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Trailering trauma

Dear Jessica,

Thank you so much for your sane and compassionate advice.

I have a 7 year old 1/2 Arab, 1/2 Mustang pony mare named Precious. We have had her for almost 9 months, and she is a pleasure to handle on the ground, gentle, well trained and obedient. She was raised by the same family since she was 11 days old, ( they also had her mother, who was caught from the wild, and Precious was raised with/by her) and handled extensively, which shows in her trusting attitude to people. Temperamentally, she is spooky and very quick to react when something frightens her. She can spin around to run awfully quickly, and tends to get 'light in front' if pushed when she is scared of something, but considerate handling is all she needs- she tries very hard to 'be good'. I know her mother rears.

Last week, we had a trailering disaster. We have trailered Precious once before, in an inviting stock trailer, with her buddies who trailer well, and had no problems at all- she just looked at the trailer, then hopped right in. I followed her the whole journey, and could see her the whole way, and as far as I could tell, she had a fine trip, and even seemed to enjoy herself. She also loaded fine coming home.This fits with what her previous family told me. Last week, we trailered her again, but this time with a commercial shipper, in a slant haul trailer. The other horse loaded first, and up till that point, Precious was fine. Unfortunately, once he was in, he started to snort and bang around a bit, and at that moment, the shipper shut the divider. Looking back, I think the two together alarmed her more than I realized. When I started to load her, she came forward willingly, but balked at stepping up into the trailer, and reared- and kept on rearing. The shipper took her away from me, saying I was going to get myself hurt (which I think was a definate possibility). He put a chain on her, which I'm sure she's never experienced before, then started to load her- and of course, now really scared, she reared again, hit the chain, and paniced. He loaded her eventually, but it was a horrible battle, and once she was in the trailer, he completely lost his temper, and yelled at her, hit her and kicked her. Very bad.

On the way to our event, I had plenty of time to think the situation over. Should I just have taken my upset pony home? Would I have 'taught her to rear' by letting her get her way? Should I have made the other people late by insisting on loading her myself, in my own way? Obviously he wasn't ever going to touch her again, as far as I was concerned. How was I going to ever get home? Would we have to live at the Red Lion Equestrian Centre forever? It was a great drive.

Coming home, I disregarded all his helpful advice to ' get tough with her, show her who's boss', refused to let him touch her, ignored his predictions that I'd get myself killed by that mare ( I wasn't so sure he was wrong about that). She snorted and backed up when she saw him, but trusted me, and came up to the trailer, started to shake, and reared- and reared, with me trying to just let her go up, hit herself on the chain (yes I used the chain, as I felt I needed to have some control), and just stay in front of the trailer, which was all I was asking her to do. Eventually she did, then she 'walked on' at my request (shaking all over, but she did it).

This last week, we have been having remedial trailering seminars, using the stock trailer, her best buddy, and breakfast. The first day, she stood in front of the trailer for 1/2 hour, watching her buddy eat her breakfast in peace and comfort while she stood in the rain- but she eventually loaded voluntarily. The second day it was 20 minutes, the third day 15. Tomorrow, I'll try another friend's slant load, etc. Personally, I think it's amazing how quickly she's forgiven me for being such a ninny as to get her into that situation in the first place.

Any advice you could give a Pony Club Mom who's learning by the seat of her pants would be appreciated. How do I handle rearing if it should happen again? Other people say I should 'beat the daylights' out of her if she does, so she'll never do it again, but I'm sure she's doing it because of fear, so I'm not sure how beating her up will do anything but make her sure she was right to be afraid. Better yet, how (other than by continuing to train her) can I make sure it NEVER happens again?

Sheesh- the things I do for my kids. Marta McIntosh


Hi Marta! In a lot of ways, you've really answered your own questions in this letter. ;-) I'll fill in a few blanks for you, but your own instincts are obviously good, so I doubt you'll find any surprises here.

Your mare sounds lovely -- and yes, very forgiving. Horses ARE forgiving, and aren't we lucky, because if they weren't, they would never allow us anywhere near them.

Your mare reacted out of fear, and you were right -- beating her into the trailer was NOT the correct procedure, and beating and kicking her once she was IN the trailer was utterly unconscionable. I would let the owners of this shipping company know about the behaviour of their driver, because it was entirely unacceptable. If he couldn't get her loaded into the trailer calmly, he should have refused to take her -- that would have been in the realm of professional behaviour. As it was, you are VERY lucky that the mare wasn't injured, and even luckier that she is still willing to trust and listen to you and get onto trailers when you ask her to.

