Failure and Success — A Trailer Loading Story By Don Jessop
We started early enough. At least we thought we started early enough. 6:00pm seemed to leave plenty of time to get a horse in the trailer.
We were wrong!
Before I get into the story, let me first say this. There are many roads that lead to Rome. Meaning: There are many different ways to get the same job done. Without time to explore all the options, one is often left to fewer, more tact-less options. Time, or the lack of time, can bring out the true nature in any person who is willing to attempt a challenging task.
Why? You might ask. Why we’re we in a hurry to get in the trailer anyway? Basically, there was no other option. Either get the horse in the trailer, or spend the night at a facility that didn’t want us there. The whole was closing down. The operator had already expressed his frustration that he’d have to linger to shut the gates after we left. He, at one point, even offered to help us load the horse by stringing the rope through the front of the trailer and tying it to his truck.
I refrained. I am a man of integrity. Especially, when it comes to the horse. There is a right way, and there are a million wrong ways. The right way, is to preserve the dignity of the horse. Any other way, is currently beyond me.
It wasn’t always that way. There was a time, in my early career, where I would do just about anything to get that “stupid animal” to do what I want. I didn’t care if he got hurt, or lost trust in the human race. I only cared that he did what I wanted. Like a puppet on a string.
But I’m different now. Maybe it was the knocks I got on my head, from falling. Maybe, it was by hanging around the right people. Whatever the reason, I see everything different now. I see the horse. I see his mind. I feel her energy and thought patterns. I sense her intention. I notice a horse that is thirsty, or hungry. I notice a mind that is bound by memory or fear. These are things that didn’t matter before. But now, they are more important than anything else.
Standing at the side of the trailer, I asked the young mare to take another step. She hesitated. Then she pulled straight back with a speed that would normally pull a person off his feet. I was ready for it. I’d seen it before. I’d seen her do it several times that evening already.
The student standing next to me, who also happened to own the horse, stood impatiently. She felt guilty for keeping me after clinic hours. She felt guilty for bringing her horse to the clinic in the first place, given the fact she knew this trailer problem would be the end of her career with horses if she couldn’t solve it. She knew the clinic was not focused on the trailer loading, but secretly hoped it would come up. The clinic was focused on riding and now she regretted having come. She felt guilty for the ranch operator who had to stay behind and close the gates. Time was her enemy, and her enemy was winning.
She was tired, hungry, and ready for support. She willingly handed me the rope when I approached her. She almost threw it at me. Now, she stood quietly, but tense from head to toe. It had already been an hour. I saw her lean in every time her horse made progress. Her breathing quickened every time her horse reverted to normal resistant behavior.
I asked her to be patient. I told her it would all work out. I told her I’ve been in this situation before. I told her that every clinic has at least one horse that doesn’t want to leave. I even offered a joke, consisting mostly of the idea that once a horse attends my clinic, they never want to leave. She laughed, her tension eased, and I put my full attention back to communicating with her mare.
This mare had a long history of forceful and unhappy trailer experiences, including the trip to get this clinic. She was tired from a long day. She was frustrated. She was in the perfect state of mind, in my opinion, to discover that she could follow her leader. To discover that her leader cared about her, but also needed her to understand the task at hand. When most would give up, I gave her my all.
The rope slid through my hands. I had to walk toward her to keep the rope from burning my hands as she pulled back. She was determined, but so was I. The thing she didn’t realize, was how determined I was to show her how good life would get when she finally found peace in following her leader. Even if it meant following her leader into the hell hole on wheels.
The concept of trailer loading is simple. All one must do, is cause the outside of the trailer to be less comfortable than the inside of the trailer. The little nuances of pressure and release, timing, approach and retreat, rewards, etc., are the factors that either make or break the experience for a horse.
Twenty minutes earlier, we had successfully loaded the her two front feet. Physically, she stood half way. But mentally, I knew she wasn’t even close. She did not want to be there.
Given more time, I may have quit on that positive note. I could have put her away and come back the next day to try again. Day after day, she would improve. She would keep half loading, until we could trust her responses well enough to ask her to fully load. Within a week, with maybe ten to twenty minutes per day of strictly positive experiences, she would have been loading like a champ. But we didn’t have a week. We had an evening. An ever closing evening, at that.
As the rope slid through my hands I sank my feet deeper into the sand. I wasn’t frustrated. In truth, I was having fun. I love helping horses that can’t see humans as anything worth trusting. I love seeing them come out the other side. I relish the moment they, not only respond with respect, but with enjoyment too. I love seeing how a horse that “can’t” becomes a horse that “loves to.” How do I know that they “love to?” Because they show me through consistent enthusiastic responses, how they need not hesitate. But better than that, they immediately look to me for a treat, or scratch, or a bonding moment. They express no fear toward me or my tools. They know they did good. They know I love them for it. And they know that I love them, always.
She stopped pulling and gave one last lean into the rope, then bounced forward in my direction just a step. I immediately let go, stood up straight, and paused. It was as if the rope was made of rubber, and it’s maximum tension had been tested. She found, yet again, that her strength was no match for my perseverance.
Step by step I rewarded her forward progress until we, once again, reached the trailer threshold. I gently pulled on her lead rope. She hesitated, but within a few short seconds, stepped up into the trailer. Half way!
I attempted to give her treats. She wasn’t interested. I attempted to scratch and rub her head and neck. And although she wasn’t resistant to the grooming, she didn’t seem to value the experience. I found all I could offer her, was a calming voice and absolute neutral body expression. She needed time to think. She had to believe I recognized her effort. And to me, there were signs that she was coming around.
