It was like a nightmare. Something that couldn’t be happening. But it did happen, and Sacramento trainer/riding coach BJ Henning-LeMaster wants to keep it from ever happening to you.
BJ knows her horses. As a child, she won the prestigious stock seat equitation class or championship at San Francisco’s Cow Palace Grand National seven years out of eight—in an era (1960s and ‘70s) when those classes boasted up to 100 entries.
In her last year as an amateur, she qualified for the Quarter Horse World Show in six events: senior and amateur Western pleasure, senior and amateur trail, and senior working cow horse in addition to amateur horsemanship.
At 21, she became the youngest person to become a carded judge with the American Horse Shows Association (now U.S. Equestrian Federation). Her students over the years have included those who compete successfully at the national level as well as mature ladies returning to horses just for fun.
But whether they compete or not, all of BJ’s students gain the foundation necessary for a lifetime of safe enjoyment with horses.
Which is why this warning from her now carries such weight. She wants you to know that, as careful as you think you’re being when using a horse trailer, you’re probably not being careful enough.
Her mishap involved a mare she’d owned since it was foaled on her ranch 13 years earlier. And it happened in spite of BJ’s 55 years of experience practicing safe trailering.
“It was lightning fast,” she recalls of the 2018 accident. “I unloaded two horses from the four-horse slant load, then turned back for the last one. I checked with my helper, who was standing outside at the manger, and got the verbal OK that the mare was untied and ready to go.
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“I said ‘ho,’ put my hand on the mare’s hip (she was standing quietly), and opened the divider.
Then my mare, while looking at me, kicked out so hard that she broke both my legs with one strike. And she kept going, aiming and kicking even as I tried to push myself backwards on the trailer floor.
“The only thing that kept her from backing out and deliberately stomping all over me was the girl at her head, still holding the rope.”
In addition to two broken legs, BJ suffered severe damage to her right shoulder and right ankle plus many other injuries. She spent nine weeks in a hospital bed and another four weeks learning to stand in a walker.
“Thank God the mare missed my face,” says BJ. “My left knee was a total dislocation that left only a partial patellar ligament in place. It’s still not completely fixed and right now I can’t ride…but we’re working on it.”
Why did the mare do it?
“She was angry, I think. Angry at being the last out. Looking back on it, I realize if I hadn’t been complacent because I’d loaded/unloaded her a million times, and hadn’t been preoccupied with the day clinic that was going to benefit Paradise Fire Victims, I would’ve sensed, known, realized that she was a ticking time bomb.
“My normally wonderful lesson horse was pissed.”
Since that day, BJ has heard from or about numerous others who have experienced equally freakish trailer accidents.
“It happens far more often than you’d believe,” she says. “Sometimes horses rush out backwards, knocking people down. Sometimes they fight being tied just as you reach to undo the quick release. Sometimes they scramble to back out as you’re closing the divider.”
It happens even with horses you know well and are comfortable with. You may not be aware of what’s provoked them, but they “can just go wacko,” as BJ puts it.
“I remember my mom [also a horsewoman] saying, ‘Never get in a trailer with your horse.’ Back then we had the two-horse straight loads.
“With today’s slant loads, you have to go in to load and unload, so you need to be especially mindful when you do—even if it’s a horse you’ve trailered a gazillion times.”
Words to the wise, from someone who knows.