Chris Irwin’s Tough Love

Posted on Nov 9, 2011 in Events, Personal Stories | Comments Off

Chris Irwin’s Tough Love


We decided to drive to East Tennessee for the day this past October, a 3 /12 hour drive from Leiper’s Fork, to catch the last of a three-day horsemanship clinic with Chris Irwin. Tony was skeptical on who I was taking him to see. Chris Irwin is an internationally known horse trainer, author and speaker that I hadn’t seen since I attended his Equine Assisted Personal Development workshop in Lexington, KY in 2007.

I was thrilled to catch him, since he’s rarely in the U.S. anymore, and for getting a moment for us to say hello and reconnect. But, it was a short conversation before Chris was pulled into the last session of the day. From what he described, and from what I was hearing from those around us earlier, it was about a horse with a trailer loading issue that had everyone at the end of their rope. He was an off-the-track Thoroughbred, and like so many of them, damaged by the hands of others he was more than anyone could, or wanted, to handle. I wasn’t even sure how serious it was with this horse (I can’t believe a trailer loading issue alone could or should determine the fate of a horse), but it sounded like life for this animal was looking very grim.

We had watched earlier as Chris worked with other horses and their owners both on the ground and mounted. I have always loved his style and approach, and his deep understanding of the horse/human relationship down to the science.

Then it came time for the trailer-loading saga. The horse was a beautiful dark bay gelding that didn’t show any trouble when led into the ring. We watched Chris begin with bringing the horse up to the trailer with a halter and lead rope. Sure enough, the horse resisted, threw his head up and out in the attempt to flee from the situation. A few people were then disassembling the tack room on the side of the trailer to open up the space. A lunge line was hooked onto the horse, pulled through the trailer and out the side door where Chris stood on the other end. The horse would pull back again, and more than once, Chris was pulled through the trailer holding on to the irreverent horse. He held on to him every time. The horse continued to resist, sometimes moving into Chris’ space while Chris moved him back out. The horse had the line wrapped half way around him at times and even falling back on his hind end. I feared the horse was going to get hurt. We could hear others in the audience getting restless and worried. Just as the horse would lower his head, sniff the floor of the trailer, Chris positioned in his spot to ask the horse to move, the horse’s head would come up and away he moved until Chris could get him to stop. One halter had already been broken from this.  And, at one point, the horse lowered his head, closed his eyes and checked out. But, that’s not what he wanted either as Irwin explained the horse needed to keep moving. This went on for two hours.

Both Tony and I knew watching this he did everything he could to help this horse, in his body language and how he treated him.  He was never dominating or threatening to the horse. He was trying to show the horse the trailer was the safest place to be. I hadn’t lost faith in this trainer, but I just couldn’t see how the horse was going to go in that trailer. And, if he did go in, why would he stay in there? I was watching the clock knowing we still had a long drive ahead and we had animals waiting on us at home. So we left with the outcome a total mystery.

The next day I sent an email to Chris’ office and with some pictures hoping they would forward it on to him. I commended him for his patience and how he handled the horse, how he worked with all the horses and people that day. And, I would love to know how it turned out with that last horse. So, I was happy to receive a detailed message from Chris himself the next morning. He was very appreciative of the pictures – and words – I had sent him.

And, here is what he had to say about that horse:

“This may be hard to believe, but it is absolutely true. The trailer loading challenge you witnessed with the horse named Bullet ended beautifully. In fact, it was only about 5 minutes after you and Anthony left, that Bullet calmly walked into the trailer. Truly, he just stepped up into that box like it was nothing. And, then I went in and loved and praised him while he ate some hay and grain and then I unloaded him and asked him to reload into the trailer and he walked right in again. And, then I unloaded and he went right in again…Then I took him out, walked farther away from the trailer and then with no lunge line or whip, just him in my hand with the lead rope, we trotted up to the trailer and he jumped in. And then we unloaded and he and I trotted in together again….

This morning Marcie (his owner) called us to let me know that she went out this morning, as per my request, and asked Bullet to walk into the trailer. And he did immediately, and quietly, with no resistance whatsoever.

“And so as long (2.5 hours) as it took, and as rough and conflictive as it appeared to be, the fact is that Bullet made the decision last night that saved his life. He has NEVER gone on to a trailer without needing to be tranquilized, and he has fought like that about so many other “issues” that Marcie was his “last chance” in the sense that she rescued him from being slaughtered. And she had told me that if he does not get over himself, and if I cannot help her with him, then she was done with him and she was giving up. Translation? If Bullet did not finally decide to load into trailers without such drama then he was going to be “put down”. So, thank God, Bullet “got it” last night and it was still there this morning. And, now he has begun the first day of the rest of his life.

My only regret is that you and Anthony had to leave before you saw the final outcome. I know the process was rough and hard to watch and I was concerned that you had left in disappointment, with me, and that it had to be as strong and difficult as it was. It does not challenge my patience to work with horses like Bullet, I must do it all the time and on a regular basis. It just challenges my own heart if I feel that it is too much for the people watching to bare. So thank you so much for your kind message today. It meant more to me then you probably know. It can be so lonely being “the good cop” who must do what must be done in order to realistically save a horse from slaughter. I did not cause Bullet’s problems, other people did. And, yet there I was last night being the tough love he needed in order to save his life. And it is hard to be the good cop when so many kind hearts are watching, sensing that you are most likely being judged for doing what can never be achieved with just warm and fuzzy good intentions. So again, thank you.”

It’s a beautiful story about Bullet, and I was so appreciative that Chris took the time to write back. The horse found the trust he needed in his human partners, and not to mention,  the simple concept of food and safety can go a long way, too.  Here’s to new directions.