Tuesday, September 27, 2016

trailer loading starts.... in the arena

By now many of you have seen that awesome video of Isabel and Wick demonstrating their perfectly synchronized self-loading techniques. If not, the video is right here and is absolutely worth the 24 seconds haha.

getting to know each other
Sure, both of those horses had certainly been on and off trailers long before I met them (especially war horse OTTB Wick), but given our weekly lesson plans and the fact that neither Brita nor I owned either horse, we wanted to ensure that trailer loading was a sure thing every time - no fuss needed.

So each went through a session (or two, in Isabel's case haha) with local horsemanship professional Jim McDonald, wherein I also learned Jim's method for teaching a horse to self load. You may recall I wrote about Isabel's training sessions with him way back in 2014.

the dreaded stick ball!!
Given how fantastically Jim's method worked for Isabel and Wick (not to mention a few other horses I have trailered in the past two years), and given Charlie's extreme greenness and large size, I deemed it prudent to go through a similar training process. Ain't nobody want to be stuck off property alone with 17h of OTTB that won't load!

We ended up not ever even getting to the trailer tho. Jim loved Charlie and was floored to learn the horse was only six weeks off the track... but all the same, there are some important holes that need filling before we add a trailer into the mix.

Charlie started off a little dull
My heart sank when Jim said that, and a very large part of me felt that I didn't need my horse to be a perfectly trained star-student in all things natural horsemanship before we ever even got to the trailer - I mean, for chrissakes the trailer is what separates me from my trainers. I just need the horse to be good enough to get on and off so I can go to lessons and work on our training!!

but then started expressing himself
But the rational side of me understood - and, admittedly, agreed - with Jim's perspective. Basically Jim's entire trailer loading method is beautifully simple. It boils down to: Install a forward aid using a dressage whip (or, in this case, a slightly longer whip type stick with a foam ball on the end) as an extension of your arm and rhythmically tap on the hip.

ANY forward motion (even a lean) is rewarded by a cessation of the tapping. Then when the forward stops, or if a response that isn't forward (ie, sideways, backwards or no response) is given, the tapping resumes. Timing is everything with this method, as is the handler's energy.

Jim emphasized the importance of disengaging the hindquarters
Once this "forward" aid is confirmed in the horse, you ask him to go forward while the trailer is almost incidentally in front of it. And thus the horse goes forward into the trailer. This process is slowly refined until you are sending the horse into the trailer from the ground with minimal, if any, external aids. As in the video (again, here).

Therefore, the most critical piece of the puzzle is that forward aid - that the horse is conditioned to the tapping response from the whip.

Charlie kept his thinking cap on tho!
And that's where we ran into problems with Charlie, who most certainly knows what a whip is and is not accustomed to it being used in this manner (this manner also including much rubbing and practically petting with said whip across the horse's body, while the horse is expected to stand still - see the below photos).

Charlie started off responding mostly appropriately, but then grew dull, and then quite sensitive and reactive to the stick ball thingy. Including some spinning away from it, some attempts to kick or bite at it, and some hopping, mini-bucking with the hind end.

Nothing that I would call dangerous, and nothing pointed in Jim's direction - but plenty to show that there is enough sensitivity there to make me believe Charlie would not at present respond reliably to my aids in a high pressure situation. Which is totally fine. That's what training is all about, right?

deep in thought about the stick ball 
So Jim worked on a few main things. He showed me the importance of disengaging the hindquarters. A common technique that I've heard plenty about before - but basically the idea was that my tendency is to grab at Charlie's face when he starts getting away from me, whereas instead I need to push his hindquarters away to bring him back to me.

"erm, 'scuse me but your stick ball thing is touching me" - Charlie
He would rub the stick ball thingy all over Charlie's body - mostly running into trouble around the hind end (part of me thinks it's defensiveness bc Charlie is so sore back there, but Jim thinks it might be a conditioned fear response too. idk). The focus was for Charlie to stand still when Jim (or I) would do this.

And the trick is to go jusssssst long enough so that you can release the pressure (by walking forward on a circle with the ball on the ground - so in essence the horse was 'chasing the ball away') right before the horse would have stepped away. If the horse stepped away while you still had the stick ball on him, you had to keep that pressure on until he stilled again - ie, negative reinforcement.**

(**ie: a response or behavior is strengthened by stopping or removing an averse stimulus. The pressure from the stick ball stops when the desired behavior - stillness - is achieved)

"ugh ok fine" - Charlie
The other objective was applying the stick ball by tapping on the hip asking for forward, and ceasing the tapping the moment any forward motion happens. This obviously being the aid we will eventually use to ask Charlie to step forward onto my trailer.

