Thursday, January 9, 2014

Heather Smith Thomas—Notes from Sky Range Ranch: Trailer Lessons for Young and Old

When one horse’s medical condition requires surgery in town, Heather Smith Thomas takes the opportunity to teach all her range-riding ranch horses how to travel calmly in a stock trailer.

Breezy is, at age 22, one of our older mares. A Morgan, she’s been my daughter’s best cow horse for many years, and this past year, she’s also become a good kid horse—Andrea’s 10-year-old daughter Samantha rode her most of the summer and fall.

Sam riding Breezy this past fall
Breezy’s eyes are often irritated by sunlight and last fall, Breezy developed a rough, irritated area in the back corner of her left eye. The area where her cornea met the white of her eye enlarged into what we thought might be the start of a cancerous growth. We had a veterinarian come to the ranch to examine her.

After looking at a scraping of cells under a microscope, the vet confirmed that, in addition to bacterial cells, there were suspicious cells that might be cancer. We treated the eye with an antibiotic ointment the vet prescribed—a job that took two people because of Breezy’s protests.

After two weeks, the eye began looking less irritated, but the growth was still worrisome. After an additional vet visit and a biopsy, the results came back: squamous cell carcinoma. We’d have to remove the eye, and we’d have to do it soon, before the growth spread. With temperatures sometimes reaching below zero at night, we couldn’t do surgery here on the ranch because it required general anesthesia. We’d have to take Breezy to the veterinary hospital where the procedure could be done in a heated, padded stall.

Breezy had not been in a trailer since she arrived at our ranch as a green four-year-old. She needed refresher lessons in trailering. In fact, only one of our horses, a mare named Ed, who had in her earlier years been a good all-purpose horse for cattle work, had much trailering experience.

Dani, age 8, riding Ed to help move cattle on the range

Our ranch horses go many miles, riding range in the summer, but are ridden from home and never travel in a trailer. So we borrowed our son’s stock trailer and took this opportunity to get all of our horses acquainted with going in and out of a trailer, in case we ever had to haul them somewhere.

We began the first day by letting each of them, one at a time, eat alfalfa hay from a rubber tub placed at the back of the trailer where they could reach it. Willow, whose first trip to the ranch as a weanling was her first time in a trailer, is now a very bold yearling. She was suspicious and not too interested in the hay, but then surprised me by wanting to hop up into the trailer. Together, we walked to the front, checked it out, turned around, and came back out.

Dottie, Willow’s older half-sister, was more wary. On the second day, she went in after a few hesitations, but was frightened of the noise her feet made if she moved. Her exit was speedy.

Dottie hopping into the trailer with my granddaughter leading her

We used Ed, the old experienced traveler, as a buddy for the inexperienced horses. We put Ed in, leading Dottie in after her, and this time the filly relaxed and gained confidence from Ed. She still tried to exit too fast, so the next few days were dedicated to getting her to come out more sedately, at a walk or controlled hop rather than like a rocket.

Granddaughter Heather Carrie Thomas working on getting Dottie to slow down coming out of the trailer

Our oldest horses were a humorous pair. Rubbie, a 26-year-old mare, went in readily to eat alfalfa, but 27-year-old Veggie was too suspicious. Even though he was jealously unhappy seeing his sister eating food, he didn’t want to get in. He’d eat from the tub when it was within reach, but wouldn’t venture to step in when we moved it back a little. He just stretched his neck, grabbed the tub with his teeth, and pulled it back within reach.

My granddaughter Heather, who now trains horses professionally, helped us. She put Veggie’s front foot up in the trailer, and then the other foot. He ate hay with his head and front feet in the trailer, relaxed and standing about halfway in. The second day, we got him all the way in.

Veggie eating in the trailer

Breezy went into the trailer nicely on her second day. We loaded her with Ed several times, since they would be making the trip to the veterinary hospital together, to keep Breezy calm.

On December 31, our trailer lessons paid off. We loaded Ed and Breezy—who snuggled up to her travel companion at the front of the trailer—and hauled them to town. Ed stayed in a corral behind the clinic during Breezy’s surgery. After she came out from under the anesthesia and was steady on her feet again, she eagerly hopped back into the trailer with Ed to come home. Our trailer refresher lessons were a success!

Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising HorsesStorey's Guide to Training HorsesStable SmartsThe Horse Conformation HandbookYour CalfGetting Started with Beef and Dairy CattleStorey's Guide to Raising Beef CattleEssential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. She blogs at

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