In which there is a rooster tail of mud and manure

[Content Warning: Horses and related strong language.]

Left: Willow the Uncatchable, Right: Nova the Unloadable

I have one horse I can’t catch and one who won’t get in a horse trailer. This is a big problem when I need both of them to get in a horse trailer, as I did this past weekend.

I moved to Seattle from the mountain top back in March of this year, and thanks to collaboration with the Firefighter (as he’ll now be known) and our amazing neighbors my girls were able to stay in their mountainy canyon paradise until last weekend. They moved to an enchanted forest full of delicious green things though, so don’t feel too bad for them. The canyon is mostly covered with dry brown things this time of year, and will soon be covered in cold white stuff.

Traveling with horses will fall on the Fucking Around Scale somewhere between “not very much fucking around, but some” and “total and complete fuckery.” My girls and I ended up as far-right outliers this weekend with record-setting (in my experience) amounts of fuckery.

When the Firefighter and I left the mountain top, he got the truck and I got the horse trailer. I have no hard feelings about this situation, but it does complicate equine travel a bit. Fortunately, he’s a wonderful human and let me borrow the rig for the weekend. The trailer was parked at the neighbor’s where the ponies were staying, so while it took a little fucking around to acquire the truck and get to the trailer and horses, it wasn’t very much fucking around all things considered.

The Engineer and I arrived in the canyon on Saturday, and had a lovely afternoon and evening with good friends, good ponies, and good food. We slept well, aside from the utterly apocalyptic thunderstorm that visited in the middle of the night. We all got up early Sunday morning, ate more of the neighbor’s spectacular cooking, and got to work on the expected fucking around by 9.

The Engineer and I got the trailer hooked to the truck with very minimal fucking around, and I managed to maneuver it somewhat adeptly (in my humble estimate) to get it facing in the right direction. I imagine the Firefighter may have chuckled to himself when he parked it there, knowing my tendency to sweat profusely when backing a trailer in tight confines.

This has to be where I ultimately went wrong. After I got the truck and trailer turned around, I turned to the Engineer and said, “Well that was probably the crux of the whole trip!”

After we got the truck and trailer in position, I set out to catch the horses. I had to hike out to find them in the neighbor’s big pasture, but with a bucket of oats I was soon affectionately mobbed by five enthusiastic 1000-pound friends. I got a halter on Nova, the horse I can catch most of the time these days, and was feeling pretty pleased with myself. It quickly became evident that catching Willow, the horse I can sometimes catch but not always, was not to be. I didn’t worry about this too much at the time.

While Willow the Uncatchable can be somewhat difficult if you measure her behavior by horse standards, she’s a top-notch dog. Willow is a rescue and I tend to just embrace her charming golden retriever impression. When I moved Nova and Willow to the neighbor’s initially, I managed to get Nova the Unloadable in the trailer without incident and Willow just jumped in with her. My plan (haha) was to load Nova real quick, let Willow jump in and off we’d go. 

Instead, after three hours of alternately gently coaxing Nova to get in the trailer, sternly requiring Nova to get in the trailer, and begging Nova to get in the trailer, Nova was not in the trailer. And Willow was still gaily evading capture. The Engineer suggested we could “always come back next weekend and try again” which, while a wonderfully patient and generous offer, conjured a feeling I can only describe as unadulterated panic. I was not devoting another day to fucking around with this. I handed him Nova’s leadrope and set off to wish a halter onto the horse I couldn’t catch but whom I knew would jump right in the trailer if I did.

One of the things I love about interacting with horses is the way it feels like absolute magic when it goes right. I rescued Willow two years ago from an owner who didn’t exactly mistreat her, but who certainly didn’t understand her. She was extremely fearful when I got her, and I spent a long time gaining her trust. She goes through phases I imagine might be flashbacks when the sight of a halter will send her tearing across the pasture with a rooster tail of mud and manure in her wake if it happens there was a thunderstorm the night before. I know the response to her fear can be nothing other than quiet patience.

My friend had been squatting next to Willow feeding her treats as I worked with Nova. This is exactly the sort of approach it takes; gentle and incremental increasing contact. I grabbed a handful of apple cookies and adopted a similar stance, squatting with my attention facing 90 degrees from Willow. Even eye contact can be too much pressure when they’re feeling fearful.

She took treats from my hand and stayed when I stood up. She stayed when I turned to face her. When I walked away from her she took a step in my direction, a sign she was willing to consider “hooking on” to me. I took the lead from her and took a step in her direction pushing her away slightly with my energy. She took a corresponding step. I backed up again and she followed. I moved towards her one step asking her to stay. She looked at me curiously. I approached her and she stayed. I fed her a treat and she stayed. I put my arms around her neck in a hug and she stayed. I draped the small cord I had in my back pocket lightly around her neck and she stayed. I put a halter on her and she stayed.

I almost cried. To feel her trust is indescribable and I badly needed her help. As I suspected she would do, she walked quietly to the trailer and jumped right in, grabbing a mouthful of hay as I hooked the trailer tie to her halter. Nova followed shortly after, convinced now that perhaps the metal box wasn’t the torture chamber and/or death trap she had imagined.

I hurried to secure the door, hugged the neighbors, and climbed behind the wheel. We made our way gingerly down the steep and rutted dirt road to the canyon road a half-mile away. When we got to the bottom, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. We were a mere four hours behind schedule. Nearly on-time by equestrian standards!

The Engineer and I jumped out of the truck to check on the horses once more, and I made my second major mistake of the day. I violated the cardinal rule following the apparent resolution of extreme fuckery: leave well enough alone. The horses were fine, but I decided that they could be a little more fine if I made a small adjustment. This resulted in a whole new round of fuckery, in which Nova ended up outside the trailer again. Fortunately, this bout of shenanigans resolved much quicker and smoother than I would have anticipated and we were back on the road with the mantra, “Don’t fucking touch anything.”

The rest of the trip was mercifully smooth and the girls arrived in their well-watered paradise in fine shape. I’m so glad to have them close to me again, and I’m happy to have survived the weekend with nothing more than a sunburn and a couple new life lessons.

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