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Feel and Release, Part I

Published: 8/26/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

Last month, I was called out by a local equine rescue to load a horse. This is a pretty standard thing for me, getting called out to load a horse who has minimal education of the good kind, and scores of education of the bad kind. In other words, usually they don't lead or know a lot about day to day management with humans in a safe and respectful way, but they know an awful lot about things I wish they didn't.

Photo at right illustrates errors and challenges of trailer loading. This image is NOT of Amy Skinner.

After some creativity and work, however, they usually get in the trailer. I hope I am sending them to their new destination with a few new tools and a new lease on life. I've never had one not load, but, I've often wondered afterwards if I did everything in a way that I would be proud of a year from now. The answer isn't always yes, and I look back on some and wish I knew some things I knew now. This story I'm about to tell is full of uncertainty and brings up lots of questions for me:
  • Did I do the right thing?
  • How do I know what the right thing is?
I've learned a lot from some really great horsemen and women. But to be honest with you, the majority of important information I've learned has been out in the field, pardon the pun, in the middle of trying something that did not work. They say necessity is the mother of invention, but when it comes to horses, necessity can be the mother of observation. It’s learning to read horses and respond with appropriate responses.
This story is about Jack, an off the track thoroughbred, rescued in the middle of winter by Second Chance Ranch and Rescue. He was confiscated in December, 2014, from Cheboygan, Michigan.  He was skin and bone, aged at 11 and gelded soon thereafter. He went to the rescue and spent the winter putting on weight and living happily with a bunch of cute, single mares.
He was treated with respect and largely left alone to recover his health. He seemed sweet, happy and understandably herdbound when I went into the barn to catch him up. I thought: I've worked through some real hairy loading situations, how hard can this be?

He stood quietly to be haltered, and I led him out of the barn toward the trailer. He led decently, not amazingly, but clearly had been at least dragged around before.
The moment we left the barn, the whole scene changed. He was upset about missing his ladies, of course, but the feel on the lead rope changed completely. He went from dragging to running toward the slack and into me. I started into my groundwork thing, trying to ask him to step over and follow the rope away from me. But it seemed like the more I asked him to yield, either away from me or into the trailer or anywhere, the bigger and more combative he became.
He did load in the trailer a few times, but he threw himself in there with such force, like an angry dust devil, I thought for sure he was going to kill himself doing it.
Every time I opened my lead rope to lead him toward the trailer, or anywhere, he shot himself there with such velocity and force, it nearly knocked over the trailer.
So I changed my approach and had the trailer backed up to a small pen on the side of the barn where I let Jack loose. I thought it's be easier for him to understand if I loaded him in the trailer loose by driving him, cautiously of course, since I'd already experienced what happened when I put pressure on him. His attention was beyond the panel that separated him from his girls, and on one side was an electric fence, the other was the barn. I managed to get him off the panel with my flag and he headed right toward the trailer a few times. I thought: this is it. I am a genius. Problem solved. Everybody can go back to what they were doing and this wasn't so bad after all!
But before I could complete that thought Jack turned around and aimed himself at the panel where I was standing. Like a cannon.

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"If the horse does not enjoy his work, his rider will have no joy." - H.H. Isenbart