And again here - timing is everything. You want to be able to apply the aid and then remove pressure at exactly the right moments to reinforce the desired behavior. And nothing less. So if Charlie swung sideways away from the stick ball instead of going forward, the pressure was to remain on until he went forward. I gotta admit - Charlie did not like that one bit.

"can I bite it tho?" - Charlie
Jim explained that horses progress in peaks and valleys - a concept that most of you have undoubtedly heard many many times. The horse will do well with responses for a little while, then regress. Then improve, and regress again. All the while the general trend remains upward, but it can be hard to see that from the bottom of a valley.

He encouraged me to get excited about the valleys tho, with the idea being that some breakthrough must be coming soon. Tho he also cautioned that it was of critical importance to seek out the right stopping points. You can only stop when the horse is in a calm and relaxed state (think head low, soft eyes, maybe licking and chewing, responding well to the aids).

"bc..... I'm gonna bite it."
And if you maybe push for that "one more time" but suddenly end up back in a valley... well, you just gotta keep working through it then. Bc again - the negative reinforcement works by the pressure going away only when the desired behavior is achieved, otherwise the horse learns the wrong thing (remember, horses learn in the release).

This is, uh, obviously just as true for training under saddle as it is with ground work. I can't be the only one who has gone in for that one last try and lived to regret it lol.

stick ball of dooooooom!
Anyway. Jim also told me about another concept that holds equally true for riding: you must always first know what you want. Then begin asking for it with the absolute minimal aid - the softest possible aid. The strength of that aid increases incrementally until the desired response is achieved.

Jim says (and we pretty much all know to be true) that if you are consistent enough with this, over time the strongest necessary aid to achieve a given response eventually falls away to lighter and lighter cues - until eventually you are getting that response with your softest possible ask. Of course, again - the most critical part is to first know what it is that you want. Rather than say, getting there and thinking 'hm ok good but MOAR' or something like that lol.

he kinda wanted to stomp on it too
So idk. That's a whole lot of conceptualization and philosophizing about what mostly amounted to walking in circles with my giant race horse while occasionally stopping to rub him with a foam ball attached to a long flexible stick. And sometimes he stood still and sometimes he spun out or bucked. It probably looked miiiiighty silly to anyone watching (and I may or may not have done my first solo practice when nobody was around to see lol).

I'm optimistic tho, and believe that once the appropriate responses to the stick and ball are conditioned in the arena (or anywhere else), it'll apply directly to the trailer and then we'll be in business. As we all know tho, these things take time. And consistency.

It wasn't the lesson I wanted, but it was most certainly the lesson we need right now. Isn't that always the way? In the meantime I'm just gonna rewatch this video a million times to remind myself why this is so worth it haha.

53 comments:

  1. This is totally worth it! These cowboys with all their knowledge and common sense is priceless. So is Charlie's face during this process.....

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    1. agreed - tho it's more than just the knowledge. i feel like i study and try really hard to *learn* the whats and whys, but the biggest difference i see between an ammy like myself and the pros is in the application of that knowledge. Jim expertly applies all the above with perfect timing and energy and body language, and thus gets the responses faster and more easily from the horse, with the horse understanding and learning faster too. my efforts are.... a little more muddled lol but we're trying!

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    2. THIS! The perfect timing, energy and body language of a good pro is worth its weight in gold!!!

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    3. definitely agreed!! so he gets to install the buttons and then i just learn to push them haha. poor Charlie, already learning to be a little let down by my abilities compared to a pro ;)

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  2. Super interesting! Well worth it to have a self-loading horse though - it's always been such a relief to know Lucy will load in basically any trailer, by herself, in any situation. Including the one time leaving a show she wasn't totally tied (just looped through the tie... love dead quiet QHs!) and decided she was done and loaded herself.

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    1. ha that's awesome - way to go Lucy lol. sometimes they're just ready to go home and are happy to drop some hints lol! but yea, that's exactly the type of attitude i'd love to foster in Charlie too!

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  3. This is somewhat the technique I used with B getting him to load, bc you're right aint nobody got time for a 17+hh horse in a strange place that won't load. 2 years later I think he's mostly of this issues. I can tell you from experience, its the ACTUAL worst. Now, he just takes 3-4 minutes to look at the trailer and then gets in. Maybe someday he will self load, but his non-loading is due to extreme fear, not just not being rude or annoying. So thats different. Yankee though, has self loaded since the first year I've had him. He literally never given me issues and is the best loader. I have both extremes hahaha.

