Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The "Trailer" Incident

I've put off blogging about it, but I feel like this is an important thing to write about and document, as terrible as it is.

Learning lessons - horses are full of them.

This past Sunday, I had planned to trailer Annie over to the next town's indoor arena to ride. Suffice to say, things did not go to plan.

I'll cut to the chase and say that Annie loaded up just fine, but then literally doubled backwards and dragged me out of the straight-haul. She seemed frazzled and tense, but I didn't really play into her shit and loaded her back up two more times wherein she shot out backwards like the trailer had somehow grown teeth and bitten her.

It was uncharacteristic of her, as she had never pulled this stunt before.... And this is where I should've stopped.

This is where I should've realized a deadline didn't matter.

Instead, I loaded her back up again, a little annoyed and frustrated for her being so stupid about loading into the trailer. I  patted her neck before slipping out the escape door and tying her near the hay-bag I had sitting in the front manger. I observed her quietly and wandered over to go shut the back doors and do up the butt bar.

I hadn't even made it to the back of the trailer when Annie shot back and hit the end of her leadrope.

I watched helplessly as she thrashed at the end of her halter. She had used the long tie I had left for her to her advantage and both hind legs were dancing near the ramp. She was heaving hard, legs flailing and slipping. She even bashed her skull off one of the sidewalls.

I haven't witnessed anything like that in my life, so it was exceptionally violent and horrifying to watch. I jumped to the front door and attempted to undo the quick release knot, but she had pulled it so tight it wouldn't budge (FYI the leadrope is still stuck in the trailer).

The next few minutes seemed to drag on as I darted around the trailer, trying to figure out if I had a knife big enough and sharp enough to cut through the leadrope (I didn't). And I even debated running onto the road to call a friend (no service), but stayed with Annie for fear of her slipping and falling onto her sides - not that I would've been able to do anything if that had happened.

I just watched, waiting for her to stop so I could help her. With all the thrashing, my truck bounced and rolled back with the weight of her body slamming back and forth.

It felt like hours, but she finally stood, still pulling back as hard as she could on the halter. I attempted to tug her forwards so I could undo the halter snap, but it was so taut that I couldn't budge the clip. I couldn't even undo the rope halter from above her ears - to be fair, I avoided getting too close in case she decided to thrash around again.

And like fate would have it, as soon as I stood back to think, she started to thrash again.

From the day after.
At the end of this fit, she was breathing heavily and I realized the rope halter was pressing very hard under her throat. She started to weave back and forth, her four legs on the ramp of the trailer, and I realized very quickly that she was (probably) going to faint.

I ran to her haunches and without even thinking, pushed her hind-end as hard as I could in an attempt to get her to relieve the pressure under her jaw. I don't know if she was going to actually faint, or if she was just really tired, but I wasn't sure what would happen if I let her stay like that with the rope taut. Luckily, she staggered forwards, heaving big gulps of air. I ran to the escape door and tugged her forwards before she knew what I was doing, and unclipped her.

Both of us stood there, quivering with a rush of anxiety. She was heaving hard, her eyes wide and glassed over. I looked down at her legs and saw blood beginning to dribble down her hinds. I patted her neck, stroking my hand across her shaking body, telling her she was such a good girl and I was sorry.

I walked away from the trailer with acid in my throat and a painful knot wrenching in my stomach. Once back at the barn, as calmly as I could, I assessed her entire body and found the damage to be in large quantity but thankfully superficial. Most of the wounds tarnished her hind-left, but were also found on her face and hind-right.

Hind left- most are superficial save for one lower down.

Her hind right.

Her poor face :(
We walked back to the trailer and I jogged her - she was sound. She blew hard as we got closer, but walked up into the trailer when I asked her. She loaded the entire way, with me standing in there with her. I praised her to the moon and back before she unloaded and we walked back to the barn.

I tied her without saying a word and began to mix up some bute. As I offered it to her, and watched her eat, I sat on the ledge of the stall door and cried. Hard.

As bad as this sounds, I couldn't stand being at the barn for a second longer. My phone was out of service and I was unable to reach anyone that could come out and give me some moral support. I felt like I was going to vomit. My heart was still thudding hard and my hands felt cold and clammy despite the rising heat along the nape of my neck.

Doctoring an injured (albeit mildly) horse, was not going to happen.

So I finished assessing her, made sure she had her bute, and turned her back into the paddock before calling the boyfriend on the drive home.

