The Self-Loading Horse

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In February, we discussed the need for an emergency plan so you can care for your horses in the event of a flood, fire or man-made disaster that threatens evacuation or cuts you off from electricity and other resources.? One of the most important elements in any disaster preparation is being able to trailer your horses efficiently to safety. See photos of ?Self Loading.

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It doesn't take a major disaster to emphasize the need for your horse to load and unload easily, just a relatively minor ?disaster,? such as your towing vehicle breaking down at night on a major highway (in the cold, wind and rain, of course) and needing to switch your horses to another trailer with trucks whizzing by.

Some folks consider their horses to be ?good loaders? if they lead right onto a trailer.? But that might not be good enough if you're caught in an emergency situation by yourself.? You and your horses will be much safer if they ?self-load,??walking onto the trailer without needing to be lead. Of course, this depends on your type of trailer.? A straight-load trailer, with or without a ramp, is suitable for self-loading, while a horse needs to be led onto a side-load. A slant-load can be lead-on or self-load depending on the stall.

Teaching a horse to self-load starts without the trailer.? The horse needs to learn the verbal commands ?walk,? ?whoa? and ?back? by returning to basic leading lessons. Place a chain over the nose and carry a dressage whip or short longe whip in your left hand. Stand at your horse's left shoulder facing forward.? From the halt, say the word ?walk? and back it up with a flick of the whip toward the hock.

don't start to walk yourself until the horse walks out ahead of you, and when that happens praise him.

Alternate ?walk? and ?whoa? commands.? Say the word ?whoa? while you shorten your steps but don't stop completely. Use a tug on the nose chain.? If the horse halts, then stop your own feet and praise him.? The idea is that the horse should respond to your walk/whoa commands, despite what your own body is doing.? Eventually add the word ?back? the same way, so the horse steps back three or four steps from a voice command.

Practice the walk/whoa commands a few times whenever you lead the horse somewhere.? When they become secure, you can start practice ?loading? over obstacles, such as a rail on the ground, a tarp, a small ditch or a short bank -- any place where the horse can safely step out ahead of you.? Praise the horse whenever he does this without the flick from the whip.

When you're ready to try this with a trailer, have the ramp down, the chest bar up, the front escape door open, and a bag of hay hung in the front.? it's sensible to have a helper by the front door ready with a treat in hand.? Loop the lead rope (always cotton, never nylon) over the horse's neck, making sure it's not so short it will slip off the neck or so long that the horse can step on it.

Walk around the barn yard while you practice loading over small obstacles, as before. Then just walk right up to the trailer, step next to the ramp, say the word ?walk? and add a flick of the whip.? The horse should walk right on the trailer where he'll be rewarded by your helper while you put up the butt bar.

Let him stay there awhile and enjoy his hay.?? He should then unload as quietly as he loaded, off the ?back? command while you stand next to the ramp.? The whoa command will become useful if he becomes crooked when he approaches the trailer during loading or if he becomes anxious when you let down the butt bar, any time you don't want his feet to be moving.

Even a good self-loader can lose his confidence, however. For example, it might be raining one day when you load and the horse slips on the ramp and scares himself.? If you suspect your horse has lost his clear response to your loading commands, go back to the exercises around the barn, making them a ho-hum part of his daily life again.

Test his self-loading prowess on a day when you don't have somewhere you actually need to go and will not be under pressure to hurry the process of getting him to go on the trailer.

Be sure to always put up the butt bar before tying the head?if he strains against the tie without a butt bar, he'll likely fly backward, breaking the halter (or himself) and becoming thoroughly frightened.

If you have a 3- to 6-horse slant-load, self-loading will depend on how many horses the trailer holds.? Usually you will walk the first several in, because otherwise they aren?t going to walk to the front or may stop to nudge the horse in front before going to the window.? The last horse in needs to be a self-loader, especially if your trailer has a have a rear tack room.

Resist the urge to always have a helper if you can, because the horse will unlearn his self-loading if he doesn't need it consistently, and you may get stuck with a?balky loader at the worst possible moment when you are by yourself.

Article by Associate Editor Margaret Freeman.