The other day I had the opportunity to help someone with trailer loading their horse. I noticed as I drove up that they were having a little trouble, so I walked over and just watched for a few minutes and took note of a few things I observed. Eventually, I asked if they would like some help and allow me to try – my assistance was eagerly accepted. They informed me that they were practicing loading for future travel plans, so I could have all the time I was willing to spend.
While I was watching, I noticed the horse seemed to lack confidence with the situation – what I believed he was looking for was safety, reassurance, and clearer communication. Also, it did not take much to get his adrenaline up. So the first thing I started with was to swap out to a longer rope (the shorter rope was not going to allow the horse and myself enough space if we needed it). As I began to play with this horse, I explained to the owner how it’s not going to be about getting the horse in the trailer – it is going to be about the relationship and his confidence.
As I started to move him around a bit, I noticed how his focus was everywhere but on me and he looked for an escape every opportunity he got. That told me his self-preservation was saying to either flee or fight, which meant he was going to just react rather than think. So with this horse being more naturally extroverted, I was going to need to get his feet moving in order for him to start thinking. And to aid in that, I used a pattern to help him catch on quicker. If he did something I did not want, I didn’t make a big deal about or get critical, I just went with him and made the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy, as Ray Hunt would say, by softening my approach a little, but adding some clarity to what I was asking. If he tried to rear, I moved backward with him. If he tried to dart to the outside, I asked him to go sideways. In doing this, I gave him nothing to brace against which allowed us to move together but in a direction I chose.
A nice changed occurred at that point – his eye softened, he was licking and chewing, plus those reactive behaviors started to fade. I think he began to realize that I didn’t want to fight with him but rather wanted to have a conversation with him. So with that in mind, I did a few traveling circles with him until the opening of the trailer just happen to be in his way. He stopped just in front of it and then tried to avoid the trailer by moving into me. However, I continued to stand next to the trailer and protect my space by sending him in a half circle away from the trailer. When he got to the side of the trailer, I added some pressure with the carrot stick to send him back towards the opening, and when he reached it, I brought my energy to neutral and allowed the opening of the trailer to be the comfortable area for him. I continued this pattern for quite a bit, and two phrases popped into my head, one from Pat Parelli “polite and passive persistence practiced in the proper position,” and the other from Ray Hunt “recognize the smallest try, realize the slightest change.” Sometimes when he reached the opening, he would immediately move away, but other times he showed interest in the trailer. If he moved away, I applied some pressure and asked him to move away faster; but whenever he would show interest in the trailer, I would reward him by taking all the pressure away and walk him away from trailer and rubbed him.
This next time, I stood on the opposite side of the trailer and sent him in a half circle away and then changed directions sending him back towards the opening. Once he got there, I wanted to just see what he would do. He stood there looking curiously at the inside of trailer, so I continued to allow him to investigate and time to soak mentally. After about a minute or so, I saw an amazing change happen in this horse – he started licking and chewing a lot, and his whole demeanor softened. Then all of a sudden he started pawing at the base of the trailer, stopped, turned his head and looked right at me with a questioning look. So I encouraged him to continue, and he stood up on it with one leg, then backed up a step, and questioned me again. So again I encouraged him to continue – this time he put both front feet up on trailer and then started nibbling all around the opening. With both front feet still on the trailer, he peered around the corner at me, and questioned me yet again. It was really the coolest thing! We were having this little conversation together that no one else watching even noticed was happening.
So I decided to reward this by walk him away from the trailer and gave him a good rub on his neck. As I re-approached the trailer with him, I decided to change things up slightly. I chose to stand inside the trailer and put a feel on the rope asking him to come on up with me. At first he was rather hesitant and pulled back, but I just let the rope slide so he didn’t feel trapped, which seemed to mean a great deal to him. So we played this teeter totter game for a few minutes: me putting a feel on the rope, him trying to follow that feel, then whenever he felt unsure, he teetered backward and I made sure there wasn’t anything for him to brace against. ( I should note that he was really trying hard for me at this point to override his self-preservation and trust me as well as still questioning me the whole time). Within a few more minutes, he eventually hopped right on up next to me, let out a big breath, and was licking and chewing. As I stood there rubbing and praising him inside the trailer, I remarked how incredibly changed his demeanor and inner emotion was compared to when we started – he seemed at peace both on the outside and inside. I was reminded right then how very special it is to be a part of the moment when a horse chooses to trust you. That feeling is worth more to me than words could ever express. Afterward, the horse’s owner sincerely thanked me, asked me a few questions to learn about how attained the results I did, and then I went on my way to go be with my own horse.
You know, often times I think we can get so task focused that we miss out on a conversation with our horse. And some maybe don’t even realize it’s a possibility. The traditional way of thinking implies that horses are supposed to do and act the way we think they should, or else they are label “stubborn” or “he’s just testing you now!” This is called Anthropomorphism, “The attributing of human motivation, characteristics, or behavior to animals…” Horses are thinking and feeling prey animals. It is not my intention to condemn anyone, but I think a lot of people out there do not actually understand or appreciate the significance of that fact. No matter how much we try to domesticate horses, they are still innately a prey animal, which means their self-preservation is of the utmost priority to them and are always on the lookout for potential danger. This self-preservation, similar to our own, is lesser or greater from horse to horse and tells them to do or not do certain things if they feel it might endanger their life. They are simply doing what they think is best to survive, but we tend to forget this fact and end up turning it into a win or lose situation instead of looking for a win-win for both us and the horse. I love what Ray Hunt once said, soak in these words dear reader:
There is no way that the horse will ever try to take advantage of you. He’s as honest and as truthful as anything you could ever work with. He has no ego that gets in his way. He has no pride that gets in his way. He doesn’t know what win or lose is. And those are the four things that get in the human’s way. It’s very sad. All the horse is trying to do is survive; he’s trying to make it. So I try to work with him like he was me, just like I hope he would work with me. Realize you’re working with a mind. A lot people think it’s just a horse, but there’s a mind operating that horse. This mind gets him doing things because he wants to do them. Or you teach him to do things he doesn’t like to do but feels he has to do them anyway. We need to recognize the smallest try, realize the slightest change. Many of us don’t know a horse is trying to do something for us until he’s already done it.
The horse will tell you what he needs, we just have to let go of our pride, put the relationship with our horses first, pay closer attention to the subtle signs they give us, and be open to changing whatever the horse is reflecting back to us. So go out there and be the person your horse desperately wants and needs you to be – and remember to have fun!