As I arrived home, the Boy greeted me and I collapsed into his arms in a mess of frustration, anger, and embarrassment. When I had righted myself (and he agreed to go back to the barn with me), we headed back out to doctor Annie up. He drove, mostly because I was shaking and the feeling in my stomach kept doing flips like a dolphin at SeaWorld. We didn't even unhook the trailer.

Annie seemed pleased to see us when we arrived and I pulled her out and tied her. She danced and fidgeted, unable to calm herself. No doubt, she had a terrifying morning and was beyond the point of being riled up. The Boy ended up having to hold her because she kept dancing away from me, and at one point, into me (which knocked me onto my butt on the ground). 

She was cold-hosed, medicated and wrapped where a few of the wounds were a little deeper before being released back into the paddock.

Excuse the pasture - it's still defrosting :/
I had already taken the bandage from her hind left off, as it
was slouching due to the area the wound was located.
I'm not huge on stall-rest, unless it's really needed, but felt movement would be the best thing for keeping any swelling at bay.

That day, I cried and told myself I was going to sell her. Not because she is a bad horse, but because I'm scared of ruining her.

The unfortunate thing is that I've already ruined her. And I'm ashamed to admit I don't know what to do from here.

So I called a friend and teacher - one of my old 4-H leaders for advice. I admitted how foolish and stupid I had been, and how embarrassed I was about the entire situation. Apparently, 4-h leader has "been there". In that moment, my shot self-confidence didn't feel too poorly.

She gave me a good game plan to work on, and we've already started.

Snuffling for cookies.
As far as I am concerned, Annie is now restarting her trailer training. We have no pressing deadlines, nowhere to be, and we will work on this as long as it takes her. The idea is similar to the one Emma spoke about for her guy - one step at a time (literally), lots of treats, and ending before she gets to that "bolting" point.

I hauled the trailer out this morning, keen on giving Annie some confidence in me (and my trailer) back. She was quite worried as I walked her over, but I kept the leadrope slack and let her choose to join me, or not. We paused once or twice for her to look at the trailer when she halted - this isn't going to be a "force" thing, she is the one who decides when she is ready.

We made it up to the trailer, and I walked up into it. Much to my surprise, she followed on a completely loose lead and stepped a tentative hoof up onto the ramp. She quivered, uncertain what to do next so I fed her a treat, asked her to back off, and repeated.

Our "Trailer Dance" is something like:
  • Cathryn walks on.
  • Annie follows as far as she wants.
  • Annie gets treat.
  • Annie stands quiet for more treats and BEFORE she decides to bolt backwards, I ask her to back up.
  • Annie gets more treats and a mental break.
  • Cathryn walks back onto trailer.
  • Repeat.
 At one point, she refused to step onto the ramp, so I just waited and she threw her head down and really sniiiiiiffed the ramp before putting a hoof onto it. I actually laughed.

And as we moved onto her two fronts coming closer to the trailer, I gave a little tug on the leadrope to see if she would come closer. She stiffened immediately and went to pull back (usually what she does before she bolts backwards), but I loosened the leadrope, told her to whoa and fed her more treats. She chose to stand quiet and I backed her off the ramp.

Our little shuffle didn't result into any miraculous trailer loading - she really only put her two fronts on the ramp.

But, it's something.

She looks really, really homely from being dirty and shedding.
And her back looks weirdly hollow for some reason...
Regardless, we spent some time just bonding today.
And what gives me hope is when she stood with her fronts on the trailer and I clucked at her, cooing her to come closer, she stiffened and craned her neck before very tentatively, inched her way fowards. Her front right stepped right where the ramp meets the trailer and I very quickly praised her, backed her off and fed her tons of treats.

I decided to end it there - she really wanted to back-pedal when I asked her to come closer but instead chose to face her fears. That is more than I can ask for.

The boyfriend had also recommended investing in some panic snaps (or quick release snaps) to prevent this very situation.

My pride is still hurt and I am upset I put Annie in that situation and that things ended very, very poorly. It may not be one of my proudest moments, but it was a learning curve and thankfully no one was too seriously hurt. For the matter of confidence and trust, Annie is going to need time to trust me again and I think I'm OK with that.

We'll chip away at it, together.


  1. Oh no. We've all been there, where you're distracted, in a hurry and don't quite listen well enough and things go sideways fast. It sounds like you have a great game plan to get back on track.