To my student standing outside, all she could see is a half loaded horse who’s likely to bolt backward at any moment and further drive her desire to be a horse owner, into the grave.
A minute passed, then I asked her to take another step forward. She hesitated, just like before, and did as my student expected.
Straight back she went. I followed to avoid burning my hands on the rope, but kept a tight feel. I didn’t want her to learn that pulling was the answer. I could only let go of the rope when she took a step in the right direction.
With a lazy horse, there is a moment in time, albeit very short, where rewarding the wrong direction is helpful toward inviting energy. Anything trumps nothing, in that special case. Once the horse is energetic, then all you must do is hold the energy until you get the response you initially wanted. This young mare, was no lazy horse. She always responded after a moments hesitation. In this case, it was backward… I held tight.
Once again, she ultimately came off the halter pressure, and moved in the right direction. I released and back and forth she went from half loaded, to frustrated bolting backward with a negative reaction.
Never beat a horse! That’s been my motto for years now. I’ve had to be firm. I’ve had to protect my space. I’ve hand to stand my ground, but since I awakened to the heart of the horse, I have not laid a finger on the spirit and the relationship we all want to keep with our horse partners.
In the past, her reactions would often fluster her owner to the point of resigning. Others would push back, and beat the horse into submission. Many would try to correct the negative behavior. I simply outlasted her. I knew eventually, she’d learn my intent was not to load her. My complete intent, was to teach her to respond with confidence, knowing it was worth it, knowing it was pleasant, knowing it was time, knowing her leader was someone she’d love to be with, even after the experience was over.
As the hours slipped by, the sun began to set. The ranch operators impatience disappeared and turned to genuine interest. He no longer had anything important to do, and he was enthralled in the story unfolding in front of him. “Would this young horse begin to believe? Would this story end well?” he pondered. He stood next to my student now, consoling her. Unwinding her tension with words of hope and uncollected stories of his own horse experiences. He was connecting dots in his mind that he never knew needed to connect. His attitude rubbed off on hers and by the time dark had set in, we were all having a good laugh when the moment would allow.
Clearly, the mare had been traumatized in regard to trailer loading. Clearly the rewards were not equal to the challenge in her mind. But as the dark crept in, her trust also crept in. She quit pulling back so fast. When she pulled it was just a step or two. When she came forward, her hind leg would rise to stand in the trailer, but often fail to achieve it’s goal. Each form of effort was rewarded with calming words and a kind touch until the moment of magic. She finally stepped all four feet up over the threshold and stood like a champion inside the trailer.
I petted her, I calmed her, I once again attempted treats. She accepted everything I had. We’d been through dozens of cycles of success and failure. With more time I could have ended on any one success and reconvened the next day. Without the time, I had to keep cycling through. There were many times where it seemed all would go well, and all would work out, only to have it fall apart. She’d go from trying her heart out to ripping my hands off in a moments notice. Each cycle of failure and success eventually led us to our end goal.
Many people get frustrated when a successful moment turns into a moment of failure. But that’s all it is. Just a moment in time. When a seemingly positive thing goes negative, don’t be afraid. It’s all part of the cycle of failure and success. With persistence, any horse will eventually find your leadership. With rewards, the same horse will love your leadership.
It was well past 9:00 pm now and she was on the trailer with all four feet. I turned to my human counterparts and said something that would have made any human do a backward somersault in confusion. I said. “Now we’ve got her on, I’m going to take her off and do it again.”
“What? Why?” came the stammering words of my two new friends.
“Trust me!” I said. “It’s the only way to see if what we have is real or accident! Sometimes a horse gets on a trailer out of respect, but not desire. They often conform out of fear. I want to make sure she is responding with desire. If I’m right, we’ll take little to no time to get back on. If I’m wrong, we’ll know the truth. I want her to be successful tomorrow too. Not just today. If we leave her on now, and close the gates, we’ll only be proving that we wanted her on the trailer. If we take her off, and ask again, we’ll be proving a much more important aspect of our relationship. We’ll prove that I care about her and I think about her. We’ll prove that I want her to trust me and I want her to trust that I have her interests in mind too. I want her to love responding to me.”
Reluctantly, they complied. They had their doubts, but their trust in me was growing too. I politely tugged at the halter from under her chin and asked her to step back off the trailer. She hesitated, as if she expected me to simply leave her alone and close the doors. Just a moment later she respectfully stepped back over the threshold into the moonlight. I paused for nearly a minute. I petted her on the nose and spoke in calming tones. Then I asked her into the trailer again. Without any hesitation she stepped right up. All four feet. Then, without hesitation, I poured my heart into my hands and praised her soul with a soft touch and a calming voice.
We closed the doors behind her, my job was done for the night.
As I said my goodbyes. I heard a mouthful of thank-yous and sorry’s. To each I responded, your welcome, my pleasure, and no need to be sorry… It’s what I do.
I never heard from the ranch operator again, although I sense he felt his time was not wasted. A week later I heard from my student. She said, amid a dozen thank-you’s, how she had never been so inspired. Each day since that day, she loaded her horse successfully. She even talked about how she dealt with the failure cycle a few times. I was pleased to hear it. I thanked her for her patience and hung up the phone just a few minutes after scheduling some more lesson time with her.
I’ve known her for nearly a decade now. Since that clinic we’ve worked through many levels of horsemanship. She’s an extraordinary student. One who is willing to fail, in order to succeed. I admire her leadership.
Thanks you for reading.
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