Loading Under Fire
We’ve all had horses that are nervous when asked to load into a trailer. Maybe they are afraid, untrained, or have learned that they simply don’t have to get in if they raise a big enough stink. Which, honestly, is training in reverse and happens far more often than you’d think.
As a member of an emergency animal evacuation team, when out on an incident, loading nervous horses is the norm. So how do we manage to get animals out during a fire when the horses don’t know us, can smell smoke or even see flames?
First, let me tell you that I am no loading wizard, able to load any horse, but my track record is pretty good if the horse is either not halter trained at all, or if he at least knows the basics of how to lead and was trained in a manner that is consistent with the generally accepted norm.
I must change the horse’s mind in order to change his feet. If I can get him to want to move or stop, he will. In general, this is achieved by most people using the eon’s long method of making the wrong thing difficult and the desired action easy. It works for most and this is why it’s perpetuated and practiced so readily.
Our team was called to a fire incident a few years back. This fire raged through Colorado south of Denver, covering acres and miles of open land, farm land, ranches and homes. It was one of the worst fires I’ve been on over the years, with heavy smoke and flames burning on almost every road we ventured. Horses, cattle, goats, alpacas and other animals had been turned loose, or were still in their corrals, some with scorched hides, but the humans were all gone. It’s an eerie thing, to approach homes and barns that have been vacated to find the animals that need our help, and we never know what we’re in for regarding the animals’ desire to join us in leaving.
At one of the homes in the burn area, there were eight horses, a full water trough, and some bales of hay sitting out for them. Flames licked at the trees thirty feet from the horses, smoke made our eyes water, and the firefighters acknowledged us briefly, then grunted, “Hurry.”
We had to wait to catch the horses as a helicopter dragging a bucket through the sky mere meters from their heads flew over. They ran, frantic until the chopper finally left. The horses settled slightly, and looked warily at us. One inquisitive grey mare let herself be haltered, and the rest of the small herd finally calmed down enough, until we had them all.
My partner and I each had one horse and before doing anything else, with flames burning so near, I stopped and petted the bay gelding I was leading. I gave him a peppermint horse treat and asked him to back, then asked him to step his front in to the right. Finally, on the way to the trailer, I gave him the command you’d give to ask a horse to lunge; I stood on his near side and had the lead in my left hand. I raised the short whip I was carrying to just above my waist and then touched the ground with the tip. He moved right off, and I felt he’d be easy enough to load with those simple signals understood.
I have a two-horse, straight load trailer that is extra tall and wide, and many people tell me their horse won’t get in it, he doesn’t like a straight load, etc. I didn’t know this horse, his owners, his preferences or his training, but he was getting on my trailer, or I’d lead him out of there.
More fire trucks showed up as the fire got closer and the flames burned higher. There was a line of firefighters between the fire and all of our rigs. We had to go and we had to go now. Two trailers down from ours, there was a lot of noise. It sounded like a horse kicking the sides of a trailer and a woman none of us knew yelling at him. No time to think about it now, but I couldn’t help wondering who she was and why she was being so loud, but there was no time.
My partner and I loaded our first horse fairly quickly by taking just a moment to stand behind the open trailer while not asking him to move or to do anything. We just stood for a minute, no more, and he ate another peppermint while looking around white-eyed and worried. Gently, I asked him to step forward and he did. He didn’t try to back away or say, “No,” he just walked ahead and into the right stall. We shut the door and went to load horse number two.
My trailer is a walk-through, meaning that as a horse is led in, the person goes through a door and stands next to the manger. Safest trailer I can imagine, because it keeps metal between the handler and horse at all times. The bay gelding was on his side, while I was in the left stall, but I could have just as easily been in front of him.
The other horse, a chestnut gelding, was high-headed and more scared than the bay had been. My partner had already “tested” him on handle-ability and found him to also be easily positioned and willing to move away from pressure. He seemed happy to get his peppermint and walk in behind her, while I put the butt-bar up and closed the door. Lucky us; we were good to go.
The escort sheriff came over and asked if we could help the woman having trouble loading. Of course, we could, and one last check on our two assured us they were happily munching the grass hay we’d provided them with from their own stockpile.
Neither of us knew this woman, and she was not part of any rescue team. She shouldn’t have been allowed in to the area, but she was in a veterinarian’s rig that must’ve gotten her past the check point. She was alone and flapping a plastic bag on the end of a long whip to try and scare the horse into the trailer. It wasn’t working and the horse was now not only afraid and saying, “No,” He was running backwards and rearing up.
We watched as the sheriff asked her to hand us the horse. She was not happy as she threw the rope to me and muttered under her breath. She was still talking with the sheriff while we walked away.
We had to calm the animal down, and we had to be quick about it. Another of our team members has a stock trailer and had already loaded three horses. Room for one more.
