I’m up in the air, on my way to Columbus OH for Equine Affaire. Only had to drive through a minor snow storm to get to the airport today. With only a two-day turnaround this week and leaving on two back-to-back trips (from OH to SC to film the TV show), it was a very hectic two days. So now it is nice to be on a plane, high above it all, listening to Andrea Bocelli on my headphones with plenty of time to kick back and catch up on my writing.
I am excited about the new episodes of Horse Master that begin airing this week. Starting today, the first of six episodes we shot in Arizona in January will air—a new episode for each of the next six weeks. I was really happy with all the episodes at the AZ shoot, but I think this week’s show, on trailer loading, was definitely the best of this shoot. There’s a teaser for it on my YouTube channel http://www.youtube.com/juliegoodnight (we’re not allowed to show the entire episode) and as a result, this is the first episode that we’ve taken orders for—before it even airs.
This episode features a Thoroughbred gelding who won’t load in a trailer. He’s learned all sorts of nasty tricks to avoid the trailer, including rearing up, ripping his nose around and running straight away from you, leaving you dirt skiing in his wake—at least for as long as you can hang on. He was definitely a difficult horse, but not surprisingly, once his nasty tactics were proven ineffective, he gave it up and loaded up like a well-seasoned road warrior. Surprisingly, this didn’t take very long and almost all the training time shows on the edited episode (we might have cut 5 minutes at the most).
We knew from the horse’s history that she had owned the horse for a couple years and had made numerous attempts to train the horse to load, but to no avail (translated: the horse has had much success in NOT getting in the trailer). Being a part of the show meant she had to trailer the horse from Tucson to Phoenix—no easy feat. Before the trip, her vet came out and tranquilized the horse to the point that they could shove him into the trailer with little resistance. Of course, that’s easier said that done (picture shoving a 20# bag of beans into a mailbox). The only thing worse than a wild and fighting horse is a doped-up wild and fighting horse; and, needless to say, trailering a doped up hose is not an ideal scenario because his balance and coordination are grossly affected.
The horse arrived a day early and stood around in a stall waiting for his lesson in loading. As usual, we started the filming by getting the “before” footage—an attempt to capture on film the essence of the problem. Long before the gelding got near the trailer, as the owner led him toward the trailer, he was already displaying avoidance techniques by stopping, balking and turning his nose away. Watching her try to load him confirmed my suspicions of the typical mistakes that had been made to get the horse in this state to begin with. The horse was disobedient (stopping, going and turning whenever he felt like it); as she approached the trailer he stopped, backed up, turned right, backed up, turned left, jerked his head, stomped his feet and repeated until she gave up in frustration and led him away from the trailer to “ make another run at it.” Classically, with trailer loading troubles, she was rewarding his disobedience and giving him approval every time she led him away from the trailer. Needless to say, since he had so much success with his antics before (remember, all he wanted was to be taken away from the trailer—even if only for a moment) he would repeat the same antics each time she turned him back to the trailer.
Clearly the answer was to prove to the horse that turning away and backing up were not options and in fact, the only option, once presented to the trailer, was for him to walk forward onto it. It’s not hard for a horse to figure out the right answer when you eliminate all the other options. But when we escalated the pressure on him, he brought his antics to a whole new level and first ran off from the owner, then from my assistant, and then I had to have a come-to-Jesus meeting with him.
We did not know ahead of time that the horse had learned to throw his weight around and get his handler into an impossible position to stop him—as he high-tailed it back to the barn. I am not sure if you’ve ever had a horse that has figured this move out— fortunately, it is not that common. But when a horse learns that all he has to do is get his neck pointed straight away form you and he can pretty much drag you anywhere, you’ve got a real problem on your hands. Mules are sometimes born with this talent.
In order to gain control of the horse, I had to put a chain on his nose (in addition to the rope halter and long training lead), so that I stood a pea-picking chance to leverage his nose around when he made his move. He got away from me once (after having gotten away from two other handlers and running straight back to his stall twice) but soon I managed to check him and stop him dead in his tracks a couple times. When a horse learns to make this kind of move, the important thing is that you never let him straighten his neck. As long as you can keep his neck slightly bent toward you, you can stop him.
You’ll see on the show that after I stopped him once hard and he figured out he wasn’t going to be able to make that move, things changed quickly with this horse. Although we started with the owner leading him, then my assistant trainer and then me at the helm, once the horse was convinced that he couldn’t run off, he couldn’t turn right or left (because I wouldn’t let him turn his nose) and he couldn’t back-up (because my assistant would flag him hard when he stepped back and scare him into moving forward), he actually made up his mind quite quickly that going forward into the trailer seemed to be the best option.
Once in, he received a handful of tasty grain and a pet on the neck as a reward, was required to stand and settle, then we backed him out slowly (another problem he had was blowing out backwards once he did load); then we loaded him again. We probably loaded him twenty times with him almost trotting into the trailer, drawn to it like a pig to sh**. Once he got it, he got it.
The next day, the horse was to be transported back to Tucson via commercial carrier. I was anxious to hear how the horse would load into a different trailer, with different handlers. I was absolutely thrilled to hear that he walked right onto the trailer with no hesitation. I think the owner totally understood the mistakes she had made and you can see on the show that she started handling her horse with a new awareness almost instantly. He was a smart horse—therein lies the problem—he had learned the wrong thing.
As usual, as these new episodes begin airing this week, we are headed to SC for our next shoot. We’ll all converge on the SC coast, just north of Savannah GA, on Monday and we’ll film six new episodes in three days. It’s an incredible grind, but fun. We’ve got some good horses and riders lined up and one thing I’ve learned about the TV show is that there will certainly be some surprises, when it comes to what we will be filming and what problems we’ll be solving. That’s the great thing about horses—they always keep you guessing!
Until next time,
For training tips from Julie, visit the Training Library at http://juliegoodnight.com/q&a.php and check out her online store--full of training tools and DVDs-- at http://juliegoodnight.com/products.html