Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hard-to-Trailer

Just this summer I remember watching a beautiful blood-bay Quarab mare be loaded up into a trailer bound for BC. Her owner, a "trainer," had recently been injured and so was sending the mare out to BC with another trainer until she was to move out there. I say trainer in italics because this woman's injury was incurred working with two of the horses where I boarded and both horses had actually regressed rather than progressed in any way. It was a sunny afternoon when they started to load this poor mare; I had just led one of the horses I was currently working with out of her paddock to enjoy a couple hours of grazing the overgrown grass in front of the arena. First try they attempted to simply walk her into this two-horse straight load step-up but the mare refused.
"She used to be great to load before, but she had an accident in the last trailer..." was her owner's excuse.
Well several shades of darkness later as the sun slid behind the mountains, this mare still wasn't loaded. I was still grazing my horse nearby, so the man attempting to load this mare asked for my assistance. By now they had thrown a stud chain on the mare and had attached a lunge line to the chain, looping it (the line) into and through the trailer for leverage.
"Just tap her on the hind with the whip," he asked me, handing me a longe whip.
As I approached this mare, I laid a hand on her. Despite the cool evening, she was absolutely drenched with sweat - my hand came away literally dripping. Her muscles were rock-hard tensed in preparation to spring, her head was high, her eyes were wide in fear. Her breath was coming out heavy and hard. I rested my hand on her for a moment and attempted to calm her down before taking up position out from her shoulder. As the man pulled, I used my body language to "drive" her forwards while gently tapping her hind, stopping whenever she tried or made the tiniest steps of progress.
"KEEP TAPPING HER!" he chastised me one of the times he noticed I'd stopped to reward her, "AND HIT HER HARDER!!" he cried, as she siddled over towards me.
Well I was all for using the whip as an extension of my arm to a) block side movement, and to b) encourage the mare to try moving forward, to provide her the right cue, but I certainly wasn't here to beat any horses. Do unto others as you'd have done unto you. This mare also had no idea what the "correct answer" was, and so by just persistently hitting her and not rewarding her through some sort of release when she tried, she was becoming increasingly confused, frustrated, and scared. Every time she did take a step forward, she was met with more pressure. He'd rope in any open slack and pull on her head further, to which she'd respond with claustrophobic panic and try desperately to back up via rearing and head-shaking.
It was only a moment or two before he grabbed the whip from my hand (obviously I was useless to him). I backed out and returned to my mare as he proceeded to hit her harder.
Standing next to this mare's owner, I pressed my lips. I wasn't happy with what I was seeing, but my experience has been that in this type of situation nothing can be done. These type of people refuse to open their minds to other methods and until they do, talking to them is like hitting your head on a brick wall. They already knew my position by my refusal to beat the mare. By now there was nothing I could do for the mare in the time span they were requesting either. If I had have taken over, it would have been awhile before I could get her calmed down enough to work with me. Futhermore, she obviously did not know me and so was not about to walk up into that trailer - particularly after such a traumatized association with said trailer - after me either. Any other aids I could have formerly used as an extension of my arm or such were now useless as this mare would be too frightened of any such aids (such as a carrot stick), thinking that I was about to beat her as this man had. Neither the owner nor the trainer were open at this point to someone else taking over and working with this mare - they were in a hurry after all!!

This is the type of situation I see on a constant basis and it both frustrates and angers me. I've found that the only way to possibly get through to these type of people is to show them, so while I have worked hard to improve my own savvy, or knowledge, and improve my partnerships with horses (so that my horses are happy), my (smaller) side goal has also been to demonstrate to others what is possible...because there are other ways!! Even when it is put directly in front of them, people often do not see, but I can only hope that if they see it enough times in enough situations, that perhaps one day they will open their mind. But back to the subject.
They finally did get that mare loaded (well after dark) by snubbing her up to the front of that trailer, beating her from behind, then slamming the door shut behind her.

So here's how the horse sees it:
#1 They see a predator - us.
#2 Said predator tries to lead the horse into a metal cave.
Horses are not particularly all that fond of caves. In fact, they spend most of their lives avoiding them. A cave means a horse is cornered, trapped on 5 sides. Close that door to the trailer and they're trapped on 6 sides! Oh goody, all wrapped and packaged for some predator to take advantage of! And guess who is going to lead him in? A predator! Yay!!

To us, trailering is logical and void of danger, it's only a harmless method of transporting our horse! But the horse is always focused on its self-preservation, and that definitely means avoiding steal caves.

Whether or not a horse loads or not is a culmination of the partnership between horse and human.

As I stood next to the mare's owner in the above anecdote, her owner commented to me (though I had said nothing), "well you didn't get your mare in the other day, did you?"

Long story short, I had just received this mare to work with two weeks prior, she was halterbroke but had been deemed "untrainable" by her last trainer. As I had not yet had any chance to work with her, I had been unable to load her at that time. As I had not wanted to push the issue with the mare (and coincidentally, later the circumstances that had originally caused me to have to load her evaporated), I let it be so that I may futher develop our partnership prior to our next loading session. There is no way in hell I am forcing a 1,200lb bundle of muscle to do anything when I know there is a better way to get it done.

