Box loading – I’m sure there are many of us who, at some point in our lives, have had trouble box loading.
Last year I saw a post on FB where a horse would not box load. The horse was stressed out, the owner lost her patience and it ended up in a horrible mess. I’m sure neither horse nor owner wanted to set off for their show, competition, clinic, change of yard or wherever it is that they were going, wound up and stressed out – not the ideal way to start the day.
The first thing about box loading is that you have to feel confident in what you’re doing. If you feel safe, your horse will feel safe. Some horses have never been on a box or trailer before, so this is something new for them. Most horses or ponies that have never travelled are normally pretty young.
I have transported many young horses (1-3 year olds) and most of the time they just need some time to think it through. Remember that a big black ramp can be pretty scary to a horse! I always use a long lead rope and we walk towards the ramp with confidence, then as we approach the ramp they stop, and might even pull back. If this happens, soften and go back with them, that way they don’t have anything to pull against. Let them check it out and have a sniff, give them time to digest the information, and then we try again. If there is still no joy, I’ll do some long strokes on their neck, shoulder and back. Doing this taps into their parasympathetic nervous system, this in turn releases serotonin. Serotonin affects our emotional balance, so by doing this, I’m keeping the horse in a calm state. The last thing I want is the horse going into the sympathetic nervous system response, where their heart rate goes up, their alertness rises, and the horse is no longer paying attention to you. If this happens, it’s best to pop the horse back in his box and allow him to calm down and reset before trying again. You can always put straw or shavings on the ramp or load a confident horse first. If you load a confident horse first, please at all times keep a safe distance, food is always good, but some youngsters have no idea what hard feed is.
I’ve also had a couple of horses, not many, who have taken me skiing across the yard. Bridles and chifneys can help in some cases, but not every owner wants a bit in their horse’s mouth, or they may be too young. I once had a stallion that as soon as we walked towards the ramp on the two box, he would just rear and spin. He was so interested in what was happening all around that his attention was not on me, so he would rear (no boxing). Just to get his attention back on me, I would get my long lead rope and flick it softly towards his shoulder, a little time and patient his focus came back to me and he just walked on to the box. When he started to get upset, I stayed with him and just talked, always keeping my voice calm and steady. Don’t forget to talk to your horse, it doesn’t matter what you say, but the tone of your voice makes a great difference.
Then we have the cheeky ones, who are not bothered or scared, but just don’t want to go on. Placing your trailer or box next to the side of a wall is helpful, as these guys always want to bail out. Your lunge line might also come in handy to provide extra guidance either side of the ramp. Having someone help (obstruct bail out routes) can be helpful. The key is to eliminate places where they can bail out, if you have access to a loading platform this is even better.
One pony would only pop his front feet on the ramp and refused to go any further, we tried everything and he just said no, the owner as you can imagine was getting a little frustrated with the situation, so I said pop him back in to his paddock and we will have a re-think. As they were walking away, I noted that the pony was lame behind.
Not everyone finds it easy to spot lameness especially behind, so let’s keep it simple, mirror your horse’s footfalls, are the strides even and consistent are they dragging a toe every 3rd or 4th step, use your ears does one-foot fall to the ground heavier.
Some horses feel they are just too big to fit into the small space which we are asking them to go into. Depending on your box, you could start off by making it a little wider or open the side or side door so they can see some light, though make sure they are not able to walk straight out. I have found this to be very helpful.
If you have a difficult loader, practice at home when you have plenty of time. If you have a rear and side ramp, try and walk on and off, but please don’t keep repeating once the horse has done it once. If you get licking and chewing, they are processing thought, tell them how great they are with lots of soothing strokes and then pop them back out to think it over and you will probably find when you try the next day they walk straight on.
Read the situation, ask yourself whether your horse is; nervous, cheeky, more interested in what’s going on around him (calling the girls), had a bad experience, or just not balanced enough in themselves. If you do have a tricky horse, please keep safety in mind, wear your hat and gloves, and you can even wear your back protector if you’re not sure, I have on some occasions with an unpredictable horse. If you have someone helping you, make sure they’re not too close behind as you walk on the box, horses have been known to reverse straight back out and may even kick.
Be calm, be patient and throw the clock away.
If anyone else has any ideas I would love to hear them, I have just shared a few of my own scenarios.