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  • Lauren Fraser, MSc, CHBC

Your Horse Needs to Learn to Yield to Pressure

As I type this, I am on evacuation alert at home due to a wildfire burning, uncontained, 2 km south of my home in our remote community.

The fire began Wednesday. Due to unprecedented conditions, it spread rapidly through the forested valley. There is one road into our valley, and one road out. This road is currently closed to all but emergency traffic. The fire has crossed the road, and in the process burnt power lines that feed half of our community. Tragically, three homes have already been lost - one containing a senior cat the owners could not reach in time. Community residents, with little training and basic fire suppression equipment, banded together to try and slow growth, and save a number of homes. The provincial wildfire crews have been working non-stop since the fire began. Thanks to these efforts, my home is safe, for now, and our end of the valley currently has power, phones and internet - having lost it the day the fire started.

But with the winds forecast to pick up and blow north today, we and other residents are prepared to flee north, if need be, to the extensive crown land that surrounds us. Without services, without contact, without much else of a plan.

Although Squamish has a small horse community, it has a huge heart. Once news of the fires spread, trailers were organized for those without means to transport their horses out of the valley. When a brief window allowed these selfless volunteers to come in yesterday, many of the valley horses were removed and taken to town. I'm not telling you this to gain sympathy. I'm telling you this because I want you to know that you need to train your horse how to cope with such emergencies. Your horse needs to be taught how to trailer load - and not just by you, on a sunny day when there is no demand to go anywhere. Other people are going to handle your horse, and load your horse. They will arrive with straight hauls, or stock trailers. They will assume your horse knows how to tie, and they will tie your horse. These people are doing this out of the goodness of their hearts, in extremely trying, dangerous times. Their arousal levels are likely going to be elevated, and they will feel a sense of urgency to get your horse on the trailer, no matter what.

To be clear, I am not recommending you try and replicate such stressful conditions. I wouldn't recommend people include 'have anxious/stressed/panicking person load horse in a hurry while fire burns nearby' on a training shaping plan. But your horse needs to know how to load as a result of yielding to both physical and suggested pressure: at minimum, step forward when pressure is applied from a leadrope, and step forward when pressure (e.g. waving arms) is applied behind the horse.

I am well aware of the beliefs of a small sector of the horse training world that any/all pressure is inherently bad and damaging to the Trust Bank account. I am quite vocal about my strong disagreement with these beliefs: using pressure in training need not cause horses fear, anxiety, or stress, and its use does not automatically damage the trust between horse and human. But no matter where you fall on this belief spectrum, please trust me when I say that your horse needs to know how to yield away from both direct and suggested pressure. Your horse needs to learn basic life skills that make them safe to handle by good people who will use traditionally accepted methods. Your horse's life - and the life of anyone handling them - may depend on this, when you least expect it. How you decide to train this is ultimately up to you, but my professional advice is to do so in a way that minimizes fear, anxiety, and stress when you do it.

I have a plan in place for myself and my horses, should it look like the fire will reach our property. Until then, during these crazy times, in the words of Dr Bonnie Henry, 'Be kind, be calm, be safe'. And train your horse. #horsebehaviour #horsetraining #positivereinforcementhorsetraining



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