Most people realize that competing on the rodeo circuit requires a great deal of travel. They might give passing thought to what it's like for the horse, riding along back there in the trailer, but I suspect most of you haven't considered what it took to persuade the horse to hop into that box on wheels to begin with. Horses aren't exactly geared for walking into confined spaces with no apparent exit. After all, they are prey animals, and what better way to end up as lunch than to get cornered?
Trailer training is one of those things that usually just sort of happens on our ranch, after the horse is reasonably well broke. The day will come when we need to circle the far south lease and riding three miles just to get to the starting point doesn't make much sense, so we'll hook up the big stock trailer and haul the horses out. The stock trailer is wide, long, and has open slats at the top, so it's minimally threatening. Load the older, more experienced horses first and the newbie will usually follow after only a moment or two of hesitation. Once they're accustomed to the stock trailer, it's just a matter of progression to the more confined spaces of our rodeo trailers.
This week was different. We have a two year old colt that needs breaking and a brother-in-law willing to take on the challenge. Unfortunately, said brother-in-law lives on the opposite side of the state, near Bozeman. And, as part of his payment for taking on the colt, he and my sister get use of my parents' good horse trailer, which has been standing idle since we're all taking a summer off from the rodeo trail. So here I am, with an unbroke, skittish two year old and the most challenging of our trailers, and somehow I have to persuade him to hop on in.
If you pay any attention to horse training, you'll know that the current trend is to do a ton of ground work with colts, all different kinds of exercises in the round pen and arena until they will not only follow you into a bar just because you asked, but also know what kind of drinks to order. This is great. Really. A lot of horses are living better lives and so are their owners, but if you've ever watched this kind of training, you'll notice one thing right away.
It is a crapload of freaking work.
I mean, running around the round pen, sucking air kind of work. I am really not a fan of sweating. So today I present the Lazy Cowgirl's Guide to Trailer Training, aka How My Grandpa Did It. If you want to try this at home, you'll have to start by acquiring a horse that's never been in a trailer, in this case a two year old Quarter Horse gelding named Captain (whose baby pictures you can see here, if you're inclined).
Day One, Sunday:
Begin with the least threatening of the horse trailers, our rodeo trailer, which has no stall dividers or mangers inside. Park it in the lot where the horse is confined and tie the door open. For the first day, back the trailer into those big tractor ruts just behind where it is in this picture, which brings the floor to ground level and eliminates the step up to get in.
Place the horse's grain and hay inside the horse trailer. Walk away. He'll either go in there to eat, or he's gonna get very hungry. In Captain's case, it took about half an hour and he was in there munching hay.
Day Two, Monday:
Pull the horse trailer forward out of the tractor ruts so he now has to step up and down to get in and out. Put feed in trailer. Walk away. Come back for evening feeding to find all of morning's hay and grain cleaned up. Catch horse and lead him into the trailer as you put grain in the bucket. Try not to let him smash you in his eagerness to jump in and chow down.
Day Three, Tuesday morning:
Park the fancy, schmancy trailer in one of the horse lots. Tie open back doors. Put feed in manger. Walk away.
Come back for evening feeding. Find all of hay and grain from morning cleaned up, meaning the colt has been in the trailer. Catch ol' standby rope horse and load in front stall, with grain. Put grain and hay in the second manger for the colt. Lead him up to the back of the trailer and let him contemplate the situation for a few moments. Then tap him on the butt and watch him jump in for supper. Ease divider shut behind him. Voila! One colt loaded in the horse trailer for the first time, and happy to be there.
I am well aware that this hands off method is unlikely to earn me a feature show on RFDTV and a my own line of training aids for sale online. On the flip side, as you're reading this Captain is most likely enroute to the Gallatin Valley, his first ever road trip, and we probably didn't have a near marital meltdown in the process of trying to load him.
Besides, if it worked for my Grandpa Mel....