    And on the topic of "ruining" Annie. I think you should go read (or reread) Megan's Screw Up With Confidence post ( We all screw up our horses. It just a matter of how you handle it. And for the record, it sounds like you handled the aftermath just fine. And panic snaps are a great idea. My trailer ties all have them.

  2. omg that's so scary - what a relief it didn't end worse! and good on you for reaching out to a trusted advisor afterward.

    since you linked to one of my (many) posts on the subject of trailer loading above, i want to clarify that our training did not begin with a trailer. in fact, it began with a professional in an arena doing ground work. and the ground work was (and continues to be) a continual practice to ensure the horse is responding to me and mycues, and not the environment around him. does the horse yield to pressure? do you have a cue to send the horse forward? incidentally, it did not involve any treats (tho my horse gets a bucket of food inside the trailer once he's loaded) the process started here:

    personally, for me, anything having to do with the trailer is so much riskier with regard to accidents or potential injury than many other things we do with horses and it is absolutely critical that we do what we can to mitigate that risk. seems like you're beginning that work with the practice. other risk mitigation techniques include avoiding ever tying a horse in a rope halter (since they don't break) and not tying the horse on the trailer when the butt bar is down (since... well. you already know what happens there).

    i'm sorry that this happened to you bc it sounds horrifying. and i hope that similar experiences can be avoided in the future. the ground work and slow steady incremental practice isn't glamorous. and often isn't even really that fun or interesting. and it feels like it takes forever. but hopefully it can prevent the type of avoidable catastrophe that could otherwise unfold in the blink of an eye.

    1. also - bc this whole 'ground work' thing is honestly pretty new to me and i've had very little formal training in how to be effective, i wrote a dreadfully dry and boring, but very detailed description of the exercises the NH pro taught me. these are all things that can be practiced anywhere, in any weather conditions, and even in fairly small spaces - and they can all help in teach the horse to move off your cues in ways that will only improve the trailer loading experience. good luck!

    2. Thank you so much for linking more blog posts about your trailer-loading adventure. I feel like the way you did it was so methodical and it's something I aspire to mirror with Annie.

      We have added some other ground-work into our regime to start "piecing" things together as it were.

  3. Oh that's scary! I've been in a scary trailer accident before, and it really shakes you up. I think taking things back to basics and keeping patience at the forefront is a great attitude to have going forward.

    May I suggest velcro release trailer ties? <a href=">Like these.</a> They were a lifesaver when my horse's halter didn't break away in the accident we had. I was able to simply rip the velcro and release him, without him having to move at all. Those snaps are great, but can sometimes get stuck under pressure.

    1. Thank you for being honest and sharing your own experiences.

      And I saw those!! I actually have another item that is in my shopping cart at the moment - they are called "Safe T Ties".

  4. Yes we've been there. Your reaction (I think) was a result of feeling helpless and panicked and all alone. I recognize the symptoms. I suspect that when you left to do up the bar she tried to follow and then panicked.

    However, it was not all awful and you are doing the right things. Okay it was awful BUT Annie learned to go forward for release not back and that is important.

    I am no groundwork expert but I do a LOT of it and it is invaluable. Here are some things that I've done with Carmen and if they seem useful use them (and I'm okay if you don't even want them - just skip over my comment):
    -Teach Annie to give to pressure to the poll. It's best to that in hand with a lead rope and gloves. Start with just gentle pressure when she's calm and as soon as she comes forward release. As she learns to come forward you can up the ante and even do it as a 'surprise' - which will mimic what happens if she startles when tied. Her instincts need to be to go forward not back. It took Carmen a long time to figure this out but she has it.
    2. When I put Carmen into her stall I always say 'go in' and let her go in without me. This is because I do the same thing in the trailer- I send her on and do up the butt bar and then tie her (she has done something similar to Annie but I had the 'breakaway' trailer ties and they did just that- I do recommend them.
    3. can you use a rope halter with a leather crown piece? I know nothing of them but the leather will break if it gets really bad.
    4. teach her to tie. I know she stands tied but there is something missing in her training because she flipped out. I don't know what it is but it would be worth exploring to make sure that all the t's are crossed and the i's dotted.

    Do not beat yourself up. Mistakes are inevitible- especially with young horses and there's no need for judgement- just help.

    1. Thank you so much for your suggestions!
      I've started to add a little "go in" button into her, and have added that to our ground-work regime.
      I want to keep using the rope halter with her, without a leather crown piece simply because (I know this is going to sound really, really awful), I don't want her to learn she can break her halters. If you look at the comment above, I'm investing in some "Safe T Ties" which acts kind of like binder twine and will snap under pressure which is what I'm looking for VS her breaking halter crowns.

