I moved to England from Oklahoma over 10 years ago so I could “do dressage”. I brought my horse, Nikki, with me as she is my “horsey soul mate” and I couldn’t imagine doing anything without her. She had to go into quarantine and had a very long journey by trailer, airplane, ferry and enormous hydrolic horse box to arrive at her destination. We moved stables a couple of times over the next few years. I think this is what contributed to her problem loading. Maybe she thought that we would never come back again since that seemed to be a pattern. I thought maybe I was projecting emotions every time we did have to load her up. Then again, in the end, I think it was actually the fact that the last step up into the horse box was a big one and into a small space and she just didn’t want to do it.
Nikki and I have come a long way in our training since moving to my trainer, Susan Saward. It was time to go out and do some competitions, which is my dream and why I moved to England. I was completely ready except for the one major obstacle of loading. No matter what we did she would not load into the horse box. We could get her up the ramp but no further. I was at the end of my rope. I had been to Monty Robert’s demonstrations a couple of times and was amazed at how they got horses to load after a short time.
Since I didn’t think I could get Monty, I looked up Suzanne Halsey on the Intelligent Horsemanship website. She was the closest qualified person to us and she listed problem loaders as a specialty. Even better, she did some dressage, so at least we could speak the same language.
Suzanne describes her love of helping problem horses, “I love doing non-loading horses. I love that fact you can see them go through the normal pattern, but then they realise that they have to think about it differently than they have before. You offer loading as the easiest answer; all their other behaviours are the not so easy options. They soon work out what to do. I love watching them go through that learning process. By doing it this way you haven’t forced them to do it, but caused them to ‘want’ to do it.”
Suzanne was so friendly and warm that I felt like I had known her forever. She just seemed to radiate a calm atmosphere. I told her our story and where we were at currently. She didn’t seem phased at all, but calm and assured. She helped me kit Nikki out in protective gear and a Dually head collar and took her into the school to make sure Nikki understood the basics. I had done join up with Nikki back in Oklahoma in a proper round pen so her ground manners are very good. She responded to Suzanne very well. It wasn’t long till Suzanne felt comfortable enough that we could start on the loading work.
I was amazed that Suzanne didn’t have treats, whip, or anything with her when we went out to the horse box. Suzanne got a couple of feet on the ramp and proceeded to fairly quickly get all four on the ramp. Then, she found where we had been having trouble all this time, the final step up into the box. She said she thought that was what was stopping her, that it wasn’t natural for horses to do something like this but she didn’t think she was frightened or anything. She was calm and positive and she never waivered in her belief one ounce. She worked with Nikki over 2 ½ hours. I would have given up by then. I had given up in my heart already. I just didn’t believe. But Suzanne did. She told me that Nikki was a tricky one because she’s such a calm soul, she’s a draft cross, 15 years old, so she doesn’t do anything silly, she is just an unmovable mountain when she wants to be.
Suzanne kept working with her and praised any small changes, like when Nikki would test the floor of the box with her hoof. Then after that long stretch of time, after I would have given up long ago, a miracle occurred. Nikki just walked up into the box. I could not believe my eyes! She did it so calmly and positively, striding into the box like she was an old pro. Suzanne believed it was just that last step up that was bothering her, and once she conquered her fear of that, there was no stopping her. Suzanne had somehow helped Nikki to believe everything was fine and that she could walk up into that box without harm. I just sat stunned watching.
Shortly after, Suzanne thought Nikki was confident enough loading that I needed to load her myself. I still didn’t believe in my heart that I could do it. She would never load for me. Perhaps Suzanne would come over before every outing and load her for me? But, I did what she told me to do and went through the motions. I put on my hat and took the lead rope and walked in, thinking positive and looking up into the box. And then the second miracle happened. Nikki just walked right in. I turned her around like Suzanne had showed me, and we were on. We even did it a few more times, once even caught on video for proof.
I can’t express the gratitude that I feel for Suzanne. One of our neighbors with a problem loader asked how she did it and thought it was just the Dually head collar that had done it. I don’t think that at all. Although a great tool, it was Suzanne’s skill and natural ability that did the job.
Suzanne describes her experience with us as “Christy phoned me about her non-loading mare that she had brought with her from the states some years ago, so this mare had obviously travelled! She had moved a couple of times, but over the last few years the attempts (at loading) had been unsuccessful. She loves the yard she is at now, the horse is really happy and the yard owner, who also teaches and competes, had helped them come on so much that she wanted to get out about to some competitions. Christy had lots of patience to wait for her to load, but they weren’t making any progress. The yard owner was also at a loss as to how to help, and no progress was being made. Christy’s mare is a lovely gentle draft cross, but she made me work hard, going through her normal repertoire of evasions and excuses, that had worked in the past. However, once she worked it all out, realised she could trust what we were asking her to do, she loaded like a dream. Christy was then able to successfully load her with ease, and has continued to do so, and the yard owner came back just at the right time to see her loading beautifully! A good day, and even the sun was shining!”
The next day, Nikki and I practiced again, just to get her used to it and to see if we could do it on our own. That whole night I had worried that she wouldn’t do go in or I wouldn’t be able to do it. But she just walked right in. Sue and I still couldn’t quite believe it. We practiced a few more days after that and it she never batted an eye.
About a month after Suzanne’s visit, came the true test. We were off to a local dressage competition. That morning, we suited up and Nikki walked on, looking forward to her haylege once she got in. We shut the partitions and closed the ramp and we were off. Nikki looked a bit nervous, and she had to see everything that was going on, but she never put a foot wrong. She watched out the window and shifted her weight around the corners and I stood next to her, speaking calmly and giving her a mint once in a while. She would take it and go back to looking out the window at the passing scenery. She unloaded beautifully and stood tied next to the box and eating hay like a pro. We did the warm up with everyone else and then she did a lovely dressage test. I couldn’t be more proud of her!
I had achieved something that I had dreamed about since before I’d even moved to England. Sue was so supportive and happy for us and she wants to go out again very soon. I already have a few shows and a clinic lined up! Sue said “The world is your oyster now!” and with big thanks and all due credit to Suzanne, I do believe she is right!