Educating Stella – Part 4: Loading Lessons

The time had come for Stella to move from her quiet little sanctuary to my trainer’s barn, so we could start some real work. With a schooling show in two weeks and a clinic two weeks after that, this seemed like a good time to get her moved and settled in. I was a little (not a lot) concerned about whether she would get on the trailer, and made a few jokes about the fact that if she didn’t load, she’d have to stay right where she was for the rest of her life.

Now is a good time for me to point out a little lesson I’ve learned over the past two days: Don’t Joke About Things That You Really Don’t Want to Have Happen.

Sunday dawned bright and sunny, and I headed off to the barn to get Stella ready for the big move. I gave her a good grooming, took her out to play a bit in the round pen, let her graze for awhile, and then put her back in her paddock to chill. I packed up all of her gear, and sat down to wait for my coach, Wylie, to show up. About 10 minutes later my phone chimed. It was a text from Wylie. All it said was “Problems. Truck problems”. My heart sank. She called ten minutes later. The truck had broken down, and she was parking it at our friend’s barn, about five minutes down the road. I went to get her. The truck was, indeed, not going to be towing my pony that day. I drove Wylie back to her own barn and left for home, planning to meet at Stella’s barn later, after supper chores, with a different truck.

Now let’s all keep in mind that Stella has only been on a trailer once in her life, the day Wylie and I picked her up from Mountain Spring Farm, where she was born. On that day, after about half an hour of desensitization and quiet coaxing, she had loaded without any drama, and trailered like a pro. So I wasn’t really expecting too much trouble.

Wylie arrived with a (working) truck and trailer, and about two hours of daylight left. Plenty of time. And this seems like the perfect time to point out the second lesson I’ve learned over the past two days: Just Because Your Horse Has Been on a Trailer Before, Doesn’t Mean She Knows How to Load.

Wylie and I worked together, calmly and quietly, for, oh, about three hours. We tried everything we knew (and for Wylie, a whiz with loading unwilling horses, that’s saying a lot). We’d lost the daylight, the pony had lost her focus, and reality had set in. We were not going to get this pony on the trailer tonight. We did a little more work, got her at least to the point that she would put her front feet on the ramp, and then put her away.

On the drive home, exhausted, disappointed and out of options, I reached out to my friend, Michelle Whidden, of Slatehill Sport Horses. I knew that her husband, John, had taught all of their babies to load, and it was becoming obvious that this was a skill Stella desperately needed to learn. Within an hour, we had made arrangements for John to meet me at Stella’s barn the next day for her first loading lesson. I felt relieved, but still anxious. After today’s three hour stand-off, would he really be able to help?

I spent the better part of the next day with Stella. I wanted to make sure the events of the night before hadn’t caused her too much stress (they hadn’t), and that she still loved me (she seemed to). We played in the round pen, practiced our ground work, grazed, groomed and chilled out together. By the time John arrived at a quarter past two, Stella was relaxed and ready for work.

John swapped out my leather halter for a rope halter he’d brought with him, and instructed me to put some of the bedding from Stella’s stall into the trailer while he and Stella went off to get to know one another. I did as I was told, and then stood quietly by the barn door as John and Stella focused on the task at hand. What unfolded before me, in my tired eyes, was nothing short of a miracle (but of course, it wasn’t a miracle. It was just plain old good horsemanship). Within forty-five minutes, and without drama or trauma, my sweet little mare was going quietly on and off the trailer like she’d done this every day of her life. I was absolutely blown away.

“She’s a smart horse” John said. I beamed with pride. We set off for Wylie’s with Stella happily munching hay on the trailer. An hour later, she was tucked into her new stall at the Atlantic Equestrian Centre. Later on that evening I took her out into the indoor for a little lungeing. She was keen, happy, and none the worse for wear. The day had been a big one, but obviously not stressful enough to throw her off her game. For her, it had been nothing more than another step in her education.

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