Monday, April 22, 2024

We are what we repeatedly do

Goggles and I have a relatively long saga of sorta kinda tackling trailer loading: 

Existing near the trailer

But when he moved back to JT's in August I started ignoring it as a problem. He went XC schooling but rode with a friend's horse on her trailer and then existed at a show with a friend on JT's trailer. So he had a couple of positive experiences with a reliable friend, but since the first target training session where he (mostly) got over his fear of the actual trailer itself, the issue has been more prominent solo. I think it is two-fold - the trailer takes him away from where his friends are - and he has to exist solo while travelling. 

In January, he moved up close to my house and close to the GY's who are generous in letting me use their farm as a home base for things like chiro, dressage lessons, and farrier appointments that Ben and Goggles share. I thought the frequent, short trips would be curative on their own. But that's what I thought, not what Goggles thought. My husband joined in on this as a project, and we started tackling it mostly with good 'ole repetition. The first couple of sessions we worked on "trailer" as a verbal cue for going in all the way and then "back" as a cue to have him exit before he decided he was exiting. After two sessions like that, we upped the ante and then closed the butt bar and forced him to find his own calm. He actually had us cracking up because he had a mini temper tantrum. He pawed a few times, tried to crane his head around both ways, and stared out the door with lots of angst. 

Then he started angry eating his hay. He loooooooves orchard above all else, so that's what is in the trailer. He flung large chunks of it at us and made some indignant faces still. Once he blew his nose several times and softened his eye a little bit, we let him out and then gave him a quick break and put him back on once more without closing anything in and then ended the session on that positive note. He actually did a little tiny, high-pitched, indignant SQUEAL when I put him back in his field. I am never unclear on this horse's feelings.

We hit it several days a week for two weeks, and he improved. He still wasn't marching straight into the trailer, but he would pause, I'd let him sniff a couple of times, and then he'd go on. So we started going places again, and he went backwards (figuratively and literally). He started taking longer and longer each time. A few trips, I recruited someone behind him to drag the carrot stick on the ground in a snaking motion. This worked, but after getting him on this way and driving him to the GY's, I found him sweat soaked for the first time with bars over the window of the trailer bent, indicating he had SLAMMED his butt into them at some point. 

Enter the cowboy. His method involves standing at the corner of the ramp and trailer, and focusing on straightness. He closed up the escape door and said when those are open they're not going into the trailer, they're going out the door. He also said there are "get tos" and "got tos" and until he is completely confident in the trailer, only "got to" trips are allowed. There are three lines - the comfort line, the try line, and then 1 mm forward of the try line, the fear line. His goal is to move all three lines so far forward that they are well past the nose of the trailer. Goggles was kept straight by a combination of a "rainbow" move with the carrot stick on my side of the ramp, and a gentle flexion with the fingers for the nose and a tapping on the line with the stick for the haunches on the far side of the ramp. Forward motion is requested by "livening up" and turning myself towards the trailer, and then pausing to give him a chance to react before driving forward with light taps of the stick behind the withers. Before he can be asked to step forward further into the trailer, he has to have taken a step back or at least been asked to. If he does it on his own (ie hokey pokey foot forward then back) then that counts. But if he hasn't, then shake the line up and down until he steps back. There is a try line for each foot and for the nose, a more confident step is also a new try. Any try he gives, you stop asking for forward motion. At one point he'd given us the same try line about four times and the cowboy said it was time to push a bit further and keep asking for a new try. This led to some angsty feelings, but those feelings are never to be met by angst on my part. Straightness was paramount, and then a new try. The cowboy ended up taking over at that point because things were happening too quickly for my slow reaction times (just butt and head going in different directions, out of our narrow, straight runway), but then next time we hit the point, Goggles was much more subdued in his reactions and gave a new try. It was like he was relieved that the MAIN focus was on straight and he could in fact just more a front foot another inch forward and then he was given a break. 

