Q&A: Trailer Loading Dilemma Article with Linda Parelli
Q: I have an 8-year-old Right-Brain Introvert/Extrovert mare. Her past behaviors include pacing, freezing, bolting and extreme anxiety when left by herself. Her confidence has progressed with the Seven Games.
I am having trouble breaking the trailer experience into baby steps. She loads with the lead rope over her back but has trouble when I close the stall partition and trailer door. I am trying to help her remain confident over longer periods of time and take her on an actual trailer ride. Sometimes her body language begins showing anxiety in five to ten minutes. I have difficulty timing the release. If I unload her, she will reload but not stay in. Many people say, “Get the trailer moving, and she’ll settle while trying to stay balanced.” Others suggest moving the trailer in small increments and unloading her on her home turf.
How should I proceed? Just being by herself causes her angst, and she has issues with claustrophobia, which is most likely the root of the problem. I’m a Level 3 student, but my imagination has left me. —Sharon W., NC
A: What you have described is seriously claustrophobic behavior. I commend you for bringing her this far, but there is more to do.
1. Do more simulations with her to build her confidence and lower claustrophobic tendencies. Practice the pull- back* remedy until she will not lean against or drag on the rope and stands calmly when you shake the flag, etc. It teaches a horse to be Left-Brain in a claustrophobic situation. It’s a great simulation and can have an effect on other situations that involve claustrophobia. *Learning Library—enter “pull back”
Teach her to stand tied for up to six hours. As you gradually get her up to that point she will learn to be patient. It’s actually more than that—it helps horses learn it’s okay to be in a tied situation and not feel threatened. Pat ties his horses for hours every day to prepare them for things such as long hauls in the trailer and to realize that tying does not mean death.
2. Load her into a stock trailer so she can move around. If you saw the January 2009 DVD on trailer loading, that’s the style of the first one Pat was using. These tend to be less threatening for horses because when you shut the gate they can still move, and it lessens the stress more quickly.
In extreme situations Pat recommends using the trailer like a stall and feeding and watering your horse in there so the horse sees it as a home rather than a dangerous cave. As with tying, build up to where you can keep her in there overnight. In every situation leading up to that, don’t open the door until she is calm. Having said that, if you close the door before she is ready, it won’t be pretty. You need to know that you’ve done adequate preparation before you close the door.
3. Move away from the trailer and do something else when she refuses to get back in. Sometimes when you just stay there you hit a threshold and the horse’s mind locks up, so it will take force to make her move.
Instead of resorting to that, take her away, then back to the trailer, and do other things with the trailer instead of trying to load her. Put Zone 3 against different parts of the trailer, Zone 4, Zone 5—do anything but load.
This brings up your leadership and overcomes the fear in the horse much better than if you try to load her directly. Once she’s calm and willing again you can ask her in, then her off again. Just ask her out before she thinks of it!
This is about preparation. When you grasp this, you will be less concerned about loading her. In the back of your mind you may be tense and worried about future trailering, so you are not 100% present in the moment. You are not concerned about her confidence and trust, so it feels unsafe.
4. Wait longer. When she’s hard to load, wait; don’t try to load her. You’re waiting for the brace in her mind to leave and for her to start breathing again. And when she does, retreat. Walk away from the trailer, do something else and come back when she’s calm.
This is the Touch It Pattern—you wait until she can sniff it and then put her feet on it of her own accord without your asking her to do it. She’ll do it out of curiosity rather than obedience. Right-Brain Introverts try to be obedient, and that’s why sometimes you don’t realize that they are afraid inside.
Prepare her to have a calm mind every time she gets near the trailer. The comfort–discomfort model of running her around and then giving her rest by the trailer is hard to do successfully with an introvert because introverts don’t want to move their feet.
5. Shut the door in stages. Do a lot of swinging of the door while she is in there—opening and partially closing repeatedly with predictable rhythm, as required in the Friendly Game (rhythm, relaxation, approach and retreat). Close the door only when there is no reaction. No sneaking! Do it openly and obviously, and if your horse needs to get out, allow her to do so. Reload her as many times as it takes and then start the Friendly Game with the door again.
6. Extreme Friendly Game. Teach her not to worry if she hears noises when in the trailer. Start by rubbing and tapping the trailer with your Carrot Stick. Desensitization begins this way and ends with her standing inside (not tied, no butt bar) and you tapping on the ramp, sides, roof, rattling the divisions, etc. You can start this in other areas, not just at the trailer. The goal is to prove to her that none of this is threatening. It will build her self-confidence and confidence in new or unfamiliar environments (such as the trailer).
7. Teach her to yield from the butt bar. Put a 22-foot Line behind her and teach her to move forward when you apply pressure. If she goes backwards or runs around, keep the pressure the same—do not increase it or let it off (unless she panics, of course, in which case you release instantly). This will help with her claustrophobic issues and prepare her to move forward off the butt bar instead of trying to break through it.
Once she’s in the trailer, simulate the butt bar with a Savvy String that’s tied on one side and wrapped on the other. It can provide some resistance but still slide and open up if she tries to come through. Put a little pressure on the lead rope to ask her to come backwards and feel the rope. Instead of pushing on it, she should yield and move forward. This is something to do over and over until it is a habit and she can think her way through it instead of panicking. The more times she comes through it, the less panicky she’ll be, and she’ll be able to stand in there. Repeat the failures until your horse is no longer scared.
8. Drive. By the time you have completed steps 1–7 you will have a much more confident horse and most likely be ready to move the trailer once she’s inside. There are two things to do once your horse is confidently standing inside and you want to start driving.
Baby steps: Drive a few feet and then stop and wait until she’s calm. This could take a while! When she’s calm, unload her. Repeat this a few times.
Finally, go around the block, then on a 30-minute drive, then go for an hour or two. Then it won’t matter how long you want to drive.
If the preparation has been adequate, the problems will be slight or completely gone. Could you just slam the door and go? Yes, of course. But you’ll pay for that. If your model is Love, Language and Leadership, you’ll take the time it takes to make sure that you and your horse are properly prepared.
Put the relationship first; do it with love in your heart. Think about this as if it were you.
When you don’t have the skills of Pat Parelli or someone that’s Level 5/6, it will take more time to reach the goal—but having the discipline to work toward this goal will be a great step in healing your horse.
It’s not about the trailer; it’s about how much more confident you have to help her be before you can ask her to trust your request to go in and take a ride. What will it take to help your horse be safe? The Parelli program gives you the keys. You need to supply commitment and patience as you learn to be who she needs you to be.
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