My Mirror, My Horse

Chelan loading nicely, for Bruce!

By Kate Hester

What do you see when you look in the mirror? The average normal Western woman usually sees her flaws - real and imagined. The extra pounds, the less than perfect features, the misbehaving hair.

The reflection that your horse can show you is of a different nature. It takes honesty and discernment to interpret this reflection, but it is a truer one than your mirror will give. Your horse will show you your soul. He will reflect your strengths, because your strengths will become his strengths, and lend support to his weaker traits. He will also show you where your weaknesses lie - where your courage fails - "where your monsters live", in the words of Bruce Anderson.

One of the best ways to look in the mirror of your horse's mind is in the intimate confines of the round pen, But for me and my mare, this close encounter took the form of a trailer loading training session.

One day late last summer, I was making the one-hour drive to the barn where my young mare was spending a couple of months, being started under saddle. Nancy - barn owner, trainer, riding instructor and horsewoman of great ability - felt comfortable riding Chelan and teaching her the correct responses to the rider's cues. However, she felt Chelan would benefit from some round pen work and Nancy didn't feel she had the experience or knowledge for this. And, because Chelan is a larger than average horse, and Nancy a slender, smaller than average woman, there were some situations in which Nancy did not feel comfortable confronting Chelan on the ground. Trailer loading was a particular problem.

And so on that lovely day, I was making the drive to Nancy's place to watch Chelan's first session with a "really great round pen guy" that Nancy worked with often. And, as I was driving, I was rehearsing my introductory speech to the "round pen guy." Having made a few mistakes in entrusting the welfare of my animals to relative strangers, I intended to keep a close eye on this fellow, and my first words to him were going to be firm on behalf of my beautiful mare.

"Before you start, I want you to PROMISE that if I ask you to stop, you will immediately stop." Extracting this promise was my main mission, and without his assurances that he would honor my request absolutely he was not going to work with Chelan. Period. She is MY horse and totally MY responsibility and I had absolutely no intention of allowing anyone to do anything with her that I was not completely comfortable with.

I spent the drive rehearsing variations of this speech and soon arrived at Nancy's. I fetched Chelan from her stall, gave her a quick brushing and led her to the round pen. I turned her out in the pen and said hello to Nancy and met Bruce Anderson, the "round pen guy."

I had just said hello and was gearing up for my speech when he started speaking. "Before we begin, I want you to promise that if you see anything at all that makes you uncomfortable, you will ask me to stop." MY SPEECH!! Almost verbatim! "This is your horse and he is your responsibility and you must always recognize your responsibility even when another person is working with him. You cannot abdicate your responsibility for the welfare of this horse." OK OK…I had this lecture down pat already and began to relax a little. This round pen guy might be ok…but I was still a bit on guard waiting to see just how he would treat my lovely girl.

Over the next few hours, Chelan and I both relaxed and settled down to relate to Bruce and what he was asking of us. The particular focus of the session was trailer loading. Nancy had worked with her to the point where Chelan would nicely enter the trailer. But since I am invariably alone when loading and hauling my horses, I needed to be able to load the horse and then close the trailer behind her without having another person to assist. The object of the lesson was to teach Chelan to enter the trailer without being led, and to stand quietly while I closed the ramp and the door.

Chelan did not want to be alone in the trailer and again, Nancy did not feel comfortable with pushing the issue with such a large horse. She felt more than capable of dealing with any riding issues Chelan might have, but did not want to address the trailer loading problem. That's where Bruce came in. After a brief get-acquainted period in the round pen for Bruce and Chelan, and some review of trailer loading as Chelan knew it, our session with Bruce moved on to a different level.

"Do you want to work with her or do you want me to do it?" he asked. Wellll….of course I really would have liked for him to present me with a horse who would load herself on the trailer and close the ramp behind her! But I didn't want to say THAT and I didn't want to look chicken and so I said, (rather firmly and confidently, I thought), "I want to do it myself!"

For the next hour or so, Bruce coached me as I gave Chelan the go forward, halt and back up cues. Up the ramp a bit, stop, back off a bit - on and off. A subtle tug forward on the lead and tap tap tap with the whip on her withers and she would move forward. A move of my hand on the rope toward her throat and perhaps the whip gently bopping her chest and she obediently moved back.

After she was confidently and consistently walking into the trailer and standing calmly inside, we moved to the next step: asking Chelan to walk into the trailer by herself. I laid the lead rope still clipped to her halter over her back. The cues were the same. Only my position changed. Instead of staying at her head and preceding her into the trailer, I stood on the ground at the side of the door, beside the ramp and gave the cues.

This was more difficult for both of us. She wanted to swing around so that she was standing on the other side of the ramp facing me. My job was to turn her head into the trailer. Control her head and the body will follow. That was fine as long as she actually turned and followed her head into the trailer. But at times she got too excited and either stepped completely over the ramp into the vicinity of my feet or stepped forward onto the ramp and slipped on poop and slid off the ramp onto my feet. I began flinching and jumping back as I was asking her to follow her head into the trailer.

I had come face to face with what Bruce called "my monster." This monster lurked in the six-foot square area beside the ramp behind the trailer where I felt trapped. With Chelan facing me over the ramp, I was afraid to stay where I needed to be in order to direct her into the trailer. My baby - my monster. When she slipped over into my standing zone, I couldn't move fast enough to get out of the way. When she faced me with both feet on the ramp and standing tall above me - at those moments she looked like an enormously dangerous big black behemoth of a horse. All I really wanted was to get out of there and turn her over to Bruce.

Bruce did take over and when he had finished working with her a short time later, she was walking into the trailer with the rope over her back beautifully. I tried again and finally she loaded for me, and I triumphantly closed the door behind her! Twice!!

"Do you think you need to practice some more?" Bruce asked.

"No," I lied. "I think we've got it down fine."

"Do it again," he said. Then he disappeared into the barn.

Unfortunately, without Bruce to give moral support and instruction when I needed it, Chelan didn't load for me as well. In fact, she would only load for me if I would go into the trailer with her. When I tried to direct her into the trailer without me, I got boxed into my little standing zone and the monster spewed fire over my shoulder and did its best to intimidate me. He succeeded grandly.

After watching this absurd spectacle for a while, Bruce returned and showed me how to correct her position so that she was standing straight with the ramp and not swinging round to the side either into me or to face me over the ramp.

Bruce reviewed with Chelan the basics and decided that she knew exactly what she was being asked to do. But she was telling me that she knew that my monster still lurked at the back of the trailer. I needed to be clearer and more assertive in asking her to go where I wanted, and overcome MY fear. In other words, I needed to conquer my own monster.

Training a horse means teaching her about life. Learning about life in our world means learning to handle the many surprises, to meet the demands and requirements of belonging to a human, learning to live safely - in other words, conquering our monsters as they appear. We all have our monsters. A good horse will mirror your monsters, and show you hers as well. It's your job to recognize and acknowledge them, to defeat your own and to help your horse to conquer hers.

Our next test: Will she still load up tomorrow? I won't know that till tomorrow. But I do know my own monster is still hanging out at the back of the trailer next to the ramp and I have yet to conquer him, and I suspect Chelan knows that as well. I just imagine Bruce knows it, too.

About the author:
Kate Hester is a freelance equine journalist and regular contributor to Natural Horse Magazine. She is caretaker of their many horses from miniatures to drafts, cows and calves, chickens, llamas, and other animals at Lazy Dog Farm.
Bruce Anderson is based in Camden, South Carolina and can be reached at 803-420-6996.