One Clinic Away from a Train Wreck

By Brian Baldwin, copyright 2008

A horse is being loaded into a trailer. It is more than a little hesitant to go into that big, spooky, noisy coffin-like thing that has no way out and no place to find relief. Out come the longe lines, the butt straps, the whips, and finally the all too familiar "wrap the lead line around the window post and crank that 1200 lbs. of muscle in with your impressive 100 or 180 lbs. of muscle and two lbs. of gray matter"!

Brian Baldwin
Photo by Mike Thomas, copyright 2008

Do the math; it’s at least a 6 to 1 ratio. The results: You give up after an hour or two, or worse; your poor horse launches in or out (usually both), cracks his nose on the top of trailer peeling some hide off resulting in 20 staples and a big vet bill, bangs his head, his hind legs slide under the trailer and he flips over, runs you over, or worse. I’ve seen most of it.

Please, stop and think. On your child’s first day of school would you surround her by an aggressive group of people with whips and ropes, letting them push, pull, drag, and shove her into the school bus? All the while watching her kicking, screaming, and crying. Of course not. And forget the hay. I don’t want my horse rushing back to the trailer every time I head in from the trail because he thinks that means the dinner bell is ringing! Conversely, I don’t want him refusing to load because he’s not hungry and hay doesn’t interest him.

Before a saddle club ride, a friend gets hurt while helping to unload someone else’s horse from the trailer. The mare pins her to the side wall, then knocks her out of the trailer.  She is taken to the hospital by ambulance; luckily nothing is broken.

These and other incidents prompted me to write an article about some of the dangers we commonly encounter when participating in our sport, and how and why everyone can benefit from the help of an experienced, qualified instructor, trainer, or clinician.

Tom Dorrance conveyed to us that our horses did not ask to be put into these situations, and they did not volunteer for us to be on their back. Tom was “the attorney for the horse” as he put it. Following in his footsteps are some extraordinary horsemen, most notably Ray Hunt and Buck Brannaman. I want to give credit to Buck and Ray, and Tom and Bill Dorrance, whom I did not meet but have read their works and watched their videos. And special thanks to my friend and mentor, Paul Dietz of Desert Hills, Arizona who studied under these men and is passing on his and their, skills, knowledge, and experience.

Brian Baldwin and Bronwen Barnett

Paul often says that people are "one clinic away from a train wreck." True. Too many people and horses get hurt needlessly. All too often the horse gets blamed when they are not at fault. I've known people and horses that have been hurt or are no longer with us. Those tragedies most likely could have been avoided by using common sense and good horsemanship skills, skills easily learned if the time is taken.

Further examples and fixes

Let’s go back to the trailer. In my experience, trailer loading is one of the most common challenges we face, and the hardest for the weekend horseman or woman to get the horse good at.

In both examples, the best fix is to get the help of an expert. He or she has the experience, the feel, and the timing to help the horse and you with the least amount of stress possible. The timing is critical. Being able to read the horse’s body language is crucial. It’s going to take as long as it takes, sometimes getting worse before it gets better. The professional will most often use nothing more than the lead rope to direct your horse’s feet and to drive them with. It’s not about the trailer; it’s about directing the feet. Much like driving a golf ball, you swing the club in the proper direction and the ball just gets in the way. A flag is often used as an aid to apply the right amount of pressure at the right time. The release (reward) is provided when the flagging is stopped. Knowing how much pressure to apply and when, then when to release, can only be learned by experience and watching the body language of your horse. A good trainer will “get your horse good” at loading, and then teach you how to do it. In the end, I have seen Paul sit in the driver’s seat of the truck with the horse on a 60’ rope, and the horse will seemingly load itself into a 32’ trailer.

As to backing out, your trainer will be able to set it up to where the horse can back out one step at a time, directed by your cues with the lead rope. Your horse will feel comfortable, safe, not bothered to the point where it has to rush out because it’s more than he can stand. He should be able to stand quietly with only the hind feet outside the trailer for a time. Then you will gradually direct the front feet to follow. It’s a beautiful thing to watch, and rewarding to accomplish for you and your horse. All of this applies as well to going in and out of the stall, a wash rack, or anything else.

Does your horse constantly walk all over you, push up against you, and shove past you? Are you feeding him out of your hand? Do you let her rub her itchy head against you? If so, you are extending an open invitation for her to enter your space. On average we humans establish a three to four foot comfort zone or buffer between us. (It is also maintained out of respect and for comfort.) Why then, let a 1200 pound horse come closer any time it feels like it? Through ground work, on a lead rope, your trainer can teach you and your horse to maintain a safe distance, with your horse coming closer only when invited to do so such as for grooming and tacking. A horse can also react out of fear and flee into your space if it is not confident in its environment. Again, a lot of groundwork and time spent with your horse will build her confidence in you.

When riding in a clinic and working on things like turning the hindquarters and front quarters, riders will frequently ask, "Why do I need to know how to get my horse to do that?”  Good question! Have you ever been on a narrow uphill trail when you had to turn and go back? That’s not the best time to learn how to operate your horse, especially if you’re riding with a group and there’s enough Arizona Cholla Cactus on both sides of the trail to fill a tractor trailer! Oh, you’re just going to get off and walk your horse. Okay. Can he be led long so he doesn’t walk over top of you? Will she stop short when the lead gets a lot of float in it? What happens if, Heaven forbid, you slip and fall? And if you speed up, will he follow that feel without a brace?

Does your horse stand for you while you mount? Does she walk off as soon as you sit? You are riding at the point where one foot is in a stirrup. If this happens to you, it is a dangerous situation and needs to be corrected. If your saddle is cinched properly and you’re not cuing your horse by inadvertently sticking your toe in his side when getting up, get help before you get dragged! Your trainer knows how to teach your horse to wait patiently on you.

If any of this sounds familiar, or you know others with these problems, don’t get mad, don’t get hurt. (Lessons are far less expensive than hospitals and vets.) Get help.

Paul Dietz
Photo by Bronwen Barnett, copyright 2008

To find a professional in your area, ask numerous people for a referral, friends, vets, clubs, farriers, etc. Then go and watch them work a few times before choosing the one that suits you the best.

Paul Dietz puts on workshops throughout the country helping all sizes of groups and individuals with their horses. For information: