An Ounce of Prevention?
By Betsy Kelleher
I really hate to use my own problems as “lessons” for my readers, but sometimes that’s just the way it is! Maybe someone can avoid my mistakes.
We were all set recently to go for our first ride since last fall at Spanish Lake County Park, with our new horse, Rocky (Rocky has replaced Sammy, who is now in a new home with someone who hopefully enjoys his energy more than Russ did). Rocky is a tri-color Walker, quieter and smaller than Sammy, easier to get on, and he was five in June. We were looking for an older horse, but Rocky is supposed to be less spooky and more laid back than most. He had performed very nicely in the arena, but we had yet to get him out on the trails.
I had planned to practice loading and unloading before we left, because I knew Rocky had not been in a two horse trailer before. But I also knew he backed up nicely under saddle and on the ground. Surely he would back out of the trailer. He walked quietly in with little hesitation, and we decided to get going.
We arrived at the park, and unloaded Traveller first. He was tied to his side of the trailer with plenty of grass to occupy his time while we worked on Rocky. And I do mean worked. For about forty minutes, I tried everything. Rocky wanted to turn around and come out front wise, just as he had always done in an open stock trailer. I backed him far enough that his two hind feet were on the top of the ramp, but that was as far as we got. He planted his feet and refused to move another step. I pushed back with everything I had, and he returned the same. Guess who was strongest.
I put on his bridle, hoping the bit would help. It didn’t. He stood his ground, two hind feet at the top of the ramp, still trying to turn around. Russ pulled on his tail, saying “back.” Guess what...he ran forward. And of course I’m standing inside his trailer space right beside him. He stayed up there, eating the hay left in the manger, as though to say, “I’ve had it with unloading; I’m eating hay!”
We finally loaded Traveller and went home. Now, you may realize I am leaving out some details and some words that Russ and I exchanged, but that’s private! If someone had come along about then and said “Oh, what a pretty horse.” Russ may have given him away! But I’m sure you all have been in that position at one time or another. Fortunately, it was a passing attitude.
By the time we got back to the barn, only one plan had come to mind. I asked Russ to unload Traveller while I tried to back Rocky out at the same time, hoping Rocky would learn by example. Of course, Rocky got a little concerned after Traveller was out and he was still trying to turn around. I think I got a little desperate and started yelling at him to back up. He was swinging his head more, looking side to side, and my head was in the way. Maybe I finally sounded like I meant it and he stepped backward a few steps, and then I noticed one hind leg going off the side of the ramp. A little more desperate, I yelled louder and I think he really believed me! Once he got one foot on the ground, it was easy to back him up the rest of the way. Whew!
Then I did what I should have done before we left the barn. I walked Rocky toward the ramp, up one step and back off. I walked him back up the ramp two steps and backed off. Again and again, a little further each time, and back off. Then one step into the trailer and back down the ramp. He was being very good about it the whole time, although he did indicate at one point that he wanted to go join Traveller in the nearby paddock. I told him no, and he said OK. Now, you can’t really get mad at a horse when he’s trying to cooperate even when he would rather go elsewhere.
I finally got him all the way into the trailer, and backed him all the way out. A few more times, and Rocky seemed very calm about it, as though he now knew just what to do. So I put him out with Traveller. The point is: if I had done this kind of “practice” before we left, we would have been able to go riding that day. It would have been worth a few extra minutes!
We need to practice at home the things we plan to do away from home. We can’t take it for granted that just because a horse is willing to go into a trailer that he will know how to come out. I used to think John Lyons made things way too complicated, but I am seeing more and more that many tiny steps toward any goal are safer and easier in the long run and produce more solid training. As he has said, it takes hundreds of repetitions of an action before the horse is really trained. Less may seem enough, but then the training may not be complete and there’s more chance of a problem.
Each horse has his own past and training because of what was done or not done. Each owner has a different way of doing things, a different trailer and a different stall or pasture and there’s a lot to get used to and a lot to learn for both horse and rider. I’ve always hated to get a new horse, because of all the adjustments before you feel secure with each other. Even though a horse is calm and steady with one owner in one environment, that doesn’t mean he will be just as calm with a new owner in a new situation. There is always a period of getting used to new things (like bright colored tarps that cover the nearby sawdust pile and move in the wind).
We knew Rocky was great on the trails he was used to back home, but we wanted to feel confident that Russ could handle riding him someplace he’d never been. Since that day, we have managed to go riding on the trail and Rocky was perfect in every way. Russ can relax and enjoy the ride when he sees that his horse is relaxed (that’s why I have enjoyed Traveller for eight years!). Rocky is quiet for his age, and I know that being quiet doesn’t solve everything, but it helps. He still needs more riding in new places, to build confidence and trust and to help Russ be in control. Rocky also needs to learn better manners when being led to places he eagerly wants to go (like back to his stall with grain waiting or out to the grass pasture that probably reminds him of home).
Thinking back on the whole experience, I realize Rocky didn’t know what else to do in the trailer except to just stand there. He wasn’t being stubborn and ornery; he was relying on his own knowledge (which didn’t include backing out of a trailer). Wish I could stand firm like that in spite of pressures and not panic! He didn’t get excited or freak out, and he never hurt me, though I was standing right beside him inside his trailer space the whole time. He was used to a stock trailer where he could turn around to walk out, and he just couldn’t understand this new way of doing things. Somehow I am reminded of how Church people sometimes resist new ways because “we’ve never done that before.”
I am thankful that our Sovereign God knows each one of us well, and is able to help us through any situation if we look to Him for guidance. But sometimes God has to teach us to do things in new ways, or to get used to new surroundings or new friends. Sometimes He asks for our trust and obedience even when we don’t understand, and we must learn to listen carefully and submit to His guidance in order to cope with our situation. He always knows what is best for us, and He knows how to prepare us for what lies ahead. Just as we need to build trust and respect into our horse/human relationships, we also need to learn trust and reverence for a Heavenly Master.
I find myself thinking about Rocky in the trailer and how he stood his ground no matter how hard I tried to get him to back up. Apparently he didn’t yet trust me enough to obey. But he was confident enough in himself to do only what he knew. And I admire that, in a way, in spite of my frustration at the time!
In I Peter, 5:12, Paul encourages believers to stand fast in the true grace of God. In Ephesians 6:13, he says, “Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.” And in I Corinthians 16:13, he urges, “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be men of courage; be strong.” I believe God is telling us to stand firm in our faith also, to be strong and courageous. Maybe God used Rocky to give me that message.
(Originally published in the July 2005 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)