pedestals before, he obediently stepped up into the trailer with both front legs.
"Goooddd Booyy", I cooed trying to ignore the lurking feeling that my attempts to float him onto the step-up were going to fall flat.
I allowed him to calmly step back down and then I repeated my request. Harley stepped into the trailer and immediately stepped back down. I praised him and immediately repeated my request. He repeated his yo-yo stunt, but this time I did not praise him, instead I continued to cluck and swing the lead line at his hindquarters which meant "no backing up, Mister Harley." He made a series of pathetic faces, sidestepped infront of the trailer, tried to pull back a few times and nearly forgot his manners by almost walking on top of me. I responded to the last mistake by smartly swinging my line at his shoulder and muzzle which was enough to convince him that a "door" had not opened up between my shoulders. We danced like this for a long minute, as the barn owner watched and I waited on bated breath for advice and suggestions to begin to fly. Thankfully, none came and since I did not release the pressure or change my request, Harley plopped both front feet into the trailer and rested as I immediately silenced my body.
"Goooddd Booyy", I stroked his shoulder and looked at his face. He was not licking and chewing and his expression said nothing short of "this sucks".
We stood there together for several minutes, me caressing and praising him, hoping to see him soften a hair and my horse waiting motionless, like a frozen circus pony glued to his post with a bad case of stage fright.
Like an obedient horse, Harley only stepped down when I gave his halter a little tug and clucked. He freely stepped onto the trailer a second time, without any dancing, and assumed the circus pose until I requested that he come down. When it felt like he knew the deal, I increased the pressure hoping to persuade him to continue walking forward and step up with his hindlegs. He refused to budge forward. I tried walking him from a distance to give him some momentum, but as soon as his front feet hit the trailer floor he froze. My horse was decidedly confused and still had not changed his expression:
"This thing is wrong. I cannot walk. And this SUCKS."
To my relief, the barn owner chimed in that maybe I should walk on with him, so that he understood that he could step up with his back legs. I was very happy to hear those words. I felt like I needed permission to walk him on, since I was using the barn owner's equipment and working on their property. Such is the case when you do not own your own farm. Of course, there are many, many conveniences regarding not owning your own farm, so I am not complaining!
I eagerly bounced into the trailer and encouraged Harley to follow me. At first he resisted, pulling back and giving me the most heartwrenching look imaginable. You would think that I was asking him to walk the plank, but after I clucked and gave him my most willful expression he walked forward and climbed into the trailer with all four feet.
"What a Good, Good Boy, Harley. That's it. That's all I wanted."
Realizing that he had finally achieved my request, Harley looked relieved and softened his expression, although he also realized that this "wrong trailer" lacked a hay cradle and curbed his salivation and chewing. I, too, was relieved until I realized that I had to back Harley down the step to get him out of the trailer. I had just completely failed at explaining to him that he needed to step up with his hind legs. How on Earth was I going to explain to him that he needed to step down? He was barely able to absorb the first lesson and now he was going to be hit with another that would potentially be more alarming and even dangerous. What if he moved too quickly and fell backward?
I decided to stay in the trailer a little longer, so that he could rest and remember the good step up he had just accomplished. I needed to muster the confidence to back him off the trailer. I heard one of the barn owners asking where Harley went. The other answered that he was in the trailer. Time to go, Harley. We are being missed.
Very cautiously, I walked him backwards. As we approached the step down I halted him and stroked his neck. He looked at me innocently. He had no idea. To comfort myself, I told him in English that he was going to step down and that he must move slowly. He calmly stepped back and found no ground beneath him as his hind leg and quarters dropped like a rock. His ears darted back and he grimaced with bulging eyes. His look screamed,
Poor Harley. I praised him and stroked his neck encouraging him to continue walking backward. He obliged and finally licked and chewed, shaking his mane from side to side as we exited the dreadful trailer. After a break, I walked with him onto the step-up trailer two more times. By the second time, he was taking tiny, little baby steps backward until he found the edge of the trailer and then stepped down. He still did not look happy, but at least he did not scare his socks off like the first time. It will take some creative-thinking and practice for me to train him to float onto this trailer. I am not sure that I even want him to free-load onto this trailer.
In the grand scheme of things, will the time and stress of training him to float onto the step-up be worthwhile? Was Harley really confused or scared or were his theatrics a well-acted ploy? Will he negotiate the step-up without a hitch (pun intended) if I fill the hay cradle?
What do you think?
Speaking of Trailering: Need Some Advice or Tips?
Then stop by Karen's Dressage Blog, the story of a lifetime horsewomen switching gears from the Endurance World to the Dressage World. As an endurance rider, Karen logged thousands of miles and hauled her horses to every event. She regularly trailers her two beautiful horses to lessons and dressage shows, often completely on her own. Since I do not own my own trailer and have never driven a truck pulling horses, I am extremely impressed by her expertise and resolve. She is generously sharing her knowledge in a blog post series entitled "Trailering" where she discusses everything from safety to handy "gizmos" with lots of "how to".
Karen also regularly writes about the lovely grey Arabian, Speedy, and the tall, dark, and handsome New Zealand Thoroughbred, Sydney, as they explore the discipline of dressage in lessons, shows, and at home.