Eventually Goggles had head and shoulders into the trailer and our two hour session was up. I was given the tools to continue this on my own, but... I still believe that 90% of the trailering problem is a herd bound problem that will reappear the second the trailer leaves the farm. The cowboy's answer was that when he gets off the trailer, the session isn't over. As he backs off, he has to stay straight, and then he is kept straight to the trailer until he relaxes and shows the "4 C's" that we aim for in everything - confident, connected (to you and the environment), communicating, and calm. 

While he became more reliable loading by leading him in after this and had a positively pleasant and chill experience with Ben at the schooling show, I still found myself sitting in a rocking trailer a few days after the show, typing up part of this lengthy blog post. Expectations being the devil that they are, I had expected to start with a relatively chill horse on the trailer and then drive him a few feet. I'd even thought I'd planned for success: load him further away from the barn and then drive the 200 yards to the barn to unload him "at home". He walked right on. But then proceeded to have a two hour temper tantrum. I picked up rocks in the future arena, I scrolled through my phone, I stared temperamentally at him. 

He danced forward and back, craned his head around, pawed, and repeatedly turned his head sideways, anxiously chewing with his mouth. He ignored the hay and the water bucket and did everything he could to try to leave. I had put the ramp up but hadn't closed the escape door. Two hours in, my "loads of time before I have to leave for work" had vanished, and I was wondering how to end on a positive note. I had inadvertently pushed him way past the fear line and was using the equivalent to the cry it out method. The cowboy had before said there wasn't anything wrong with that method when it came to having him exist in block one faaaaarrr away from the other horses. But had also cautioned that I'd better have all day because if it took six hours and I gave in at five, the next time was gonna by seven hours. 

I ended up standing in the front portion with him and insisting on relative stillness. He could stomp his feet, but no pawing and no rocking forwards and back. He actually responded well and ate a few bites of hay. I called it quits and tossed him back out in the pasture so I could rush home and then rush to work. 

Two days later, I picked it back up again. I started by putting him all the way in straight out of the pasture using my usual leading in method. I didn't close the butt bar and just backed him out again once he walked all the way forward. I was relieved to note it didn't take very long to get him in even after the meltdown two days prior. Then I rode and we worked on canter transitions and getting all his parts straight in the canter. He was pretty tired by the end of it. I walked him on to the trailer again, still tacked up, and then backed him out and got him hosed off. 

I worked on block one while he dried, which really just amounts to standing around these days. He knows exactly how long the rope is and doesn't pull. He also knows better than to come into my space, so he eats and I... Take pictures and think meditative thoughts? Lol. 

After ten minutes I put him through the rest of the blocks- line up behind me, shoulders and then hips, go forward, back up, etc. Then we walked over to the trailer. 

Compared to the session with the cowboy, he was taking WAY more confident steps on. He also went halfway on before he accepted my invitation to take a step back before  I asked for a forward step again. 

My view

Eventually, within 15 minutes or so, he was calm AND all the way in. He sniffed things for a little bit once he made it all the way in. He backed out but then went smoothly back in within a minute or two. Then he stood and ate hay. Woohoo! I hadn't ruined him with the two day prior "cry it out" method. I touched the butt bar and he slowly backed out. I put him back in and he ate hay again. I touched the butt bar and that time he stayed in and kept eating hay. GOOD BOY!! 

And that's where this tale ends, for now. We went to the GY's two days in a row last Thursday and Friday, and he loaded more slowly each time. BUT... he was pretty chill in the trailer. Not eating hay chill, but he wasn't shaking the whole thing. Progress, I think. 


  1. glad things seem to be moving in the right direction!! i love clear consistent reproducible methodologies when it comes to instilling new behaviors for the horse. trailering is always just one of those things, definitely worth spending the time on repetitions to make it as reliable and stress free as possible... i've been a tad negligent about dedicating time to practice with doozy, bc she's fairly straight forward with 2 people. except... there won't always be 2 people, and i can definitely see us running into issues with where we are right now...

    1. It definitely is worth spending the time, but it is one of those very unexciting things to dedicate an entire afternoon of horsey time to. I've also wondered whether our lifestyles with relatively lots of time on the trailer are good or bad. I guess it all depends on whether those times on the trailer are positive or negative in their minds.