    Cowboys are cool. they def know what they're talking about!

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    1. so great that B has made so much progress. it's funny how different horses have such different reactions to the trailer too!!

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  4. That tandem loading video is the shit. #lifegoalz

    Also, my inner immature teenager was giggling like mad every time you said "stick ball thing(ie)".

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    1. lolz that's the technical term ya know ;)

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  5. Mikey was never a self loader, but by the end I would walk him up the ramp, then he'd walk past me and I'd put up the butt bar when he was clear. Same thing for unloading. He stands there until the butt bar is down and I give him some kind of cue that he can back up. It certainly didn't start that way- he'd always get on but not stay on. When he'd try to back off, I'd hold his tail up on the tail bone itself and basically shove it between his cheeks (a thought I had after watching racehorses load in the gate). This worked very well so that I could load him by myself and get him to stay on the trailer while I worked the butt bar with the other hand. For Penn, this has zero reference for him and doesn't work at all. I'm sure you read our trailering woes. We fixed it by doing just what your guy is doing- go forward go forward go forward. Forward into the trailer.

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    1. oooooooh inneresting about the tail bone thingy as it relates to race horses. that's definitely a tidbit to stick in my back pocket!

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  6. dude i want this guy to work with runkles stupid ass. and teach me the ways of groundwork.

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    1. he holds regular horsemanship clinics at isabel's barn - if you get that baller trailer maybe you'll have to make the trip down sometime! i'll bring charlie too lol (presuming we do in fact make it on to the trailer eventually lol)

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  7. Your loading guy has got exactly the right chops needed for the job, here. Training loading is basically training leading with a trailer in the way. It's not very exciting (or it shouldn't be) and it looks silly, but until the horse understands "go forward sensibly when I ask" there is no point bringing a trailer into the mix. :)

    I have taught trailer loading to numerous beginner 'don't load' horses and this whole "annoy horse into going forward reliably" thing is the method I use as well. It's effective without being frantic or dangerous and it teaches the horse the correct answer at a pace the horse can learn and understand, in a way that doesn't get anyone injured or even sweaty.

    Your cowboy guy is good at it (timing, removal of aids, proper amount of release, yielding the hq smoothly, positioning his body to help horse get 'correct' answer, looking for 'learning' from the horse by way of lick/chew) because he's a pro... but you can learn a lot from watching him and from practicing yourself. When he's doing the work, play along in your mind, try to guess when to release or when to continue with the aid. The skills you hone in this activity will carry over to other things you'll be wanting to teach Charlie. Seriously, sounds like your trailer guy has lots to offer, here -- he's a good 'un.

    Soon you will be going places! (See what I did there?)

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    1. ha yup - that's exactly the plan!! it took a couple weeks of dedicated practice with Ms Isabel, but once the aids were confirmed we never looked back. other horses (like Wick) learned faster, but it also became easier as i became more comfortable and familiar with the method myself too. bc that's the great thing about Jim and these lessons - he's teaching me as much as he's teaching the horse.

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  8. Poor Chuckles. Terrifying stick with a ball on the end. If it makes you feel any better, I think Henry would have a similar response, even now, even with as well behaved and "easy" as he is. He loses his effing mind when a whip comes near his hind end. Charlie will get it, there's just a lot of mental baggage to set aside first.

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    1. haha poor Chuckles indeed. that foam ball (and whip) are reeeeeally not his friends lol. but yup, patience and consistency will do the trick! (eventually lol)

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  9. Such good thinking to get the ball rolling with self loading early. Mine is still a diva about the trailer when leaving home, and he's been loaded at least once per week for the last three years... Plus I love the ground work too! I think it's a great skill to have with your horse, and that it strengthens your other training.

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    1. ha yea somehow leaving the barn is always harder than getting back in the trailer to go home. tricksy horses, they definitely know what's up!

      but yea i'm all about getting a start on all the things early on. i won't require that Charlie be "finished" on any one thing immediately, but the exposure to these tactics and training methods can only help build his foundation.

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  10. It's a pretty fun training philosophy-once your horse 'gets' it, it kind of opens up a whole new world of possibilities! I know for me it helped me to feel 100% safe to take my horse anywhere and know I could handle any shinanigans from the ground, no chains, no pulling, just disengage and redirect.

