This blog will chronicle the life and training of Heavymetal Thunder (aka Saxon), a 2009 chestnut Standardbred gelding who didn't have the makings of a racehorse and so will be retrained as a show and pleasure horse. Stay tuned, as we're sure to have lots of great adventures together!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Your Chariot Awaits

In my last post, I covered some of the challenges Saxon and I faced in our travels.  Though he had a lot of training and handling as a race prospect, he spent basically his entire young life at one farm - his lack of competitiveness meant that he missed out on the experience of traveling to new places (like the racetrack or other farms) that young racehorses get.  That, combined with the fact that the second trailer ride of his life involved traveling halfway across the country on a slat sided stock trailer from New Jersey to Kentucky in December, means that I really can't blame him for being anxious about travel.  He is laid back and nearly unflappable at home, but he can get really nervous and keyed up about traveling and new places.

We've been working on that.  At home, I've been tying him to the trailer instead of the cross-ties in the barn for grooming and tacking.  I've also been working on loading him and letting him spend increasing amounts of time just chilling in the trailer.  For much of May, the stock trailer was his dining car, the only place he got to eat his dinner.  Readily motivated by food, Saxon learned quickly to load himself in anticipation of a tasty meal, though once inside his enthusiasm for the trailer quickly waned.  We eventually progressed from panicked, to nervous, to anxious, to perturbed about being in the trailer, and worked our way up to 30 minutes or more of him standing in the unhitched trailer.  Even so, he never lost his tendency to stomp around in circles while in the trailer, and was always waiting for me with his nose pressed to the back gate when I was ready to let him out.

We had an impromptu field trip in mid May.  I was planning to take him to a show, but 30 minutes into the trip, I received a call that the show had been canceled due to the previous night's rain.  Since we were already on the road, I quickly decided to take him to the local county park as a schooling opportunity.  My very accommodating husband agreed to meet me over there, so I wouldn't be all alone in a new place with 1000 pounds of anxious 3 year old, and one of my horse friends decided to load up her STBs to join us.  From the driver's seat of the truck, it felt like he had traveled well on our excursion, but upon arriving at the park, I discovered that he had dented up the rear gate, shredded his left hind shipping boot, and ripped his haybag off the wall during the trip (pooping all over everything in the process, of course).  He came off the trailer high-headed and nervous.  To make matters worse, a baseball game was getting underway next to the arena, and they were doing their pregame motivational chanting and stomping ritual.  Saxon looked around, saw the men with bats, saw no other horses, and came to the inevitable conclusion that I had brought him there to be hunted down by this pack of bat wielding, shouting cavemen!  I tried to tie him to the trailer to remove what was left of his shipping boots and assess the damage, but he was rearing and dancing around, so there wasn't much I could do.  Even on the lead line he didn't want to graze, so he spent the next 30 minutes dragging me all around the park at a nervous walk.  Justin and I took turns being dragged around, since he wouldn't stand still.  I eventually put him on the lunge line so Saxon could expend some of his nervous energy at his own expense rather than his handlers' expenses.

Saxon was just starting to settle down when my friend's trailer pulled in.  At the sight of other horses, his excitement level shot up again, and he took it out on the lunge line, wheeling about with loud snorts and his tail over his back.  His excitement was infectious, and the other two were snorty and uncertain, too.  So another 30 minutes of walking all 3 horses around the arena ensued.  Eventually they all settled down to the point that we could tack them up and ride, and they were all pretty good about it, too.  It ended up being a longer day than had I actually shown, but I think it was good for him.

Well, the shredded shipping boot had solidified in my mind that I needed a different trailer for him.  My stock trailer could be converted to a 2 horse straight thanks to a removable divider, but when I tried backing him out of it with no divider, he had a pretty big panic attack and nearly clocked himself on the trailer's roof.  This meant that he had to be trailered solo in that stock trailer, and I had to tie him because he tried to constantly circle once inside the trailer.  (I was afraid of him hurting himself while in the process of trying to turn around.)  Well, he'd get ticked off when he tried to turn while tied and couldn't make it around, and SLAM, SLAM, SLAM - kick the walls of the trailer with all his might.  I decided that a slant load would be better for him because I could lead him on head first, secure him safely with a divider for travel, and lead him off head first when we arrived at our destination.