We had to keep an eye on the fire and the firefighters now edging closer to our position, and ignore the hot smoky ash floating around us. The horse needed to pay attention to me, not the flames, not the fire hoses, not the screaming neighs of his herd mates. I reminded myself to get him feeling safe so he’d calm down, but he was frantic, prancing and snorting.
I petted him and told him was okay. I offered him a treat that he politely refused. Bad news when they won’t eat because a chewing horse is a happy, calm horse. And, I had no time. I said to him, “Buddy, we have all day here. You’re safe and I won’t leave you.”
The part about me not leaving him was true. The rest, well, not so much, but he didn’t need to know that. I asked my partner to keep up with the firefighters’ commands and I walked him back to my rig. I opened the trailer window so he could touch noses with his herd mate and he finally took a deep breath. We stood a bit longer, then I asked him to do the same maneuvers I’d done with the horses loaded already. Thankfully, he too, knew how to move away from pressure. Once he’d eaten three or nineteen peppermints and had stolen a bite of his buddy’s hay from my trailer, I walked him back to the stock trailer.
He made it to within six feet before planting his feet and raising his head. I stopped with him and stood, waiting, then offered another treat. He took it. Good news, that! I took a step forward and he came with me. Two feet away from the back, he stopped again, I repeated the wait, the treat, the stepping until we were right at the trailer, and this time, he stopped, reared half-heartedly and ran backwards about four steps, with me trailing along trying to keep float in the lead.
He looked at me like I’d lost my mind and reared again., but not as high.
I laughed again. Maybe I was giddy from lack of oxygen, I don’t know. But again, I lied and told him with full conviction that we had all day. Sure we did.
We had to repeat the dance of forward and back a few more times before he agreed that getting on wouldn’t be so objectionable. He put a foot in, took it out, stepped in, backed out and we repeated this part of the waltz about seven more times. Each time he went back, I followed. No tension on the lead, no change in my breathing (except for coughing) and no raised whip, flag or any other form of pressure put upon him. I needed his trust to get this done.
A firefighter stood near enough that I bumped into him. He held an axe in one hand and a radio in the other. Looking over his shoulder at flames no more than ten feet from us, he said, “You about done?”
“Sure, yeah. Just one more minute,” I told him.
He nodded and said, “That’s all ya got,” before he walked away.
When a firefighter tells you it’s time to go, there is no arguing. The flames were closer and hotter than ever. They were losing the battle, that much was clear.
I looked at the horse and he looked at me. I said, “Red, we gotta go,” and I sent him a mental picture of him loading. I led him forward one last time with the knowledge he’d follow me in. He stopped, my partner clucked to him, I tugged and released once, and darn if he didn’t just pop on up there with me. He stood trembling, his lip quivering like a small boy who’d just lost his lollipop. I laughed. I mean I had to, right? I hugged his neck, gave him a handful of treats, tied his head, and slipped out through the closed door my partner opened for me.
We ran back to my rig, jumped in and pulled out. In my rear view, we watched the firefighters’ dozer push down trees, shrubs, and the corral fence.
My assignment on writing this piece was how to load a nervous horse, and the showing of how is better than the telling, I do believe, so to recap, here are the main points:
Train your horse to look to you for guidance by being a good, steady caretaker and leader.
Remember that the best training you can do with him is to teach him to be a good citizen with any handler.
Teach him by proving to him that he is always safe with you and that no one will harm him.
Give him self confidence by being confident.
Train your horse to load even if you have no trailer. You only need a wall. No wall? Use a fence. Teach him to walk forward on command, and through tight spaces.
Practice backing him over a curb or step that emulates the trailer step.
Borrow a trailer with a ramp and teach him to load and back off with that, too.
Train your horse to load on command, whether it be a tap on the haunches or a tug and release of the rope.
Train your horse to load no matter who is holding the rope.
Teach your horse a calming cue, like “head down.”
Have no time limit when training your horse to load.
Pretend you have no time limit when actually loading.
Train your horse to load in daylight or dark, rain or shine.
Train your horse to move away from pressure even if you prefer to not handle him that way yourself. Pressure release is used by most everyone at one time or another.
Train yourself to stay calm even in emergency situations.
Never pull on his head, this allows him to feel he’s given a choice.
When training, do give him a choice. Loading halfway or even thinking of stepping in gets a reward.
- There are many ways to load. I’ve only covered one here. Others include use of a butt rope, clicker training to a target, chute loading the untouched, and about four others. For most, the cues to move forward, sideways and back will get him to loading on command.
You all know me by now, I could go on for another month, but I covered the most important stuff here. 101 WAYS TO DIE WITH A HORSE OR LIVE HAPPILY EVER AFTER covers more on loading and training to load. Get it here TanyaBuck.com If you have any questions or comments, please contact me directly at info@TanyaBuck.com
Load and go, Happily Ever After!
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