Trucks, Trailers and Loading- Oh My!

What is one of the biggest headaches in my horse life? It is trucks-trailers-loading.

My experience with this trio has varied wildly. I have had no truck and no trailer (these things are expensive to buy and maintain on a modest income after all). I have had a truck and no trailer. I have had a trailer and no truck. I have had a truck and trailer that I was afraid to drive. I have had horses that were terrific loaders at precisely the times I didn’t have a truck or trailer. I have had a truck and trailer that I felt comfortable driving at precisely the time that I had a horse that I couldn’t load.

What have I learned from all of this? I learned that a lot of planets and stars have to align just right for me to actually transport a horse from point A to point B. I firmly believe that a small miracle takes place when I actually pull into an event with my horse(s) in tow and my sanity intact.

My husband and I driving back from a trail ride on BLM land in Western Colorado, close to Utah. He hiked on foot with one of my horses while I rode the other. You can see the Little Bookcliff mountains in the background, home to wild mustangs.

Here is the thing. If you want to fully participate in the horse world, it helps to be mobile with your horse. Sure, you can attend events without your horse. You can volunteer at events without ever riding. You can borrow a horse to participate in said events. I have certainly volunteered and borrowed on many occasions and probably will on many more. I have had many wonderful horseback riding experiences on someone else’s horse. A big THANK YOU to anyone who has ever trusted me with riding their horse at a show, clinic or trail ride! I am so appreciative of your generosity in doing so.

At the same time, I have to admit that my most satisfying horse experiences have always been when I am able to attend events with my own horse. I have felt the most agency in my life and the most accomplished when I have set a goal with my horse to attend XYZ event, prepared for it, completed it and lived to talk about it afterwards. Sort of my own yellow brick road story. I suppose I feel that way, because to do all that, I have had to conquer a long list of fears. I have had to conquer my fear of driving a live load, fear of loading, fear of being at a strange location by myself with my horse, fear of competing (if its a horse show). It is a lot to face.

I have often felt that I never really know what kind of relationship I have with my horse until we start traveling together. There have been many times that my horse(s) and I were getting along great together at home only to have things fall apart when we went somewhere together.

Sometimes they have fallen apart at the point of asking them to load, and I never even got to participate in whatever event I have planned. Sometimes they didn’t’ fall apart until we arrived at our location in an unfamiliar, busy environment. It is a sinking, isolating, panicky feeling to realize that you have a very nervous horse, that you are having trouble controlling your own nerves and are struggling to figure out how to help yourself and your horse calm down at the same time. Cue the ever-present crowd of onlookers making disapproving glances in my direction. I sense the crowd is feeling sorry for my horse, wondering how he had the bad luck to be paired with an owner who displays such poor emotional control and horsemanship.

The worst part is, in those unfortunate scenarios, I know there is truth in all those observations. Those situations show that I still have much more work to do on myself. On the other hand, when I have put in the work to change myself and increase my skills to match whatever challenges I am encountering, it is really satisfying to see the change in my horses. They so honestly respond to what that person on the other end of the lead rope is presenting to them.

My horse, Bear, and I leading the way down a lovely Indiana trail on a crisp Fall day. It is hard to make memories like these if you can’t trailer your horse to the desired destination.

Of course, just like riding confidence, truck-trailer-loading confidence can wax and wane. I have had a handful of very smooth years where I was traveling consistently with my horses. Traveling became almost old hat and lost its drama for me and my trusty steeds. But then, something would change. A horse dies or retires. The truck is totaled. Finances dip and we have to sell the trailer. A long, harsh Winter arrives. The rhythm and familiarity of our loading and traveling routines have now been broken. I have to start from the beginning again.

Probably the worst problems I have had with loading is during the several years that I fostered a series of horses for a local rescue. I cared for nine horses, one or two at a time, over the course of three years. If I had help when it came time to load, I was successful. But there was only one time I was able to load a foster horse by myself without help. Otherwise, I needed a rescue volunteer (bless you, John!) to come drop a horse off to me or pick up a horse up from me and take back to the rescue or onto an adopter.

I even had one situation where I picked a horse up from the rescue and then couldn’t get her to back off the trailer to unload at my house. The rescue’s phones were down, and I had no help at home that day. I ended up closing the trailer and returning to the rescue with the horse. A surprised staff member was able to figure out how to move my trailer divider in such a way as to allow the mare to turn around and unload. That incident was very stressful for the horse and very embarrassing for me. Sure, I was using a very small, straight load trailer with mangers while the rescue typically uses an open stock or big slant load. I would love to blame my problems all on my trailer’s configuration. But I can’t even do that with a clear conscious. Another time, with a different foster horse, I paid to have a trainer pick up the horse in their stock trailer, drove my own trailer to the trainer’s barn and left the horse and the trailer with the trainer to work on trailer loading. I then went back a week later, the trainer showed me how she was asking the horse to load, I was able to load the horse and back home we happily went. Then while practicing at home, I was able to get the horse to load once and then never again. So clearly, I could not fault my trailer, the trainer or the horse. The problem was me.

Another piece of this difficult puzzle is that there is not a lot of emphasis on teaching trailering/loading skills in the horse world. Yes, you have some natural horsemanship clinics where trailer loading is practiced. The clinician will work with your horse first, and you copy what the clinician does later. Occasionally, you might get a great trainer to come to your house to help you work through loading difficulties as in the above example. But apparently for me, I need a lot more training. And that is a hard thing when there just aren’t that many opportunities to practice this skill in a learning environment. I wish that more lesson programs, horse camps, clinics, etc would include lessons on all aspects of loading and trailering.

All these issues can be magnified for the backyard horse owner. If you are often there alone with your horse, you don’t have help in the traveling department. If you don’t travel anywhere with your horse, you may feel an increasing sense of isolation from the horse community. Without ties to the horse community, you may find your learning opportunities stymied. It can be a vicious downward slide. I think about theses things a lot because of my own difficulties. Some of my thoughts have even been fodder for an essay entitled “Strengthening the Horse Community One Trailer Ride at a Time” that was published in the July 2019 issue of The Horse magazine. Here is the link to the essay if you would like to read it

So as I write this, I sit on the cusp of once again tackling truck-trailer-loading issues. Currently, I have one long-time horse who is retired, Bear, and another horse, Shiloh, that is still sort of new to me. I purchased Shiloh at a time when I had my trailer but no truck after an accident. If you would like to read about that time, go to the following link. It will take you to my essay entitled “Note to Truck” that Horse Network published on March 6th, 2019.

Practicing sending Shiloh into the trailer and standing quietly

I was finally able to purchase another truck almost a year to the day from the date when Shiloh arrived to my house (via hired help). We were then able to take a handful of practice trailering trips to a local barn. Bear, my retired horse, came with us to hang out while I did groundwork/rode Shiloh. Things went well. I felt like were establishing a nice traveling foundation. And then the Mid-Western Winter arrived with its low temps and lots of mud making loading and even driving the trailer off my property difficult due to the unpaved barn-area driveway. It has now been several months since we have trailered off the property. And did I mention that my trailer desperately needs a new paint job but finding someone to sandblast and paint is proving harder than you’d think it should be. I feel sad every time I look at all that rust.

I do have events I’d like to attend later this year with Shiloh. So I will have to get back into the ring again and fight my old demons. I’m never exactly sure if I am going to be able to defeat them. But I want to keep trying. Even though I will feel trepidation until I get my trailering mojo back, I do love the thrill of heading down the road with my horse(s) in tow, ready for a new riding adventure. I can’t wait to see what is up ahead.