This Month’s Expert
Arizona horseman Mike Kevil is the author of the Western Horseman book Starting Colts and the producer of the two-part video series of the same name. The July 2010 issue of Western Horseman includes his instructional article, “Teaching the Turnaround.” Equipped with more than 30 years of experience training horses, Mike conducts horsemanship clinics throughout North America and Europe. Here, he answers reader questions on horse-handling and rider safety. Learn more about Mike at www.startingcolts.com.
Q: I’ve tried various trailer-loading strategies based on available books, videos and magazine articles. I still have one horse who flat-out refuses to load. He simply stands stock-still at the back end of the trailer and cannot be moved. Can you share your approach to teaching this kind of horse to load?
Meg Woolrich, Midland, Michigan
A: Any training method is only as good as it’s applied. If you have looked at several books and videos on trailer loading, I am betting some, if not all, of them are good methods. You may need just a little coaching to get them to work for you. See if you can find a local trainer in your area that can watch you work with your horse. By watching you, they can give you some insight to what your horse is thinking and also help you with how you’re asking the horse.
Without seeing what’s going on, I am going to take a stab at your problem. In loading a horse, I have two main concerns: taking the fear out of the horse and getting control of the horse. In your letter you said the horse “stands stock-still at the back of the trailer.” It sounds like more of a control issue. I don’t insist that a horse get in a trailer, but I insist that he tries. Standing “stock-still” is not trying.
You need to work on controlling your horse away from the trailer before you try to load him again. You need to be able to get him to move his feet forward, backward, left and right. The better he is away from the trailer, the easier it will be when you go back to the trailer. However good he is now, he needs to be lighter and more responsive before you try loading again.
When you think he’s ready, take him back to the trailer and ask him to try to get in. If he is trying, leave him alone. He may not move his feet but he should be thinking about it. He may raise and lower his head to look at the trailer floor or pick up his feet and put them back down in the same spot. If he is trying, he will eventually take a step closer or put a foot in the trailer. When he does, let him relax a little before you ask again.
Sometimes after a horse tries, I will back him away from the trailer, then lead him up and start again. The secret is to put just enough pressure on him so that he tries, then leave him alone.
Q: I recently acquired a new horse, a 10-year-old gelding. He’s a registered horse, and is sound, with a great disposition. His competitive history is a little cloudy, though. His previous owner believed the horse had once been used a little in roping events. When I began riding this horse, I made some simple figure-eights in an arena. Each time we switched directions and began riding a clockwise circle, the horse shut down, coming to a stop without a cue to do so. It seems clear to me that this is what was asked of him by previous riders. What’s my new horse thinking, and how do I help him “unlearn” this so we don’t come to a sudden stop every time we turn right at a lope?
Bill Kerr, Gwinner, North Dakota
A: It isn’t clear if this is a new or old problem. I doubt that the previous riders asked him to stop when going to the right, but he may have learned by himself he could get out of work by stopping. You say he is sound but, I would lunge the horse from the ground to make sure he can physically go to the right without a problem. Then I would ride him at the walk, trot and lope to see where the problem starts. Start with big circles. Go all the way around the arena. Then gradually make the circle a little smaller. Making sure he is in the correct lead will make it easier for him to keep going.
Going forward is one of the most important things that a horse needs to do. We can’t train a horse that doesn’t move forward. If he starts to stop let him go straight, but keep going forward. If you can get him in the right lead and keep your circles big, you should be able to get him through this problem.
Q: I’m probably in the minority, but bicycles, scooters and the like at fairgrounds drive me crazy, mostly because my horses just aren’t used to them. At events, my horses occasionally spook at bikes and scooters as their riders whiz past us. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, neither my horses nor I are safe. I don’t own either a bike or scooter, and am not interested in buying either. What can I do to make our fairgrounds experiences safer?
Lee Bingham, Santa Rosa, California
A: This is a good question and will help a lot of other horses with similar problems. There are two things that we work on when we first start colts and we continue to work on the rest of the horses’ lives: removing fear and getting control. There are lots of ways to do both so don’t limit yourself to my suggestions.
Before we start with bikes and scooters, let’s do a little homework. Start at home in a comfortable place for your horse. You need to be able to use one rein and pull your horse’s head around so you can stop him or keep him in a small circle. Your horse needs to be soft, light and easy to stop. When fear enters a horse’s mind, you will lose some of your control, so get all you can before fear enters the picture.
Once you are sure you have enough control, start to introduce things that cause the fear. A horse has to confront things that scare him. You can’t get a horse over being afraid of a bike by just staying away from bikes. You need to desensitize the horse to the things that cause the fear. Slowly and gradually introduce those scary things and increase the horse’s exposure to them until he can accept them calmly.
In your case, I would start with a bike because it won’t have the added complication of the sound of a motor. Do this at home where the horse is more comfortable and you have control of the situation. You don’t have to buy a bike, but you may have to bribe a neighborhood kid with a couple of candy bars to come over and ride his bike around your horse. You should work the horse first so he’s not fresh and to make sure he’s listening to you.
Find the distance that is your horse’s comfort zone away from the bike. I like to let the horse walk around as opposed to making him stand still. Anytime you feel like you’re losing control, take the pressure off the horse by moving the bike farther away. When you start again, take smaller steps in advancing the pressure the horse feels. Work toward having the bike ridden around and on both sides of the horse, going to the horse and away from him. Don’t worry how long it takes. You’re not going to fix it in a day.
Take your time and just make him a little better each time. Once you get started, you may even have the person riding the bike ride up to your horse and give him a carrot. Then he’ll associate the bike with something good. After he’s good at home, try a couple other places before taking him to the fairgrounds. I know this sounds like a lot of work, but on the bright side, you won’t have any hospital bills.
Q: At horse events, it’s the norm for those of us trailering in for the day to tie horses at our trailers. But, this leaves horses standing on hardpacked gravel for hours on end, often on the hottest days of the year. If the interior of a horse trailer is clean, has plenty of shavings on the floor, and the trailer offers plenty of air circulation, is there anything wrong with simply leaving the horse in the trailer, where he’s out of the sun and standing on soft footing?
Mike Gillespie, Boise, Idaho
A: I know people that do it all the time. If you have a horse that’s uncomfortable in a trailer, he may paw, wanting to get out. But they can learn to stand quiet inside or outside the trailer. But, be aware of the temperature in the trailer. A horse’s body temp can warm up a trailer without enough air circulation. The more horses in the trailer, the hotter it will get. A good idea is to go stand in there with them and see how comfortable you are. If you can’t take it, neither can the horses.
Next month’s ASK OUR EXPERT features Montana horseman Jon Ensign. (Learn more about Jon at www.jonensign.com.)