Ask horse owners where they lack confidence in their horsemanship skills, and often the response will be getting their horse into a trailer for traveling. Notice how often ads selling horses use phrases like “loads like a dream” or “loads and unloads easily.” Yet in my experience, there is a disconnect between the reassuring ads and the bleak reality for most people. Why is smooth trailering such an important quality in a horse? Because loading an unwilling or frightened horse can be a nightmare for both horse and human.
Trailering my horse is a lesson that I’ve recently learned. My daughter and I signed up for a weekend clinic about 25 miles from our home, so a month before the clinic was to begin, I began my trailer loading lessons. I’ll share the specifics later in this article about how I made out, but first let’s look at the principle behind the tactics. It’s not what you might think. The magic is not how you position the horse or the trailer, nor is it about buckets of grain as enticements, and it’s not about brute force either (definitely a losing proposition for the human.)
The key is to understand horse time. A horse’s sense of time is much different than a human’s sense of time. People are driven by the clock. We awake at a certain time by the alarm clock, we drive 23 minutes to work, we eat lunch from noon to one o’clock, and we run staff meetings Thursdays at three p.m. sharp! Then it’s the weekend and we want to take our horse on a trail ride, and we expect our horse to load on our schedule.
That doesn’t work for horses. Horses have a very different sense of time. They don’t live in the past, nor are they anticipating or living in the future. They are living in the moment. They survive by being alert to situations in which they find themselves now, and when they are led to a trailer, they are thinking, “This is a dark, enclosed space, and who knows what predator lurks inside that space. How do I escape?”
Do you see the potential train wreck approaching? Human time and horsetime are colliding. And do you know how to avoid the wreck? Be on horse time. Think like a horse. This is one of the truly great aspects of excellent horsemanship—that humans, when with horses, make the choice to live in the moment, which is not always easy. Not to get too philosophical, but some say the key to enlightenment is living in the moment. “Be here now,” Baba Ram Das once said. That’s the way horses are. And it’s critical to understand this concept in terms of every interaction with them. When we’re trying to help our horses into the trailer, if it takes an hour for them to learn it the first time, then we must prepare to patiently invest that time. We’d like them to learn it in three minutes, and maybe six months or a year from now, our horse will load inthree minutes.
With my Arabian gelding Chance, who is my teacher more than I am his teacher, my trailering experience was quite remarkable. My goal was to move from one comfortable experience to the next without caring how long the process took. Chance would let me know. On day one, I brought Chance in to be groomed, picked his feet (which took almost an hour the first time I tried it two years ago and now takes about two minutes—another testimony to horse time), and led him out to the trailer. We walked around it a few times, and I stopped at the back of the open trailer and let him check it out. He snorted, peered inside, and moved forward the tiniest bit. I praised him, walked him back to the barn, and turned him loose.
On day two, I did exactly the same things, and when he moved forward at the trailer, I encouraged him with a calm voice. He placed first one front foot inside the trailer and then a second, and stood quietly. After about ten seconds, when I could feel that he was becoming slightly less comfortable, I encouraged him to back out, and that was that.
On day three, again following the same routine with no expectations on my part, Chance walked right inside the trailer, moved all the way forward, and stood quietly, looking at me with alertness, calmness, and softness. Chance achieved a major milestone that day and did it hisway, on his time frame.
And what did I learn from Chance? It’s not about time. It’s about now.