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A Loaded Trailer


A Loaded Trailer

by C. Ashley Smith

When I dedicated my life to working with horses I did not realize it came with the concomitant need to embrace things like trucks and trailers and hotwire fencing. I felt the undeniable swell of passion and intuitive direction rising up and coursing through me and consequently, without thinking twice, left behind the corporate life I had built because it meant everything to me to bolster humanity by fostering greater awareness and respect for these animals. It is with a loathing nearly equivalent to that love of horses that I meet the mechanical, electrical and psychologically daunting challenges of the machinery in the equine world today.

I bought my truck a week before I bought the two-horse, slant-load trailer, and only a few weeks prior to departing Seattle, Washington for Valley Ford, California. The truck is a white, 2002 Ford F-350, crew cab, long bed, Powerstroke Diesel. I’m still not clear on whether that is the order in which I should specify the make, model and relevant particulars, but I had everyone at a recent dinner party making a game out of memorizing it that way, so I’m sticking to it. I recall feeling nauseous as I made the decision to buy it, and went through with it anyway, figuring I would feel nauseous no matter which truck I bought, so I might as well get it over with. I have since realized that with the colossal size and power of this vehicle, I could haul several cubic yards of granite rock AND my two-horse trailer if I wanted to, a feat not many other people I know can accomplish with their rigs, and one that I am fairly certain I will never undertake.

The trailer is actually a very fine specimen, in good condition to this day. I can state this claim with relative certainty because I have hauled with it fewer than a dozen times since I bought it three years ago, in pristine condition. I had every intention of taking my horses to various Sonoma County beaches and scenic trails, even offering to haul other people’s horses when need be. I felt convinced that in a short time, I would overcome my knee-weakening, heart-rate-increasing, flop-sweat-producing fear of actually using the trailer. After all, I saw trailers containing horses on the road every day, the drivers, often women of all ages, happily going to and from shows and trail rides with their willing, well-adjusted equine partners. 

Thinking about going out and hooking up the trailer to the truck was enough to incite significant stomach knotting. To me, the number of steps necessary to safely and securely hook up the ball hitch, chains, weight distribution bars, emergency brake tether and electrical power cord to the trailer systems was beyond formidable. Never mind that it took me a half an hour or more just to back my Ford behemoth so that its ball hitch was perfectly aligned with the trailer coupler, frequently getting out of the truck and running back to see how many inches away I was, groaning at my inability to back only one inch when necessary, and momentarily replacing my anxiety with exasperation.

I can’t tell you the number of times I called, texted, and sent photos to friends or acquaintances with trailers, desperately seeking confirmation that I was hooking everything up properly and in the correct order. I tried to make a checklist, but reviewing its length, excessive detail, and inclusion of obsessive re-checking of latches, locks and lights only exacerbated the core issue: my innate, inexplicable, extreme fear of operating a trailer.

To clarify, I am not afraid of operating a trailer. I have a pulse-stopping fear of operating a trailer with horses in it. Should I overlook or miscalculate one small detail, it could mean dire injury or death to the horses. 

In my line of work, one learns to control one’s own emotional surges by breathing deeply, proceeding slowly and purposefully, and focusing on the connection between one’s own body and the body of the horse at hand. In this manner, I was able to load my horses on those occasions requiring it. With two out of three horses, I was able to sufficiently mitigate my fears while loading them, and secure them inside the trailer with a minimum of resistance and no efforts to break out of the trailer once inside. With the third horse, there is a different story.

Taj is a highly sensitive and responsive Paint mare, twenty years old and retired from eventing after suffering a leg fracture some seven years ago. To say a horse is “highly sensitive” is almost like saying a horse is a mammal. They are all highly sensitive. The difference with Taj is that she seems to pick up on human thoughts and emotions and respond to them so clearly it is as if she wants to show people that she understands absolutely everything that is transpiring.