I decided to look for a 2 or 3 horse gooseneck slant load.  After measuring most of the 3 horse models at a big trailer lot, I decided that a 2 horse might be better. Most of the 3 horse ones were 18' or longer on the box. My driveway is easy to turn into with my 12' stock trailer, doable with my friend's 16' one, and uses every  inch and watchful eye available to make the turn in a 20' model.  Finding a 2 horse slant gooseneck is harder than you might think, especially on a budget.  I definitely wanted to upgrade to aluminum, if possible, since my trailer has to live outside.  (I am fanatical about waxing my steel stock trailer, but I know pretty much nobody else in the universe is like that!)  I searched website after website for available models, dimensions, features, prices, reviews, and reputation.  I ended up with a giant chart of trailers that ultimately boiled down to about 3 real choices once I'd gone through them with a fine-toothed comb.  I was looking at a used 2004 model 2H Bison Alumasport (aluminum skin with steel frame) with all the options, a 1999 base model 4 Star Stock-Combo that had been around the block quite a bit (for quite a bit more money), or a new Shadow 2H all aluminum that was stripped down and cost almost twice as much.  I'd read a few negative reviews of Bisons online, but ultimately found that they centered around the giant living quarter monstrosities and the all fiberglass roof that Bison had stopped using years ago, and most people with the regular non LQ versions had positive things to say.  (2004 was actually the last year they made a non living quarter gooseneck horse trailer.)  I checked the Bison over in person with a fine-toothed comb, and it was in excellent shape (the lady's husband laughed at me when I checked the date code on the tires and climbed under the trailer to look at the supports and check for structural integtrity.)  Once I found out it was an extra tall model, with nicely padded stalls, and the rear tack room collapsed easily (to let Saxon unload head first), that pretty much clinched it.  I became the proud new owner of a very nice trailer!

We went about it slowly, but Saxon warmed up to it pretty well.  We first investigated it with the dividers and tack room collapsed out of the way, and eventually progressed to loading and pinning him in.  He continued to want to prance his feet once loaded up, but stopped trying to turn around once he found out he couldn't go anywhere  (Instead, he just piaffes in place now.).  He loved the escape door, because it made the trailer more bright and inviting to enter, and he could stick his head over the chest bar to look around once inside.  And, after a few sessions, he became confident enough to back out of it without having a panic attack.  Now, we are able to back out calmly (even with the tack room divider up) like a normal horse, though I always say the word "hup" when he's about to step his foot off the back so he knows where the dropoff is.

Since then, we have taken a few practice trips - one just to the post office and back, and the other back to the county park. This time around, there was no rearing when he was tied to the trailer, and he settled down much faster.  (Though he was quite insistent that he had to sniff everything around him in very fine detail).  The new trailer has polished aluminum on the nose and rear doors.  I thought Saxon might be startled by his reflection in the back door when tied to the trailer.  On the contrary, he was quite enamored with himself.  Saxon found himself quite the handsome fellow and wanted to admire his reflection from all angles.  My horse the narcissist!  Riding wise, he did quite well this time around (it may have helped that there were no bat-wielding neanderthals, I mean baseball players present), and we even cantered under saddle in the ring (his first time doing so away from home).

We went to a show a week later, and while he had a few "moments" about the horse-eating toddlers and folding chairs near the showring, he was excellent about the trailer.  He stayed calm while tied to it, and loaded and unloaded readily both times.  I was pretty delighted with the trailer, too.  For the first time, I had a *real* dressing room to change in (it has a skylight and a screen door - how cool is that!), and I could really spread out my tack and equipment.  If I had a complaint, it would be not enough saddle racks (2 for a 2 horse trailer - don't they know that versatile Standardbreds need lots of wardrobe changes?) or outside tie rings (2 per side, and the second one's too close to the back door to be useful anyhow).  But I can work around those details, given the trailer's many other merits.  Saxon still wants to piaffe in place once inside, but he seems to be calming down overall.  I don't know if it's the new trailer, more experience, or both, but I'd say that's a win either way.

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