Lone Ranger Loads again . . . Finally
by Frank Bell
Chuck Brazier came out to shoe our two Arabians in mid-July this past summer. A seasoned farrier with thirty years experience, he was so impressed with our horses' manners that after finishing Lakota Breeze, my Angle/Arab he had some questions about training. He had a nine-year-old thoroughbred that he could not load. He'd had a couple seemingly competent trainers give it a go and while they did get the horse loaded, it took hours; but the horse didn't learn anything in the process nor did Chuck. And Ranger still refused to get into his four-horse trailer. The few times he had loaded it had required five big men manhandling him into the trailer. It was the same coming home from the racetrack two years earlier. It had been a real ordeal. Chuck was exasperated. We set up an appointment for the following week.
I arrived at the stable in the late afternoon. The wind was gusting heavily, which did not bode well for a touch loading situation. The trailer was parked in the middle of a large corralled area on flat ground. It was an older four-horse in-line unit, which could have had more headroom for a big horse as I sensed Ranger, was. I was then introduced to Ranger in the barn and immediately took a liking to him. He was a massive 16-2 black thoroughbred with a white sock front and back and a bright white blaze on his intelligent looking head. I led him into the center aisle and we got acquainted. He seemed to enjoy my touch, especially the eye rubbing and lowering of the head, which he complied to happily. I then drove him in and out of a stall from both sides. Certain he understood the driving procedure perfectly; we then proceeded to the trailer.
I walked him up to the trailer, positioned him right in front and encouraged forward movement. Almost immediately he pulled back violently and jerked the lead right from my hand. He pranced around the paddock like a standard poodle as we all watched. I was embarrassed and off to a bad start. He avoided the half dozen people trying to grab the lead for a few minutes and really seemed to enjoy the game. Once cornered he gave in and we went back to work. Again I positioned him directly in front of the right single opening and asked for forward movement. I'd wrapped the lead around the center post and when he exploded backward this time I was ready. He pulled back with everything he had for about fifteen seconds, then came forward fighting and striking with his front legs violently. I was safely up inside the trailer and watched his theatrics hesitantly while waiting until he was through with his hissy fit, then we started again. I started encouraging with clucking and kissing, then light tapping with the lead on his rump. He took a small step forward, I quit and rewarded heartily, and then we started again. This time the step was more pronounced, as was my reward. Before long he was standing right in front of the step-up, seemed relaxed, and ready to go it. But that was not the case. The coaxing from here only drove him to the edge again and he exploded backwards only to hit the end of the lead and hang there pulling back with everything he had. Now he'd checked out. His eyes were glazed over and he was in another world. I moved behind him and tapped his rump gradually more aggressive. But he wasn't responding at all. He just wasn't there mentally. I stopped tapping and moved to plan B. I moved into the trailer and unwound the lead from the post. Once he felt the release he exploded backwards. I stayed right with him, backing him hard with the lead under his chin while making a loud shhhhhhhhhh noise, making the wrong thing difficult. "You want to go back, we'll go back, way back and it won't be much fun."2 Finally he stopped, dropped his head and licked his lips. His routine was just not working out as it always had in the past.
As I learned later, Ranger had quite an interesting history. When Chuck got the horse from the racetrack two years earlier, there was a lot of baggage to deal with. The horse had no foundation. He wouldn't stand to be saddled. His ears could not be touched which made bridling a circus. And on top of all that he was a bad one to shoe, especially in the rear. Then when he was saddled, he was a runaway. It was a good thing it was Chuck Brazier who took on Ranger. Chuck came from a long lineage of horsemen .He possessed a good deal of common sense mixed with good horse sense. His Grandfather, Harry Brazier was half Apache and a whisperer in his time. Most importantly he did it the gentle way which had filtered on down to his grandson. Chuck had been Marine in Vietnam and had no use for violence of any sort. He'd had enough of that in the sixties. A gentle man, he always chose patience and restraint. I caught Chuck's eye as I finished backing Ranger. He smiled and nodded. His wife Anita looked worried. "I don't like having to do this, but it's required. He's been using this ploy for far too long and needs to learn that it just won't work with me. You'll need to learn it too." I informed Chuck and his wife. "No problem. We fully understand." Chuck replied while assuringly slipping his arm around his wife's shoulder.
I allowed Ranger to digest our session for a while, then we walked back to the trailer and we started all over. It was almost a replay of the earlier sequence. He'd get right up to the step-up and hang up, then flip out dangerously, way beyond the point of reason. Remembering a trick I'd learned from my friend John Sharp a fabulous Oregon horseman, we set a couple of railroad ties on top of each other and then drove Ranger over them to get him used to stepping up. Before long he was just flying right over the ties like small jumps and seemed to enjoy the game. Back to the trailer.
Apples and Oats. His favorite treats!
I'd asked Anita to bring Ranger's favorite food and she had a bag of oats mixed with apple slices. When he got his head into the trailer he'd find a treat. Not only was this a reward, but this would also help him relax. I'm not above using food to help horses relax in extremely stressful situations. So at this point Ranger had taken a few bites and did understand where to goodies were.
We walked back to the trailer. This time, using his momentum and mine we walked right up to the trailer and he took a step in with one foot. You'd have thought he did a summersault! I praised him like he was the smartest and most important horse in the world. AND he found his absolute favorite food in the whole world inside that trailer and only there. He took a bite of the oats and apples and before he decided to back out, I asked him to do just that with a little encouragement backward under the chin and a soft cluck. He stepped back out and was again heartily rewarded and allowed to rest on his success for a long minute or two. The peanut gallery was stirring and there were smiles everywhere. "We're over the hard part." I said with relief and a sense of thankfulness that there were no injuries. This horse had wigged out worse than any of the cases I'd ever encountered. Again we walked away from the trailer in a big circle, then lined up and walked directly toward the opening. This time he placed both front feet in and reached his nose way forward to find the goodies I'd placed on the floor. I allowed him to relax and chow down, then backed him out and did a replay. This time he walked all the way in. "More treats Anita." I called out. She hustled around and quickly produced a feeder of mixed goodies.
From there it was a matter of backing him out and then encouraging him to get back in. Within another five minutes I could not keep Ranger OUT of the trailer! Then I asked Chuck to take over. Once he got the routine down and the right body language, he had the same result. It almost became a struggle to keep the horse out of the trailer. Anita was holding back tears and shaking her head in disbelief.
What I Learned from Ranger
Every extremely difficult horse teaches me some lessons. Ranger was too tall for the trailer. He needed the momentum of walking forward to enter the trailer without feeling claustrophobic. Standing in front and getting in required a jump or a lunge that would force his head up and perhaps bump the ceiling. He knew that, but we'd missed it. Ranger also taught me to be flexible and keep looking for solutions which meant changing the game. Ultimately it was changing the game that made all the difference.
I instructed Chuck to continue loading Ranger on a regular basis. Absolutely the only place Ranger would find his oats and apples would be in the trailer but less and less frequently. He might just be a bit hungry when asked to go it. In the event that Ranger resisted I'd demonstrated a mild reprimand with the aggressive backing and a shhhhhhhhh noise or a firm "NO"!
Chuck came to shoe our horses today. He had a big smile and a sense of relief. "Old Ranger just loads like a champ now. He tried me once on the second day. I gave him a firm jerk on the lead and a loud "NO" and that was it. He walked right in and has been ever since. Oh, also I'm getting a taller trailer. Found a neighbor what had a couple big horses and now has smaller Pasos, so mine will be perfect for him. Funny how one thing just kind of leads to the next, just like finding you.