Two weeks left until the clinic, and the prior and proper preparation continues.
I’ve been working on building up my endurance, refining my body language, and doing “level 1 with excellence.” I’m not trying to teach Rocky anything new, but am trying to bring my awareness into my body to do what we already know how to do, at a higher level of quality. This has been the Missing Piece for me and it feels really good now to start to feel the change when I get the right energy, the right refinement.
Hauling, or, the nature of fear
It’s the learning-to-haul part that’s been an amazing experience — an enlightening education about the nature of fear. I had no idea I would be so afraid of, well, everything.
First my fears centered about the trailer. Every squeak, bump, lurch, wrong direction of the jack, wiggle, and jiggle had my heart in my throat. What solved this was transforming fear into data: I’ve been obsessed with learning about trailers.
I have read The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, plus the owner’s manuals for Brenderup, Featherlite, and EquiSpirit trailers. I’ve researched lightweight trailers to see if anyone is filling the gap left by Brenderup closing its U.S. operations. (Featherlite and EquiSpirit both have models in the 2100- to 2400-lb range, but I’ve yet to find a 1550- to 1750-lb option.)
I watched the EquiSpirit videos about their trailers, learning in the process what the various features are for and why you’d want them or not. I’ve even learned about hitches, for chrissakes! And I took the trailer into the local Featherlite dealer for its annual inspection and maintenance service. Finally, I got two experts to verify that the clunking I worried about is just from the hitch ball mount, which is annoying but not a safety issue.
I bought a set of cheerful yellow trailer chocks to replace the firewood I’d been using. After all this information saturation — what Dr. Robert Miller, DVM, called “flooding” when he’s talking about imprint training a foal — I barely worry about the trailer at all. I feel like I’m part of the horse-hauling world, and that if Anything Happens, it will be because Sometimes Things Happen, and not because I did not prepare, practice, or pay attention.
My second set of fears focused on Rocky. Our first four years together were so full of injuries, lameness, and sore feet — and even in the past two years of relative soundness, he has hurt himself in the most ingenious ways — that I have been experiencing high levels of anxiety about him coming to harm in the trailer. Would he slip, fall, get stuck under or over dividers or breast bar or butt bar? Would he panic at seeing vehicles coming up behind him? Or, if I close the top panel so he can’t see behind him, would he panic in the trailer from claustrophobia?
Probably none of those things, but as we all know, the answer to every question about horses is, “it depends.”
There’s no rational reason for the extremity or the vivid nightmare imagery of my fears, but knowing that doesn’t make the fear go away. This level of fear is unusual for me and it has given me a deeper understanding of how much compassion and patience I can call upon the next time Rocky is afraid of something. Or, for that matter, the next time a friend or colleague is nervous about something that I have no fear about, like public speaking.
Seeing how Rocky is no longer terrified of the burn pile or its tarp, and how he’s also working toward a positive response to stepping on his rope to replace the panicked opposition reflex pull-back, reminds me that while this fear may be now, I’m not doomed to feel it for all the future nows.
The day at the rodeo grounds when he didn’t want to load up again, and slipped off the ramp and bonked himself and cut his fetlock, began to loom larger in my imagination than it actually was when it happened. It took two lessons with Erin and four days in a row of feeding him his breakfast in the trailer — and seeing him load himself at liberty the last two times, and unload perfectly straight — for me to be able to let go of the most extreme of these worries.
Again, saturating myself with data has reduced the fears from almost paralyzing to some tension and some discomfort. I’ve learned about how horses keep their balance in a trailer, how to ensure they have enough ventilation and why, where to put the hay and feed, how much water to bring and why, and so forth.
I learned the astonishing news that a long trailer ride is considered to be 5 to 10 hours — apparently the 3ish hours to Atwood Ranch is a relatively short haul! I’ve practiced wrapping his legs with polo wraps (he never got used to shipping boots) and ordered a second set of bell boots to protect the hind coronet bands.
And I’m practicing positive visualization, replacing dire fear spasms with wonderful images of Rocky traveling along the freeway in state, enjoying the scenery and the speed and his onboard meal.
I also had two days of worrying about the truck not being strong enough to keep the trailer upright and safe with Rocky in it. That went away when a) I read that my truck weighs 4,000 pounds, b) I made a spreadsheet that lists all the weight ratings and adds up our load and calculates the margin between actual and maximums, and c) I stood on the tailgate and the whole truck bounced just as much as it does if Rocky stomps around inside the trailer. I also had the oil changed so all the fluids and tires are topped off, and the cracked windshield replaced.
Oddly, I don’t have fears around having River in the trailer. I’ve decided to practice hauling with her, so I get experience without overdoing it for Rocky. Erin follows a 1-in-4 traveling-to-relaxing ratio — meaning that for every trip they take, the horses are loaded 3 times without going anywhere, so they stay relaxed about the trailer. If I do the same that still gives me four practice runs with Rocky before the clinic, if I feed him breakfast in there every day.
The trailer as a teaching tool
We spend a lot of time with trailer loading in Parelli, and for good reason. It’s an awesome tool for exposing the holes in your relationship and foundation, which helps you figure out what to prioritize in your ongoing horsemanship practice. But we don’t talk much about the actual hauling part. It seems to me that most people just load up and go, and everyone reaches their destination just fine, most of the time.
I’ve used all the strategies I can think of to help myself through this. I’ve used friendly game, breathing, accepting and making room for fear without letting it take up more space than it needs, approach and retreat (move closer, stay longer), talking with experienced horse people who trailer, and reading reading reading.
I am one of those people who can learn to do a practical skill, at least in rudimentary levels, by reading about it enough times. And for me, the more information I pack into my head, the more confidence I have when I actually do the task. (For others, all this data could make it worse, filling their heads with what-ifs that they wouldn’t have invented on their own!)
I have a strong belief that the way to help protect your loved ones from drowning is to teach them to swim, not to avoid the water. This 6-week intensive in fear management has been an incredible learning experience — to the point where the clinic now seems like a reward for all this effort, rather than the inspiration or the cause!