Over the next month I worked daily with this mare at developing a partnership with her but never worked on trailer loading itself. At the end of the month it came time to move her to a different boarding place. Walking her up to the trailer, mare following behind, I was anticipating that she would refuse to walk in (two-horse angle haul step-up), but I took a deep breath and tried to hide any tension in my body as I walked into the trailer. To my astonishment, this mare followed me right up in with absolutely no hesitation!! All the hard work we had put in together, establishing that partnership, had paid off!

When you forge a partnership with a horse and earn that horse's trust and respect to the point where they have full trust in your leadership (and thus your ability to ensure their survival), anything is possible. It is never about the trailer, it's about the partnership you have with that horse. If the horse has full trust in you as its leader, it will walk into that metal cave without hesitation (because you're the leader - it must be safe!) however if there is any doubt in the horse's mind as to your leadership abilities, he's going to depend upon what his instincts tell him rather than what you tell him - and those instincts of his might tell him to stay the heck away from that trap!!

Long-term, develop that relationship with your horse to the point where he will go anywhere with you! This includes streams, rivers, puddles, ditches, whatever may be.

Short-term, don't lead your horse directly up to the trailer. Predators are straight-line thinkers, while prey animals are not. Lead your horse past the trailer, ask him to perform small tasks around it (from the ground). Sidepass, circles, turns on the forehand, etc, until he is comfortable with the idea of the trailer.
When you do finally lead your horse into the trailer, keep him facing the trailer with gentle corrections, but allow him to back out!! Horses are naturally claustrophobic and they want to know that if they step up into that trailer, they can get back out. Not allowing a horse to back out is like telling a young child first learning to swim that, once you've convinced him into the deep water, he is not allowed to return to the shallow water. He's naturally going to start worrying that, should he feel like he is about to drown, he will not be able to save himself by returning to where he feels comfortable - shallow water. If a claustrophobic prey animal is physically forced into a situation he cannot emotionally handle, he is going to panic, with possibly catastrophic consequences.
Ask politely with a steady and firm touch on the lead, but reward the slightest try!! When your horse so much as shifts his weight forward, reward him by releasing the tension on the rope! Ask for a little more "try" each time, but for each try, reward with a release. After you feel you've made a lot of progress, walk away! Lead your horse off for a few moments of relaxation. Watch for your horse to lick his lips, lower his head, and say "hey, I know what this is all about." You won't lose ground by walking away for a short break - you'll gain ground. You can also 'send' your horse into the trailer the way you would if you were to longe them. Tap gently on their hind with your whip, increasing the taps (increasing the pressure) and releasing the instant your horse responds with a try. Increasingly ask for more try, and reward with rest breaks, rubs, and treats.
When presented with a new situation, horses will try an assortment of "answers" until they find the "correct one" according to what you were asking. They're not mind readers and most of us are not horses, so sometimes it takes a few tries on each of our parts to understand one another. If you do not provide some sort of release as a reward, they will continue searching for a different answer to your query - most likely this will result in "answers" you weren't, or aren't, looking for!

Last fall we acquired an off-track Thoroughbred. Well when we came to pick him up the horse had full-blown ringworm!! I quickly re-arranged an alternate boarding place where I could keep him isolated from other horses. Over the next two months as he recovered, I took him out on trails so as to prevent his going insane in his isolated paddock (this was an easily stressed horse already, nevermind the additional stress of being isolated in a small paddock caused!), but otherwise did no work with him, as I tried to keep contact with him as minimal as possible (I was working with several other horses at the time and did not wish to spread the infection). When his skin infection finally cleared up, I had to trailer this horse to the boarding place I'd originally intended to take him. While I had definitely established a bond with this horse over time, I had not yet established a partnership and despite this horse having been loaded a number of times throughout his career, there was no question about it, he was not walking into that trailer. As I was quietly working with him in an attempt to convince him into the trailer, the owner of the place walked up. I asked him if he wouldn't please quietly wave his arms towards my horse's hind just to encourage him in. Well this is a man who is fairly aggressive with his horses and Link (my horse) read him pretty accurately in his body language and threw a double-barrel kick in his direction. Not exactly what I was looking for, but given the man's attitude and body language, I couldn't say I blamed Link!
After initially cursing Link and Thoroughbreds in general, the man quickly snapped "you're never going to get his horse in the way you're doing now!"
For the love of God, it's only been all of 5 minutes!!
"Well, I've got all day!" was my reply. 5 or 10 minutes later (I wasn't counting) that horse was loaded. Not exactly how I would normally have liked it (ie. the horse walks into the trailer comfortably based on a solid partnership), but it worked to simply be quiet and patient! Passively persistent, as Parelli calls it.

"Act like you have 15 minutes and it will take you all day. But act like you've got all day, and it will only take you 15 minutes."

Lastly, be prepared to "take the time it takes so it takes less time". Prior and proper preparation are key - if you properly prepare your horse beforehand via a solid partnership, you will not ever have to worry about loading your horse into a trailer.

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