This piece stems from a video that I filmed with Stephen Banks (@DorsetScouser) on a freezing cold day at Mappowder in Dorset. Even wearing seven jumpers, two pairs of trousers and three pairs of socks it felt perishingly cold behind the camera.
But then I forgot how nippy it was, as something happened that was fascinating to watch.
I’m writing about it now because I’ve never heard anybody talk about the interesting aspect of horse behaviour that was revealed, and I haven’t seen anything published about it either. (Which is not to say that something hasn’t been published; I’d be amazed if it hasn’t: just that I’ve never seen it – and so maybe you haven’t either).
Horse loading problems and advice
The video is about how to load a horse into a lorry or a trailer. It’s a job that can cause a lot of people (and horses) real anguish.
The horse in the video is called Indie (as in indie band). Nearly five now, she’d not been in a lorry or a trailer since she was a foal and was moved to Mappowder to be with Rachel Norris, the Equusense trainer.
So what you see Rachel doing with Indie in this video is all being done for real; there’s no acting or pretending and there is – potentially – a lot at stake. A bad experience can put a horse off loading and travelling for a long, long time, and cause serious problems.
The first half of the video gives advice about what a horse should wear for loading and travelling, what the person handling the horse should wear, and what routines it’s useful to go through.
Horses will never put their feet where they won’t put their nose
Then it’s time to approach the ramp and the lorry.
We cut to a shot of the ramp at 7:59.
After which, I think it gets completely absorbing for anybody who’s interested not just in the specific question of how to get a horse to load into a lorry but in how animals behave and learn.
Indie comes up to the ramp (at 8:53) but doesn’t step on to it. Instead, she puts her head down and (at 9:15) sniffs.
And Rachel says: “I’m going to allow the horse to explore and just think about what I’m asking it to do. Now, you’ll notice she’s putting her nose on the ramp to sniff it.
“Horses will never put their feet where they won’t put their nose.
“Sometimes if the horse has got a particularly inquisitive nature they’ll also paw the ramp as well. Again, don’t discourage any of this behaviour.
“They need to really work out for themselves and investigate where you’re asking them to put their feet.
“So, I’m just going to give her just a couple of moments just to think about that.
“Again, don’t discourage her wanting to put her nose down.
“If you stop her doing that, then essentially what you are doing – or the way the horse reads it – is – ‘you don’t want me to put my nose there, and if you don’t want me to put my nose there, there must be a really good reason why and therefore I’m not going to put my feet there either’.
“So let’s let her think about that for a bit.”
And then at 11:02 the first foot goes on to the ramp, and then a second.
At which point Rachel says that many people would be inclined to start pulling the horse, to try to maintain momentum.
And anyone who’s ever been to a show involving horses, and hung around the area for loading and unloading, will probably have seen people shoving and shouting and waving their arms and losing their temper and getting out the whip…
Rachel goes about it differently, and soon enough a third foot goes on to the ramp and Indie then rather spraggily goes up. “Good girl… good girl”.
What struck me here is the statement that I picked out: “Horses will never put their feet where they won’t put their nose.”
What I like about this video is that you can see the truth of this statement played out in front of your eyes. You can see the horse thinking and moving and assessing and then moving up.
It may well be that the nose-feet rule is one of those things that horsey people just know, and reckon is so obvious that there’s no need ever to talk about it. Or it may be that what I’ve called the nose-feet rule is actually better explained as simply a manifestation of an educated and sympathetic way of handling horses.
I don’t know. But I thought, when I saw what’s in this video, that I would never look at horses in quite the same way again.
Note: Stephen Banks and I made a series of five videos for Cornish Mutual’s HorseSafe campaign in Dorset and Somerset, which Bridport-based Watershed PR is involved with (Stephen and I both work at Watershed PR).
As I hope I’ve made clear, I’ve written what’s above because I was genuinely taken with what happened, and I think what Rachel Norris says is useful and interesting.