For example, one young boy was recently meeting the horses for the first time, and he asked about their sleeping habits. At the time, all three horses were dozing on their feet around us in the arena. I explained that they rest and nap standing up as they were doing, but that they have three distinct stages of “sleep,” the other two take place in different positions lying down. A few minutes later, Taj ambled up from the far corner, stood directly in front of the boy and dropped to the ground, demonstrating not only the “slow-wave” sleep position with her legs tucked under her and her head up, nose touching the ground, but then the fully reclined “paradoxical” sleep position on her side, legs outstretched and head against the earth. She sank directly into REM sleep with a nicker and galloping leg movements, thereby demonstrating exactly how horses not only sleep, but also how they dream as a bonus.

By the same token, if a new rider is asking Taj to move forward, but he is not focused on his intention, direction and commitment to riding from any Point A to Point B, Taj will stand still as a statue no matter what that rider does with his legs, arms and voice to try to “make” her go. She will teach a rider, however hard the lesson, how to be present, connected and clear in what he’s asking by simply not doing anything until he gets it right.

In light of her proclivity to firmly respond to even the most cleverly suppressed thought or emotion in a human mind, our experience together loading into the trailer had proven to be difficult at its best and dangerous at its worst. Taj typically balked and pulled back as we began to approach the open back of the trailer. As I mentioned, my own anxiety would emerge upon merely thinking about hooking it up, so you can imagine how much it would escalate by the time I needed to lead a horse into the trailer. I know full well that a horse feels my anxiety, particularly from its physical manifestation in my body, such as shallow breathing or not breathing at all, a rapidly pounding heart, and quivering hands. It is those physical aspects of anxiety that can be reversed by focusing first and foremost on slow, deep breathing, which in turn lessens the other symptoms and diverts at least part the mental focus from the anxiety to the body itself.

In my case, though I had been able to successfully load other horses, Taj sensed the tightness remaining in my mind and deep in my tissues, and her instincts told her to stay as far away as possible from the very thing that was the source of my angst. When I look back, I see it clearly as attempting to cram a horse into a trailer that is already full: full of all of the worry, paranoia, and other baggage I have already loaded up in it.

Taj had followed her balking on the approach with refusing to step inside, suddenly pulling up and back to get away, and even cow-kicking at anyone near the mouth of the trailer, including a curious dog. (Fortunately, she never made contact with anything but the trailer doors, but the action itself had been dangerous and intimidating.)

I had heard that she was difficult to load before she came to me, so part of the somewhat extreme responses to the trailer have no doubt included her own worries and fears. The day we had to load up to move to our new home in Petaluma, I remember taking this into consideration, and talking to her about the safe and comfortable place we would all be going to live together. I took deep, measured breaths and focused on all the things that would make us happy in our new home, and she moved up into the trailer with relative ease. It was when I went to tie her in the trailer that she suddenly and forcefully pulled back and sideways, slamming me into the wall of the trailer, my head following my body in a whiplash motion, causing what I am sure was a mild concussion.

Committed to moving that day, I asked a neighbor to helped me load her by walking several feet behind her, adding pressure on her to move forward and into the trailer, and perhaps the blow to my head momentarily had me concentrating on just standing upright and getting my vision in focus, which was enough to load her, tie her, and get the doors closed. It was seven months before I tried to load her in the trailer again.

Knowing that it would be important for me to be able to get all my horses into and out of the trailer, not just for trail riding or clinics, but in the event of a medical necessity or for the next time we moved to a new home, I decided to practice. I began by loading and unloading my other two horses, and, wanting it to be a memorably positive experience, I fed them each their bowl of delicious supplements inside before backing them out. It was with the second horse, Zorro, inside the trailer, hungrily slurping up his mash, that I noticed at least a half a dozen wasps’ nests hanging from the ceiling of the trailer, and a virtual nation of wasps commuting back home as the late afternoon temperature began to drop. If there is one thing that inspires more fear in me than a horse trailer, it is wasps and bees. Each time I get stung, my allergic reaction worsens, and the last time I was stung once on each hand, causing both of my arms to swell clear up to my shoulders. The swelling was so severe and the pain so intense, that my arms were completely useless for almost twenty-four hours and I was given morphine along with anti-inflammatory drugs in order to make it through the ordeal.