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    1. yup! these methods have served me pretty well for the past couple years with isabel too :)

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  11. I probably missed something due to my sporadic blog reading the last while, but is he bad at loading? Generally racehorses are quite good at it. Either way, groundwork is the shiz and helps with literally everything, have fun with it!

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    1. he's not bad at loading per se (we didn't really have too much trouble getting him on the trailer to bring him home, tho it was not a one-person job) but he's also not push button at it. and i want push button. i want that response to be so well conditioned that legitimately anything could be going on around us and he will still step up into that trailer like nbd.

      but also it's a step up - which is probably new to him - and is admittedly a tight squeeze for the big guy. getting him comfortable is therefore a priority!

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    2. Push button is where it it at! He seems so cool I bet you will get there in no time!

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  12. Groundwork is absolutely the key to trailer loading and the tap method is fantastic in teaching to load. App used the be horrible until we learned the tap method. But I agree with you, no one wants to be stuck with a big ol OTTB who won't load. Good for you for getting his training holes filled!

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    1. ha we're taking a very holistic (lolz puns) approach - anything and everything he does is open for improvement. he's already SO GOOD and has such a great brain and disposition that i want to take advantage and put his good thinking skills to use in training.

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  13. This cowboy trainer is awesome!! I giggled when you talked about 'knowing what kind of response you want' before asking. You mean I can't just kick my pony at random and hope something good happens!?

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    1. lolz right? i thought the same thing. Jim made a real point out of that tho so i guess it's kinda sorta important? mebbe?!? ;)

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  14. Haha - yup, I've gone for that dreaded "one more time" and regretted it.

    Glad it went well despite it not being the lesson you were hoping for.

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    1. thanks - yea it really was very good. there's SO MUCH WORK OMG with green horses - so many things that you gotta work through conscientiously rather than just, ya know, getting out and doing the thing. so far tho Charlie has been a very good guy to work with!

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  15. Very interesting! I like this trainer's methods.
    I'm seriously going to try this with all of my horses. I want to ensure a no-stress loading future. I just need to get a trailer so I can practice whenever I want!

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    1. practice is definitely the key here!!!

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  16. When I first started as a trainer I'm pretty sure I worked with half the horses in the county about loading because my timing was really good with this method. Love it!

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    1. that really makes all the difference!! i've gotten pretty good over the years at the timing for the tapping to go forward... but i don't have a very deep repertoire for troubleshooting

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  17. Awh baby Charlie! He will figure it out in no time

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  18. Annie probably wouldn't have liked that experience either. It's taken a little bit but she pretty much self loads now. It makes traveling with her a breeze.

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    1. honestly i kinda doubt that she would have disliked it. i've never seen a horse work with Jim and not get something from it. sure he makes them think and sometimes be a little uncomfortable, but his teaching methods are very kind and his goal is that the horse understands and becomes relaxed. it's very effective!

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  19. Yet another reason I really need to get Stinker over his fear of whips... Having a horse that is polite to load is the best thing ever.

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    1. the desensitization is worth it. just start little by little, repetition and relaxation will eventually carry the day!

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  20. Yup definitely some sentiments in there I've heard from my own trainers.

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    1. i kinda love how good training is universal like that lol

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  21. There's nothing better than an easy loader! You're so lucky you have such an awesome trainer to work with. And such an adorable horse. Obvi.

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    1. this guy is definitely an asset. i mean, sure i could probably muddle through it more or less on my own... but he just adds so much confidence to the equation, esp for Charlie!

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  22. Sounds like a great training sessions even without the trailer.

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    1. definitely! feels like money well spent, and i'll happily have him come back out to move on to phase two (hopefully meaning the actual trailer lol) once i have the horse more confirmed with the stick ball thingy

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  23. Hi Emma!

    Just wanted to let you know that I'm hosting an equestrian blogger contest and you've been nominated!

    Here's the post with the details: http://horsehack.com/2016/09/27/horsehacks-equestrian-blogger-contest/#more-1400

    Let me know if you accept the nomination, I hope you do!! Please e-mail me at info@horsehack.com to accept!

    Don't forget to spread the word about it! :)

    Thanks,
    Aryelle Stafford
    HorseHack.com

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    1. thanks Aryelle, that's awesome!! i'm checking your blog out now :)

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  25. Yeah you definitely won't regret spending time/money on this stuff now. :-)

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  26. brb running to the barn to make a stick ball thing and play with my pony

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  27. This type of groundwork is so interesting to me, because it's a huge hole in my education. My trainer did a very similar exercise with Miles to help me with lunging him and it worked AMAZINGLY.

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