Recently I trailered a couple of young horses I’ve been training back to their home at Wensleydale Farm in Oregon. I invited two of my advanced Hoof Beats students, Elise and Elly, since they had been handling and riding the trainees, and since there are more great young horses at Wensleydale, including new colts. I really enjoy coaching my students, and this day was extra fun for us all because we got to play with baby horses!
Horses are full faculty learners at birth, ready within a few hours to follow Mom out into the big world. What this means for trainers is, you can’t start too early exposing a baby horse to all sorts of different things, familiarizing them with human contact and making it easier for them to adapt to the human world in the future.
With talented students, it is a match made in heaven—a curious colt and an imaginative handler. In this case, there were no great deeds to accomplish, just a chance to let the girls help two colts test out life in a safe way.
We decided to try some basic yields which would help prepare the youngsters for trailer loading. Elise and Elly played some preparatory games on line, getting the babies to follow a feel in all directions. After they all got comfortable moving around outside, we thought of asking them to move in and out of open stalls in the barn.
Both babies found that following a feel was safe and fun, and extra interesting when it meant entering and leaving a familiar place. The same rhythm continued—following a feel in, following a feel out, until it was easy. After that, going half way in, then backing out offered a great simulation of the trailer loading experience.
Also, there will be many times a colt will experience leaving a friend, or losing sight of a friend, so this game of loading in and out of the stalls will pay off in lots of ways in the future. It’s a kind of peek-a-boo for baby horses.
To the trailers! (Almost.) We had plenty of time, so after playing in the barn, we took the babies out to where the trailers were parked, and practiced loading on to a sheet of plywood and a plastic tarp. The plywood and tarp made strange sounds and had different textures, to help desensitize the babies to stepping on other strange surfaces.
Both babies were confident and curious as they left the barn, so the progression to the plywood and tarp was not too big a step for them. Once again, our aim was to make sure the babies could follow a feel in all directions over the plywood and tarp.
We made a point of having no expectations as to whether this day would be the day the babies would load into a trailer. The students would make sure to play enough to be able to stop and leave the babies in a good place for next time.
To the trailer for reals. On the other hand, we were all still having fun, and there was still time, so we decided to continue and introduce the trailer.
Importantly, before allowing the babies to go all the way into the trailer, I had Elise and Elly ask them to stop part way in, and back out. I like to work on unloading as part of trailer loading first, before the horse loads all the way in. I have seen too many problems with horses afraid to get out of the trailer after walking in. It is so worth it to spend a lot of time allowing the horse to learn what it will feel like to unload safely and confidently.
Steps forward and back. I had them practice stepping on the ramp with one foot then the other foot, then do the same in reverse. When the back feet start making it onto the ramp, we practiced the same thing with the back feet. First one hind then the other.
The funny thing is, if you are a good observer you will find that the horse does this all on his own. I have learned by taking my time and allowing them to explore, testing which foot goes on and off, everyone forgets that going in was the objective, and soon the horses can’t wait to see what it feels like to have their whole body in the trailer. We even practice stepping back and then stepping forward and resting on the ramp. It is really fun way to teach trailer loading. Nowhere to go, let’s just play at, around, and in the trailer.
With the idea of play in mind, a relaxed attitude, imagination and sense of fun, our day was a
complete success, with both babies stepping all the way in to a trailer, and backing out perfectly. And that to us at Freedom Farm, is the best kind of training session.