Zorro began to dance a little bit while he finished his mash, likely feeling the surge in my emotional energy. I forced myself to breathe deeply and keep my body as relaxed as possible. Zorro is a horse who will not leave his bowl until he has licked off every morsel of food and a layer of rubber with it, so we were in that trailer with the wasps for several more minutes, with me praying to the insect gods that they would spare my horse and me. Finally, Zorro picked his head up and I had us both out of the trailer and several yards away with only a few beads of sweat on my forehead.

Practicing trailer loading with Taj was going to have to wait until I found a way to get the wasps out of the trailer. A kind neighbor with a garage full of anything-ever-needed-in-any-circumstance offered me a beekeeper’s suit, but when we discovered some gaps around the head and neck, I settled on finding someone else to come help.

The “someone else” who came to my rescue was my friend and farrier, Rob. Rob is one of those horseman who is so even tempered at all times, that he can calm and trim or shoe any horse, mule or donkey, regardless of their past fears, aversions or habits. It is also nearly impossible for me to tell when he is joking, which I think is a constant source of entertainment for him. In any case, when I asked him if he knew anyone I could call to remove wasp nests from my trailer, seeing as all the professional pest removal companies would only work on nests in a house, barn or other fixed structures, I wasn’t sure if he was serious when he told me he would take care of it. In fact, he and his wife came over just after dusk a few days later, and I had fallen asleep in my cottage; an hour or so later I went out to feed the horses, noticed the trailer doors ajar, and upon closer (but not too close) inspection, realized the nests were gone and only a few wasps returning from the day’s work, looking for their old homes remained.

Eventually, well after the last wasp was spotted anywhere in the vicinity, I resumed my efforts to practice loading Taj in the trailer. I could get her in, but I could not tie her. By the time I reached for the tie, my fingers had become practically useless, fumbling, uncontrollable appendages. Taj would be justifiably alarmed by the tension, and, even in the middle of a bowl of delicious mash, she would immediately pull back and rush out of the trailer. I figured that if I continued to practice with her on my own like this, I would soon have a horse who was an expert at stepping into and immediately exiting the trailer. I also figured that if I could find a way to work through my anxiety, which was reaching phobic proportions, I would have a key to unlocking the tension and apprehension that inevitably wells up in other areas of my life.  Finally, I knew I needed some outside help. 

After explaining my situation to Rob and Robyn, his wife, they offered to help me, as they had acquired quite a bit of experience helping people load resistant animals into trailers at their small boarding facility. The component that was so critical was to approach the process in a way that would help me work through the anxiety, not just the horse. I wasn’t sure if I truly had a certifiable phobia, or just extreme anxiety that had compounded itself in me over time, and it really didn’t matter. Any fear results in the same kinds of physiological manifestations, which destabilize a person’s presence, mental focus and emotional fortitude. When the body is consumed and compromised by these physical symptoms, the mind gets derailed on its mission to stabilize, causing a sort of continuous, spiraling feedback loop that can be debilitating.

The day Rob offered to come help me work on the trailer loading with Taj, I had not had time to think about or prepare myself for the activity. I had gone over to his place to pick up a load of hay, the subject came up, and in light of the fact that neither of us had commitments that afternoon, I took him up on his kind offer. Immediately I felt my heart rate increase and the stomach knots forming. I was facing an afternoon of walking into the proverbial lion’s den of one of my greatest fears. I reminded myself then, and throughout the afternoon, that facing this fear and figuring out how to work through it would be essential to me in an untold number of future circumstances, and essential to my relationship with my horse as well as her future safety.

Walking up to, and even having Taj step up into the trailer did not prove to be inordinately difficult. There was some balking, and efforts on her part to swing sideways, face away from the trailer and thereby render it impossible for her to step up into it, but with the unwavering, balanced support and coaxing from Rob, we realigned and got inside. The instant we were up by the window where she would need to stand and be tied, the wave of fear hit both of us and she hoisted her nine hundred pounds up and out of that trailer in a manner that was physically impossible for me or any other human being to prevent by a strong hold or physical force.

Rob had the idea to really break down the loading steps and just focus on the smallest possible required pieces. The first goal was to have her take two steps in and pause, then ask her to back out. We alternated this task with taking two steps in, pausing, and then bringing each hind foot purposefully up and into the trailer. The next goal was essential: I needed to keep her with me inside for even the briefest of intentional pauses, and then ask her to back out. This graduated to asking her to back her hind legs out and pause, halfway out and halfway still in the trailer. I realized that that position felt very difficult to me, as it was akin to being in limbo, not in and not out, but standing and remaining calm in complete ambiguity. Here was yet another place I needed to step into and learn to embrace in that moment and in life.

