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15 September 2014

Jack in the Box

Have you ever watched someone trying to load a difficult horse? Wanted to help? Felt sorry for them? Shaken your head in disbelief? Like many problems, it looks less complex from the outside looking in. Sometimes overcoming this problem is about more than just persuading a large animal to walk into a small space. It can reflect deeper equine and human unhappiness or insecurity. I’ve been lucky enough to own Jakhiri (known as Jack) for over two years now and I thought some of you might be interested in what we’ve been through so far.

I fell instantly for Jack and knew the first day I viewed him that I would take him home. However that proved harder than it sounds…The first attempt to collect him ended in bitter disappointment. I watched as the yard groom battled with him until he became so visibly stressed and angry that he reduced his owner and I to tears. The groom insisted this was the only language he spoke and softly-softly would get me nowhere. But I couldn’t watch any more.

I clocked up over 1000 miles driving back and forth to Culloden to practice loading him. My parents even coughed up for a beautiful new front-unload trailer since they knew how much this meant to me. When Jack finally came home it was after an hour of more gentle persuasion this time. So I knew I had bought a horse that didn’t load well! However, for the first season he could be coaxed in and we made it to our first pleasure rides together. Jack is so vigorous and spirited- anyone who saw him careering loose around the venue at Drummuir will remember! Things were going well and he seemed to love endurance.

Over that winter I became ill with depression, I’ve suffered it on and off for years, but last year it was so bad I was unable to work for four months. Jack and Charley were my only reason to get out of bed and the only time I felt better was out riding. Jack and I had time to bond, but Jack knew that something wasn’t right. Last April he refused point blank to load for the Durris ride- after 2 miserable hours of struggling I had to admit defeat. From then on, no matter what I tried, he would fight for a while, then walk in, but as soon as any move was made to go behind him, he would run back and rear up… and repeat ad nauseam.

Like many desperate horse owners I was willing to try anything. None of the techniques people helpfully suggested worked- Jack ‘learned’ his way around anything we tried. Help arrived in the unconventional form of Isobel Hogton, a horse listener (www.horselistenerscotland.co.uk ) She calls her company ‘End of the Line’, because people like me approach her once all else has failed. Isobel never promised she could make Jack load, or solve our problems. Her talent is listening and I learned so much about Jack and myself. She helped me see the link between my own problems and my horse’s. Jack was scared and insecure, he needed to feel safe, but what was happening to me? I wasn’t strong enough to reassure him. In fact the sessions with her would take up a whole new article; they were so amazing and insightful. So although we did not get to any rides last year, Jack and I achieved a great deal in terms of our bond and the trust between us. But he still wouldn’t load…

Following a helpful suggestion from Lynda, my longsuffering boyfriend Andy bought me a TUI bar for my trailer. (www.tuiequestrian.com). This is a contraption which allows you to load your horse alone, as the rear bar raises at the same time as you fasten the front bar. While we were waiting for it to arrive, we decided to practice some loading to get Jack back into the way of it. That day I walked Jack in, gave his feed and rope to Andy, quietly walked round the back and fastened the breaching bar. I immediately burst into tears and hugged a bemused Andy- it was so monumental for me to see Jack standing contentedly eating his feed while closed into the trailer.

I now use a Chifney bit to stop his rearing, and a feed as a reward if he walks in. ( I know these are both against Natural Horsemanship principles, which I have great respect for, but at the end of the day these are the measures that work for us). Although we made the breakthrough without it, we still installed the TUI bar and I find it so helpful since it takes the uncertainty out of loading- will he stand long enough for me to get round the back?

Jack and I have since re-started our endurance career and are really enjoying ourselves. I am so proud of him for finding the trust in me he couldn’t find before. As horse owners, we can sometimes be too quick to judge other people for the way they deal with their horse’s problems, but the horse-rider partnership is a complex thing and we must respect that the problem may be symptomatic of issues far below the surface.  Neither Jack nor I will ever be ‘cured’ of our problems, but we are learning to deal with them, and really enjoying each other in the process!