Yes, you should probably have taken her home -- but you know that already, don't you? ;-) When a human is determined to have a physical battle with a horse, sometimes all you can do is safeguard YOUR horse by removing it from the scene. It's difficult to go up against a "professional", but this will be an excellent lesson for you, forever: whether the person in question is a shipper, a farrier, a vet, a trainer, an instructor, or a clinician, you are STILL responsible for your horse's welfare, and you have an obligation to say "NO" and take your horse away from that person when things begin to go horribly wrong. YOU are the person who is going home with the horse, and YOU are the person who will have to deal with the consequences of whatever the other person did wrong. It won't matter whether the abuse resulted from hurry, ignorance, or any other cause -- what WILL matter is the effect on your horse and the subsequent effect on you.

I've been asked whether there is ever a time when it would be appropriate to beat a horse onto a trailer. My answer is YES -- if you must get the horse on that trailer RIGHT NOW. THIS VERY MINUTE because it is on its way to the veterinary hospital for colic surgery, or because there is a brush fire coming down the valley and your horse can either get on the trailer and leave with you, or stay and be burned alive. In any other situation, lacking that life-or-death urgency, my answer would be NO. It's very much like asking whether it would ever be appropriate to grab a small child by the arm and jerk it hard enough to dislocate its shoulder -- again, my answer would be YES, but only if the alternative were far worse, for example if you were jerking your child out of the way of an oncoming train. It wouldn't be appropriate as discipline, and it wouldn't be appropriate as education or training.

No show, competition, clinic, or Pony Club mounted meeting -- even a rally -- is important enough to force a horse onto a trailer using those methods. As you've found out, the only guaranteed result is a fearful horse. Luckily for you, your mare likes and trusts you, and is willing to let you prove to her that this incident was unique, never to be repeated.

Your remedial seminars sound like just what your mare needs. Show her, by frequent, calm repetition, that getting on and off trailers is not in itself a Bad Thing. Show her, by good, careful driving, that trailering is not a Bad Thing. Many horses dislike slant-load trailers because the stalls are small and short, but your mare is small enough that she should fit comfortably into a slant-load, so that shouldn't present a problem. But always handle her slowly and carefully, remembering that she now has something very unpleasant that she may remember if the sights and sounds and sensations trigger the memory...

"Beating the daylights" out of a horse will only teach it to fear you. Feel quite safe in ignoring the people who offer you that sort of "advice" -- and don't ever leave them alone with your horse, lest they take it upon themselves to "teach her a lesson for you." People like that can create a horse with a chronic rearing problem in double-quick time -- and the last thing you need is a horse that is so frightened of you that it will rear when it sees you. Instead, create a horse that trusts you so much that it only rears on rare occasions when it is badly startled, and that trusts you so much that it calms down quickly and stays on the ground. That's as good as it gets, with sensitive horses -- you can't take away their instincts, although you can teach them to react briefly and less extravagantly to moments of surprise and fear.

Keep training her -- go on as you are doing now. Teach yourself and whomever else handles her to lead her forward on a curve if she thinks about rearing, and to talk to her gently and loosen the leadrope instead of tightening it -- yelling and pulling can create a rearing horse. Teach yourself and whomever else rides her to send her forward on a curve or circle if she thinks about rearing, and to talk to her gently and relax the reins instead of pulling them -- again, a horse that needs to go SOMEWHERE and is being held hard will often figure out that the only way to go is UP. Learn to recognize the moment when your mare has been pushed too far, too fast, and can't handle the pressure -- and then learn to recognize the moment BEFORE that moment, and use it to back off and help her stay calm.

Any horse can rear -- it's a normal reaction to a combination of fear and confinement. Your mare sounds like a very sweet mare with normal horse reactions. You can't guarantee that she will never rear again -- you CAN guarantee that she will never be beaten into a trailer again. And yes, you'll continue to train her, but you would be doing that anyway. ;-) Whenever you do anything with her, she's learning something, so be sure that it's something you WANT her to learn.

As I said, you seem to have very good instincts. You may be relatively new to all of this, and you may be learning by the seat of your pants, but don't let yourself be talked into doing things that you know are wrong. Trust your common sense -- your horse-sense, if you will. ;-)

Jessica

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