As I still had not gotten comfortable enough to tie her inside the trailer, Rob had me assist in closing and opening the doors while he stood inside with her, and eventually tied her so we could drive the twelve minutes or so to his place, unload her, give her a break in the round pen, and then work on the process some more.

Driving over there, unloading Taj, walking around together in the round pen and then trotting together down the driveway, I could feel the adrenaline still pumping through my system. She was, in turn, full of energy, eyes bright, ears forward, head held high. For that short time while I was focused on our “break,” I was giddy with excitement and felt the joy of being connected to this powerful horse. As soon as we started approaching the trailer, the tightness returned to my body, and she began to attempt evasive maneuvers. Rob guided us through working on our steps, as Robyn and her cousin observed. I felt the familiar additional anxiety of being watched creep in and compound the anxiety about the trailer. All of the things that self consciousness is designed to do kicked in, making me feel like I needed to “hurry up and get it” or like “they must think I am a failure, oh my gosh, I am a failure…”

Seeing Taj immediately start to try to take control and walk me around on the lead rope jolted me out of my ego-inspired, psychological quagmire, and I re-committed to giving my horse direction, keeping her trust in me as a leader and a partner. We took another walk around and I even spoke out loud about how much I hated that trailer, which, at that moment and many before like it, was the honest truth. I wanted to abolish that trailer forever – to dig a hole to the molten core of the earth and back it in there. I walked around with Taj willingly following, releasing some of the pent up energy. I still felt like my veins were flooded with cortisol and like I was wound tightly enough to suddenly catapult myself into the stratosphere, but my fervent desire to get us into that truck and trailer in order to get us home anchored me.

Standing inside the trailer with Taj blowing warily through her flared nostrils, I held the lead rope in my hand and tried to force my fingers to push the rope through the tie ring. In that finger-wavering moment, I was engulfed with a sort of deja-vu, transporting me to a moment in which I stood with my fingers hovering over a line of hotwire fencing I had just strung up. I needed to find out whether the wire was hot – whether or not I had hooked up the solar battery and grounding rod correctly – and my little electrical current testing device never seemed to work. In that particular instance, I had my ex-husband on speakerphone, trying to talk me through it, telling me it wasn’t really going to hurt, especially since I was wearing a glove. He had done most of the work hooking up hotwire fencing for me in the past, and was doing his best to convince me that I could survive the relatively minor shock of current. I could not force my fingers to grab that line no matter what kind of mental conviction I tried to muster. In fact, what happened was, all of life’s injustices and my host of self-judgments rained down on me as I tried to compel myself to confront the wire, compounding my anxiety and causing me to buckle helplessly into a tearful heap on the ground.

Back in the trailer, I had a horse counting on me. I felt the searing of the tears welling up behind my eyeballs, but I was not going to let this horse down. It took me three tries. I would start to tie the rope and feel panic rising up, so before it could envelop my horse or me, I would undo the partial tie and slowly back Taj out, regulate my breathing, and begin again. Finally, with only the slightest tremor in my hands and in my chest, I was able to tie her, secure the divider beside her, and close the doors. 

I don’t mind admitting that I did let loose some of those tears outside behind the trailer. There was too much emotion bubbling over in me, and crying is one of the ways to let it run through and out of the body. I explained to Rob that I thought I was going to feel strong and good, but that I didn’t. I still felt somehow unsure and miserable. It was a surprise to me to feel that bad after actually accomplishing what I had accomplished with Taj. I suppose part of me was hoping that just getting her into the trailer, securing her, and even hauling her home could be the goal. The real goal was to work through the fear. I had only just begun to face into that fear; to plunge into it with mind, body and soul in order to change the pattern the fear had created would take a lot more than one afternoon. I was in for countless mornings, afternoons, and evenings of practicing something that was, for me, enormously uncomfortable and destabilizing. However, I had just proved to myself and to my horse that there was a good possibility I could do it.