Big Scary Trailer (dealing with demons)
Last weekend I was asked to come to a horse rescue and pick up a horse for one of my clients. I was up the weekend before to have a look at him and give my opinion on the suitability for Tara (my client) to have and to train as a pleasure horse for herself. It is Tara’s desire to train her own horse (also her first horse) from the ground up … and I have great respect for that desire … because this is exactly what brought me to the decision to be a horse trainer myself.
R2 is a 6 year old Arabian with a curious past. Apparently at some point in his short life he was kept in the basement of a house … and we were told he has issues with confined spaces … really?? Tara was told that he would be in a stall ready to go for her when she arrived at the rescue. When we arrived, though, we found him in the paddock where we first met him. My hunch is they could not get him into the barn and chose to leave him where he was for us to deal with.
The photo shows where we started … taking him from two of his buddies eating hay. He was unimpressed to say the least. When I saw him for the first time (two weeks ago) I saw a young, confident horse who was very used to others moving for him and others bowing to his wishes … then, today, he met me. While I am not one who uses force to get what I want … I am also one who others (in the herd) move for. It is my place as a leader (or an alpha) to establish myself as one who is worthy of following. I DO NOT subscribe to the “show him who’s boss” philosophy as this is very predatory in its foundation. The game was now on. Two alpha horses competing for the number one spot. Two horses sparring to see who’s moves are best and worthy of respect.
So here we are out of the paddock and he is dealing with things very well … but you can see the “game tail” is on and we were going to be in for a serious discussion regarding my desire for him to step head first into the trailer which is just in front of him. His head, however, is low and I am very happy with how he is dealing with the stress of the situation … confirming my assessment of being a confident boy.
This is a good time to mention the fact that every cell in his body is against the idea of walking into a “cave” (trailer) with no visible opening to escape if he needs to. We often take for granted the things our horses do for us that are against what would be “natural” for a prey animal. To walk into a trailer and have the doors closed behind with no way to escape is a ridiculous request for an animal who’s primary defense is “flight” or the ability to run away.
As R2 was faced with the opening of the trailer it was my job as the leader to manage his stress by keeping his head level or lower than level. This position helps the horse “feel” good and helps the nervous system work freely and efficiently. As soon and his head comes above level he is displaying stress and it becomes my job to manage this. Horses make associations with the environment they are in and the way they feel so I helped R2 “feel” good while faced with the fear of the trailer. “Frame of Body is Frame of Mind” is how Chris Irwin describes this principle. Keep the body in a shape that equals “no stress” and the mind comes into alignment with that shape.
I allowed R2 to take baby steps into his fear as I stood my ground against his protests. He became quite violent during our time at the mouth of the trailer. He body checked me with his shoulder more times than I can count. He tried to knock my lights out with his head. He reared up and spun away (more than 40 times) and threatened to kick me with his back leg several times. He also tried to bite me a few times. I dealt with every protest with empathy and consistency. There were times when he just stood there doing nothing, processing his situation. I knew this was quite overwhelming for him so we took our time working through his fear … trying not to take his protests personally … but feeling for him and helping him move past the fear into that place of peace and trust in me as his new leader.
5 1/2 hours later … R2 overcame his fear and quietly walked onto the trailer and began to eat hay. He chose to back off one time and very quickly walked right back on and continued eating. I stood beside him for a few minutes deciding how I was going to deal with the closing of the ramp and top doors in the safest way possible. I knew there was the chance R2 could decide to jump out of the trailer once the ramp was up and get caught up half way out … so I stepped out of the trailer and started to lift it to see what his reaction would be. He took a step backward and I lowered the ramp and then calmly asked him to step back up to the front. I went into the trailer again and asked Tara to lift the ramp (from the side) with me in the trailer … and R2 seemed fine.
We fastened the ramp up and he quietly turned around and looked out at his herd in the paddock. We were able to close the doors, put up the chest bars, hang the hay nets and leave for the 2 hour ride to his new home.
When we arrived at his new farm we found him in the trailer still quietly eating hay. There was no sweat or signs of stress and he seemed very content. I opened the doors and dropped the ramp … and actually had to coax him out of the trailer. R2 lead on a loose lead all the way to the back of the farm like an old veteran and has settled in very nicely.
This is the “shape” of a content and stress free horse. I was very proud of R2 when two days after his arrival at the new farm he was a perfect gentleman for the vet … getting his shots and examination. The vet was shocked when we told him he was an Arab as he was so “sensible” and easy to deal with.
I am confident that R2′s training will go very well. We made very good progress into the training getting through the trailer issues and he proved that Arabs are indeed, very intelligent horses.
It was critical that R2 was given the opportunity to make the decision to walk onto the trailer himself. Force would have destroyed any chance at a good relationship with me and his new owner and would have re-enforced his fear and mistrust of trailers and humans.
Our journey has a good beginning and I believe R2 and Tara will become good partners and will take good care of each other. I am honoured to be a part of this as their trainer.