by Allison Brunelli
On the morning of his second trailer loading lesson, my horse Kjartan arrived early but his confidence arrived late. I can imagine many reasons he might have been so frightened to be closed into a small, two-stall trailer. He’d never done it; he was more fresh than usual; he was only two years old.
Ashlin, a hunter jumper trainer for Breakaway Farms, thought maybe he was claustrophobic. While our speculations warrant reflection for our next lesson, what matters now is how Ashlin and I supported him in that moment.
Despite having already taught him to walk through calmly, stand still before exiting and allowing him to eat inside, there were few other ways to prepare Kjartan for closing him in except to close him in. I shut the back ramp and lowered the back hatch. Ashlin walked him in, shut the side ramp and lowered the side hatch. Kjartan was confined and his adrenaline spiked. He darted back and forth with no place for his adrenaline to go. “Bam, bam, bam,” my trailer belted out as Kjartan drove his chest against its walls.
Ashlin, a red-head dressed in blue breeches and fuchsia knee high socks, stood outside the trailer trying to hold his lead rope steady, hoping to steady him. He was using all his strength, pulling hard enough that she could not plant her own feet. Looking back now, I imagine we were both wondering the same thing: maybe we ought to open the upper hatch and let him see us?
But suddenly the unexpected happened. “Oh darn, the halter just broke,” Ashlin said. I didn’t have time to decide if I were more surprised by the halter breaking or how calm Ashlin was. We still had to lead him out. She pulled his breakaway halter through the narrow opening between the ramp and the hatch and dropped it to the ground where it lay in a limp nylon leather heap. Then, suddenly, the trailer rocked harder. Ashlin could see Kjartan through the window. “Now he’s turning around and around,” she said without changing her steady tone.
Thank goodness for Ashlin; her experience with young horses helps her think quickly. “Let’s drive to the barn to get another halter,” she suggested. “He will stand still once the trailer is moving.” I quickly climbed into the driver’s seat of my truck as Ashlin climbed on the trailer’s rear running board. Carefully, I pressed the gas and watched through the rear-view mirror.
It was only a one-hundred-yard trip, but Ashlin spent every yard of it talking to Kjartan. When we pulled up to the main barn I took her spot on the rear running board while she ran in. I reached my arm through the window and laid my fingertip on his croup. I talked to him. He exhaled. A few minutes later Ahlin put an alternate halter on Kjartan through the window. “Oh buddy,” I said. “That was scary.” His eyes were enlarged but he was standing still. He was looking at us, a sign he was settling, reconnecting.
When we drove him back to our original lesson location, I opened the back doors completely and while he was still in the trailer I notice a sudden softening in Kjartan’s eyes. It signaled a shift I’ve often seen in him. A shift from fearful to cool, calm, thinking, confident. I noticed his lowered shoulders, his dropped hip, his lowered head. Ashlin and I glanced at each other. “Do you see that?” I asked Ashlin. She grinned and nodded. Calmly, Kjartan followed me off.
Ashlin needed to confirm Kjartan’s willingness to get back in before ending the lesson. “Walk him back in one more time,” she said. When I did, he followed along as if nothing had happened. Then I backed him out, rear end first. “I’ve never seen a young horse back up that willingly the first time,” Ashlin said, her tone now rising over discovering an unexpected gem floating in his character.
It could be argued that this "lesson" was actually a series of mistakes, rapid firing action and reaction. It certainly did not unfold predictably. But I see my time with Ashlin as the best kind of lesson -- alive, authentic, without judgement. Kjartan's adrenaline-induced behavior triggered ours, and we worked quickly, in a whirlwind of effort, to respond with wisdom to help him regain his peace.
In my weekly home study course with trainer Leah Taylor of Clever Riding we discuss the value of therapeutic touch and confidence building. When I shared this trailer loading story with Leah, I remembered how hard it was for Kjartan when we boxed him in. She reminded me that Kjartan’s expression of fear to his own fear was normal. “Horses move their feet when they feel stress and they continue to move their feet until they can release their tension,” she said.
“You must never see a problem in a horse,” Leah continued. “You must see him only as perfect for where he is in his spiritual, mental, physical and psychological development. Your role is only to help him sort out whatever he is challenged by.”
Leah, like Ashlin, takes a compassionate, supportive role with horses when they feel fear. They realize horses are driven by instinct and what drives instinct is survival. They don’t see misbehavior in horses, they see instinctual behavior in horses. Therefore they listen to horses; they don’t mislabel instinctual behavior or pit against a horse showing fear; and they are rewarded when they use comfort, not punishment, as a training tool.
Leah and I often discuss analogies to clarify why comfort-based, confidence-building training makes a difference in a horse’s development. I have created a new analogy for this article:
There once was a young boy named Luuk who lived in a small town in Holland. In the summer of Luuk’s eighth birthday, his mom got very sick and his dad needed help from a distant family member to raise him. Only Aunt Lotte lived five hundred miles away and Luuk would have to board a train and travel by himself to get there. Luuk had never traveled anywhere distant. He left home only to walk to school — and that he did with his friend who lived next door. When Luuk’s dad dropped him off at the train station Luuk’s heart sank. The old steel train and the crowd of strangers scared him. He longed for his bedroom, his box of colorful books, his thick blue comforter and his mother’s voice checking in on him. His father, who had too much on his mind to worry about his son, gave him a nudge, sending him on. “This is life, son," he called out firmly. “It’s time for you to figure things out.” And then he turned and walked away.
As Luuk stood in the crowd he began to tremble. His stomach felt queasy and he couldn’t move his feet. Then suddenly, just as door of the train opened, he felt a tap on his shoulder. When he turned around it was his Aunt Lotte with a big smile on her face. He lurched forward and hugged her tightly. When he stepped back, she rested her palm on his shoulder. “I’ve come to take the train ride with you, Luuk,” she said. Lotte, a mother of four of her own, felt bad for Luuk and took time to be there for him. Luuk suddenly felt confident. I can do this now, he thought. That confidence quickly turned to excitement. He started to think about ordering a soda or wandering close to the conductor’s cabin. He forgot about his room. His summer suddenly felt grand. Now light on his feet and ready to board, he stepped into the train with Aunt Lotte, ready to embrace the adventure.
Later on, after they arrived in her hometown, all Luuk could remember was how much she made him laugh and how he walked up and down the aisles, investigating the train’s cool compartments, without her. Out of nowhere, it dawned on Luuk that traveling to distant places wasn’t so bad. Maybe, he suddenly thought, now that he’d done it once with her, he could do it again alone knowing he’d not just survived it but had fun.
For more about understanding equine fear watch Training Without Fear with long time horse trainer John Lyons, equine behaviorist Jody Ambrose and UC Davis’ Dr. John Madigan at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caQi8shfd3k. To follow Kjartan, Ashlin and Allison, return to this newsletter each month for updates. Allison is a hair dresser, writer and founder of StretchEquine.com.