Better boxing

Many of us have gone through the painstaking experience of bad boxing – the hours of frustration, stress and exhaustion that it entails is enough to stop anyone (and the horse) from ever wanting to travel anywhere again. Then an emergency arises and we need to box – now what? We explore some of the reasons why horses do not want to box, and methods to make the whole loading experience as stress-free and positive as possible.

F for fear

As responsible horse owners, we need to understand that it is normal for horses to be afraid and apprehensive of the horsebox – think about how you would feel if someone was leading you to an unfamiliar, dark, cave-like area with somewhat unsound footing. Would you think it’s a good idea to walk inside? It goes against the horse’s natural instincts.

It is quite amazing that we can teach these animals to trust us and how much they would stretch out of their comfort zone to do what we ask. Having said this, when a horse is afraid, he will do anything to first remove himself from the situation, and then only think about whether it was a ‘predator’ or not. This instinct can result in serious injury to the horse and/or handler when a horsebox is thrown into the equation. The human error that cements this fear in the horse is two-fold: impatience and not thinking logically. When the horse is not doing as we have asked, people easily become impatient and desperate for a result, which creates more stress for the horse and handler. This is often in situations when time is not on our side, like going to a show.

Once we have (eventually) gotten the horse in the box, our other human error of not thinking logically is to shut the horse inside and depart for the journey. What is actually happening here is just confirmation to the horse that he had every right to fear and now he is locked in a small, dark box. What is going to happen the next time you ask him to box?

Method or madness?

We can spend hours talking to different horse trainers, behaviourists and owners, and it is likely they will come up with different opinions of what you should do. It is important to understand what type of personality and mentality your horse has, and to match it with a method that is complementary. One thing to avoid is having a growing crowd of people all trying to ‘help’ load your horse. This never ends well. There should always be an absolute maximum of three people (ideally one to two people) present when loading a horse.

Negative reinforcement

The negative reinforcement method focuses on making the outside area around the horsebox or trailer more pressurised and unpleasant than the inside of the box, without making it all too scary so that the horse resists completely. The outside area comprises low but constant nodes of pressure to the horse by annoying him with some sort of stimulus – like monotonously tapping him with a stick or gently waving a plastic bag on a stick behind him. The moment the horse takes a step forward into the box, the pestering and annoying stops immediately. This creates the message that if the horse steps into the box, the pestering goes away. The horse will then realise it is more peaceful inside the box than outside. Should the horse reverse out, do not ask him to stop. Walk with him with a slack lead line and allow him to back up. Once he has decided to stop, ask him to back up even further. He will eventually realise that moving forward is a better idea than backing up.

Important to note with this method is that it requires a lot of patience (horses can tolerate a lot of pestering and negativity until they react), keeping the pestering at a low enough level to avoid explosions from the horse, being accurate to know exactly when to stop with the pestering, and having an understanding of the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment. Negative reinforcement shows the horse the path of least resistance by moving away from what is annoying him. Punishment is reprimanding the horse for doing something incorrectly or for doing something we didn’t ask for. Horses are generally creatures who want to please us, so punishment should be avoided in most cases.

Positive reinforcement

The positive reinforcement method teaches the horse that the whole process is positive. The aim is to reward the horse for forward movement into the box, and to ignore or redirect the behaviour when he does something that you don’t want, such as backing up away from the box. Pressure in this method can be the use of the voice by coaxing him in, a gentle swing or vibration of the lead rope to let the horse know he needs to react, or body aids showing him to walk into the box. Starting with facing the box, when the horse places his front hooves onto the ramp, we reward by a release of pressure and a moment to relax, known as the resting place.

The horse must understand that two front legs on the ramp is a safe and happy place to be (this is useful when off-loading). As the horse moves forward into the box, he gets rewarded, either by a release of pressure or a food treat. The ‘jackpot’ lies at the end of the box once the horse is completely inside. He is allowed to get whatever he likes (scratches, relaxation or treats). We do not reward half-steps or the stretching of the neck when using treats. It is all about moving the legs into the box. If the horse reverses out, ensure the lead line of the halter is slack and walk with him. Gently reposition and ask again. Treats are only used at the box and not for walking towards the box, unless you have a severe case.

 We’re in, now what?

With both of the abovementioned methods, the training does not stop once the horse is inside the box. You should never close the horse in the box on the first try. The same amount of effort spent teaching the horse how to load into the box should be spent on teaching him how to get himself out again. Once the horse is inside the box, let him relax there for a few moments and explore his surroundings – allow him to sniff and look around. Then gently ask him to back up halfway out of the box. If your horse reverses all the way out, always go with him as no good will come from hanging on the lead rope trying to stop him. If your horse races out of the box, you will need to spend more time teaching him about the resting place on the ramp, as well as the ‘jackpot’ inside the box. The idea of off-loading is to slowly back up until you’ve reached the resting place on the ramp. Your horse should stand on the ramp for a few moments; then ask him to reload. Once he has reloaded calmly, off-load him completely. Try to keep your horse as straight as possible coming out so he does not miss his footing or slip off the side of the ramp. If you are two people, the second person can gently guide the horse by holding his tail. This should be used with caution with horses who are prone to racing out of the box, as someone could get hurt.

Text: Hayley Kruger

The full article appears in the December issue (117) of HQ magazine > Shop now