My limited horsey childhood had one gaping knowledge hole. I knew how to tack up a horse and cool it down. I will never be a trainer, but I am a decent, competent rider. I always had a good grasp of horse care and feed, basic first aid. I knew how to bandage and wrap legs. (something I never bother with now). I have a good instinct for what to do when things go wrong, both on the ground and under saddle. I know when to end on a good note and when to push for more. Especially with this horse.
But at the age of 40, I had never loaded a horse in a trailer. I had never hitched up, driven or parked a horse trailer. I think I had maybe ridden in a truck with a trailer behind it all of once. I knew I "needed" one. (Like the hole in the head this whole horse adventure is, right)? So when I saw a late 1980's Kingston with a dressing room for a great price out in Groton, I jumped on it even though I didn't even have the right truck yet.
The trailer was a gem. It was in great shape for what I paid. My father fixed it up for me. It needed simple things like a need floor board, and a new stall divider. I had it blessed as road worthy by the good folks at Orchard Trailers in Whately. We eventually purchased a 1998 Chevy 2500 diesel truck to tow it with.
(Ultimately, this is not the rig I ended up with, but that is a story for another blog post.) So we were good to go right? Trail Rides! Horse Shows! Clinics! Here we come!! Let's ride! Or not... What I didn't anticipate was this uncontrolled feeling of dread and terror EVERY SINGLE TIME I trailered my horse. I honestly felt like I was going crazy. My heart would start to pound, my chest would get hot and I'd feel this zing up my spine like something really bad was about to happen. I generally don't live in a state of uncontrolled anxiety and dread. So, this was new. I am a control freak in may ways and so much of trailering felt out of my control. Like What if He Decides NOT to get on the trailer? I had no tools to fix it and I knew it. What if the truck breaks down and I have to put him on SOMEBODY ELSE'S TRAILER and I CAN'T??
So at some point, horses, being the sensitive creatures that they are pick up on your anxiety and Cassel decided to stop loading. My plan was that the anxiety would go away with practice, but it wasn't. I came to the conclusion that we needed Help.
First I took him to Wendy Warner. Thank God my dad came with me because my damn GPS got me so lost on the way there. I think I'd still be pulled over by the side of a dirt road in Warwick crying trying to turn the rig around. Did I mention I'm in my 40's???? I love my dad.
I had planned on going to Wendy to do some obstacle work. I didn't know how to teach him how to go over bridges. I didn't want to fight about it and I didn't want to screw anything up. But dammit, I wanted to trail ride! And to trail ride, your horse needs to cross bridges. Wendy does a lot of ground work.
She helped with the bridges using a flag, and got him over a wooden teeter totter. (After that, he'll cross anything --resentfully sometimes, but he'll cross) And she loaded him onto her trailer and mine using the flag. Adding pressure and releasing it with perfect timing. But I just didn't "get" what she was doing. My stomach was in knots knowing in a few days I'd be on my own. I'd HAVE to get him on the trailer to bring him home from our family farm in Western MA. There was work and school the next day. He had to go back to his boarding barn.
By this time, he was loading OK in my Kingston, but I knew I couldn't load him into somebody else's trailer. I still needed some Help.
So I called in the Big Guns. I had Cathie Hatrick Anderson from Bobcat Farm come teach me how to load my horse. That was the first turning point. Cassel knew how to load in a trailer. I need to be trained on how to load a horse properly and get over my mental psychotic garbage. I had issues. She looked at me funny a few times during the process probably wondering what she was doing with such a well mannered gelding.
Cathie loads with a rubber handled lunge whip, and a rubber handled crop and uses both sides depending on the situation. We did a bunch of ground work first and made sure that Cassel would turn right with a visual cue. (He needed to learn this). She solved what few leading problems he had and we loaded him on to my trailer and another boarder's trailer on the property.
The second epiphany occurred at a Greg Eliel clinic in Lancaster in June of 2013. There was this little buckskin mare at the clinic. She was opinionated as Hell. After lunch on the second day everybody went outside to see Greg load the mare. She was in a rope halter with a long thick lead. Greg stood with the mare in front of an almost new step up slant trailer. And he took the rope and twirled it at her flank. Tap. Tap. Tap. The mare reared -- not high, just enough to show she was pissed. She snorted. She danced. She sweated. She. Was. Pissed. About five minutes later she put her nose in the trailer and gave it a good sniff. The rope came off and the pressure stopped praise and petting were administered. Keep in mind that Greg can tie a knot in a lead rope with a flick of his wrist which is why I load with a dressage whip, not a rope. He had GREAT control over the rope. Then she backed off the trailer and the tapping continued. Then her front feet went on. The rope stopped and he praised her. In under 15 minutes he had her hopping on and off the trailer, self loading or leading on.
But the most amazing thing was his body language; his demeanor. He could have been waiting for a bus for all the stress he showed. A bus for an appointment that he was an hour early for. I thought, "THIS is how you load a horse." Somehow the timing of the pressure on and off just clicked for me that day and now I can load horses that other people can't get to load.
The third epiphany happened ironically when I was taking my kids to the dentist. There was a little boy in the next room who was having a tooth pulled. He was SCREAMING "LET GO OF ME!!" for about ten minutes. Then we saw him tearfully depart, triumphant, clutching stickers and other loot.
I asked the dentist who owns the practice if he ever used gas on the kids (this is not that unusual in pediatric practices). He said "No, you don't know what you're going to get. Sometimes you just get a really frightened kid who is totally stoned. We just keep going. We know we're not hurting them."
"We just keep going. We know we're not hurting them."
I've applied that philosophy to trailer loading ever since. Just keep going. I'm not hurting him. A tap on the withers with a lunge whip does not hurt a horse. Even a sharp tap as a correction for not moving forward does not hurt them. Trailers annoy horses, but they don't hurt them.