Mickey is not unfamiliar with traveling in a trailer. He has had trailer training since he was a foal (he travelled from WA to VIC when he was 6 months old). Since then, he has had routine trailering training to ensure that he easily loads in should he have to go to the vet or be evacuated in the case of an emergency: a real possibility in our area where fires are a grave issue in summer. Fortunately, there have been no such trips needed. As a result, Mickey is not used to leaving La Mancha and going to unfamiliar places. We want to teach him that there is nothing to fear or be anxious about so he remains easy to load and learns to be a confident traveler.
First off, Mickey’s first outing is not to a show. We know that he will be very busy processing new grounds, sights, smells, horses, people and we do not want to add performance demands on top of all of that. To get him accustomed to leaving home and visiting new places, we have arranged to take him to one of Manolo’s clinics where he will have a lesson very much like the ones he has at home. We could have taken him to a friend’s property or another facility for an easy ride also. The idea is to keep things easy and simple the first few times out, and make trailering and visiting new places, a non issue.
In preparation to taking Mickey out of the property for his first real outing, Chantelle took him on some short trips in the horse trailer (float) prior to the longer drive. She drove around the block a couple of times, over a couple of weeks which gave him a chance to familiarize himself with the trailer, the speed, stops, turns, sounds of the road, honking, etc..
Chantelle placed a bag of tasty hay in the trailer so he enjoyed going in to eat. This gave him something to do and helped make him comfortable while traveling. Since trailering is stress provoking in horses, making sure he had ample hay during the trip out and back also helped protect him from forming a gastric ulcer.
To prepare Mickey for standing calmly tied to the trailer, in months prior to his first trip, Chantelle took advantage of the situation whenever the trailer was hooked up to a vehicle near the arena on a sunny day. She tied Mickey to the trailer with some hay and tacked him up outside so he would get used to standing near “his” trailer. She made sure to open and close the trailer’s dressing room door near him to get him accustomed to the sound and movement of it.
Because Mickey is a sensitive horse with low thiamine levels Chantelle gives him a vitamin B supplement called B-Quiet. It is made by KER, comes in powder form and goes into Mickey’s feed daily. The benefit of thiamine is that it does not change the horse’s behavior- it just helps them focus better in general. It is not a drug an is safe for competition use.
KER also makes a paste version which contains magnesium in addition to thiamine and Chantelle pro-actively gave Mickey a tube of it since it was his first time trailering through Melbourne. She knew that Mickey would be experiencing a lot of sounds and activity he is unused to as well as share the road with a lot of large trucks that would make the trailer shake a little when passing. These are new experiences for Mickey and giving his nervous system and muscles some support helped ensure he arrived at his destination in a good state rather than lathered in sweat, stiff, shut down or on the contrary, completely hyper.
The purpose of taking these preparatory steps is not just for the benefit of the horse’s physical and mental wellbeing. It benefits the horse’s owner as well. By managing Mickey’s stress levels and ensuring he had a good experience, Chantelle felt more confident about the whole experience as well. Making the whole trip a success, having a positive experience, helped strengthened their confidence in each other.
Upon arriving at the facility, Chantelle walked Mickey for 5 minutes with the cavesson and bamboo. This is in-hand equipment he is used to working in weekly at La Mancha, and it gave Chantelle a little more control then a halter and the option to do some in-hand work to calm him down, if needed.
Mickey had a look around but was well behaved and quietly stayed close to Chantelle. Watching his demeanor, she knew he was ready to have his halter on and be tied to the float with hay. Even though he was behaving very well, Chantelle did not leave Mickey on his own the whole day. While he may have been just fine if she had left him to stand alone for a few minutes at a time, she did not want to take a chance on him becoming anxious, or breaking away on his first trip out. The idea is to introduce things gradually. There is plenty of time for a horse to learn to stand calmly alone. There is no reason to do everything at once and rush the steps. Much better for the horse to take each step slowly and observe the horse’s reactions, set him up for success.
After Mickey and Chantelle had a lesson with Manolo (we wrote about that lesson on another post) Mickey came back to the trailer and stood for about 30 minutes eating and then had a nap for about 10 minutes. This was his way of relaxing after having to focus and work in a brand new arena and Chantelle kept an eye on him but left him to decompress in peace.
When he woke up, Chantelle took him around the property for a leisurely walk and some grazing so he could explore and learn to be confident in new environment. She decided to tie him to one of the tacking rail across from a little pony so he had some company.
While she had not planned on him learning to tie in unfamiliar places during this first outing, the tacking rail happened to be just behind the trailer, in an area he had become familiar with, and in a sunny spot away from the wind, which was nice. To ensure it went well, she stayed by him, talking to a friend, ready to untie him and resume her walk with him if he had shown any sign of upset. This is all new to Mickey and creating a situation where he has to be corrected in counter productive to Chantelle’s long term goals so she is careful to assist Mickey not insist or punish him when she teaches him new things.
One of Manolo’s favorite maxim is “Know your horse and make the work as simple and easy for him as you can.” this applies not just to riding but to every aspect to horse care and management. It is much easier for horses to learn and remain keen and willing when lessons are broken into small steps and they are given time to experience new things in as safe and familiar a way as we can create. Preparing a horse at home for what he will be expected to do away from home, acclimatizing him to trailering, being tied to a trailer, introducing any new tack, etc…at home first so there are no surprises, keeping food the same, all of this are small things that make a big difference in developing confident horses.
Being prepared and having a plan also helps horse owners be confident. Having a several steps process ensures that both horse owner and horse can take a step back if needed or spend more time on one step then another. It is a recipe for success for both.
Chantelle reported that since his trip Mister Mickey who is a big baby seems to have grown up a little bit and has given her better and better rides.
However, Chantelle did not ask for very much the first week back at home because Mickey was more sensitive for a couple days after the clinic. This, even though she asked very little of him and he had no pressure put on him at the clinic.
Why? In Manolo’s experience, what happens to horses when they go out and compete, work hard, come home, work hard is that they get very worried and stressed from the constant pressure and high expectations. This is why Manolo recommends “loosening the horse a little bit” after competition so he understands that after a big effort, he will be able to rest and work more lightly so his body and mind can recuperate easily.
What does this mean? It means that a trip away from home is not just about the mechanics of loading your horse and getting him to stand by the trailer – it is also an experience that can deepen the bond between horse and rider AND if you understand your horse and the curiosity that characterizes most of them, you can create an experience a horse will want to repeat.
This leads to horse that sees a trailer and steps in without concern (and sometimes even quite eagerly) without his heartbeat speeding up or his gut churning – considering trailering is recognized as one of the most stressful activity a horse encounters in his lifetime, this tranquility in the face of the unknown is a priceless gift to give your horse.