      And you are right - there are holes in her training re: tying (and a few other things, lol). We are working towards it though :)

  5. Oh, I am so sorry you went through that. Don't worry though, sometimes really horrible stuff teaches us the most and so much good can come out it. My previous mare was badly injured in a trailer by someone I had hired to trailer her. Once she was recovered and back to being able to go anywhere (a whole year!) it then took me SIX months to even get a single hoof in the trailer. It took a lot of patient ground work away from the trailer to build her complete trust in me and then all of those six months to get two front hooves in. No forcing, just pressure and release, ask and reward, and mostly wait. As a side note, I always keep one of those retractable cutting knives in my trailer storage. Like they say in girl guides, always be prepared, right? :)

    1. Ouch, sorry to hear that :(

      I am hoping Annie's confidence didn't get too shot from this ordeal. We will take it slow and gradual tho!

  6. Ugh! I'm so sorry you all had a bad experience. That's the worst and so stressful.

  7. Chiming in with your bf and others that quick release safety ties are probably in your shopping cart. So sorry that that happened, stuff with the trailer can be mighty scary and I have had my share of bad trailering experiences with the horse that should have been fine with it.

    1. They are!
      I'm also purchasing some "Safe T Ties" as well.

      It was an unfortunate learning lesson, at the expense of poor Annie. :/

  8. I'm so sorry that happened. Having gone through misery with Nilla trailering I can totally sympathize. I'd second what Teresa said; it seems like she has a tying issue and not really a trailering issue although she might now have some bad associations with the trailer. But don't beat yourself up about it. You certainly haven't ruined her. She just had a bad experience. That happens to everyone.

    1. I actually thought of your trailering issues with Nilla! Although they are quite different, I had a feeling you could sympathize with me on this.

      We are working on the whole tying thing in addition to the whole "trailering" thing. Holes in training are no fun, but it's time to start to fill them up so she has more tools in her toolbox to deal with anxious or high-stress incidents.

  9. I'm just sorry you had such a bad experience. It's hard with new young horses, figuring out what they know/don't know. I'm sorry the whole not being solid about tying thing was exposed in such awful fashion :( I have total faith that this is 100% fixable. It's unfortunate it happened in the trailer, but we've all been there with the panicky tied horse at one point or another and I've never seen it become a forever issue with further positive experience :)

    1. We'll work at it methodically and slowly - she'll get there (and so will I lol)

  10. Sounds like a terrifying experience -- glad everyone walked away. You've gotten a ton of really good advice above so I don't really have anything to add, but sounds like you've reached out to some mentors and have a good game plan moving forward!

    1. We are both very lucky in this situation, for sure.

      Thanks for your supportive comments I appreciate it.

  11. This is a very hard way to learn a lesson, and I am glad neither of you was hurt worse. Sadly, I see a lot of people make this and similar mistakes during trailer loading, and I end up making a lot of money fixing these mistakes after they've already been made. You are not alone, and it sounds like you are taking the steps you need to remedy this situation. This is an entry every horse owner should read.

    1. Thank you for your comments and support.

      I think a lot of people have made this mistake, but just haven't admitted to it or talked about it. Even a well-seasoned horse can react negatively to the trailer and a similar incident could have occured. Of course, I am the one at the end of the day with mud on my face and a situation to correct. It's something I wanted to avoid blogging about... but I feel like maybe it'll help someone down the road.

  12. You poor thing. Trailer accidents are horrible. In Aus we never tie until the butt bar is secure. I have been involved in one bad accident. Only I was injured. Needless to say I hadnt secured the bar before tying. Self loading is safer because you are always at the back.

  13. I know I'm late to this conversation (still trying to get caught up) but thought I would just let you know that, like so many others on here, I too have had that bad experience. Mine was a little different in that Violet was in the front of a 4 four slant load, I undid the swinging door and went to the wrong side of her halter (far side) and she actually reared up pinning me in the corner of the trailer. All I could do was shriek like a baby which I'm sure scared her more. She had a leather halter on (thank god) and broke free with just a couple of scrapes on her face, but I shook for a week. And I'm still not allowed to load or unload her. Mind you, this was over 3 years ago. And it didn't ruin her. She loads like a champ. Just takes some patience, which is sounds like you are giving her in spades. You guys will be just fine.

    1. Wow!! It is crazy how many people have similar stories!! Thank you for sharing yours