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First Posted: Apr 13, 2011Aug 25, 2012

Trailering Behavioral Problems and Your Horse

by Debora Johnson

Image: CopyrightHorseHints.org
Rusty Man and A Patchy-two good boys!

You are getting ready to trailer your horse and you know that there are going to be behavioral problems. What type of problems are these and what can be done about it? Is your horse reluctant or refuse to load when you trailer? Is your horse difficult once he gets on the trailer? Is your horse difficult to off load the trailer? Does your horse rear? Does he invade your space? Does he kick out? If so it is my hope that this article will be helpful to you.

It is important for your horse to have pleasant experiences associated with trailering. Careful training and patience are key! Again, once a horse has a bad trailering experience it takes much longer to retrain. They have long associative memories.

Think and Perceive Like A Horse

  • Horses do not like new things. They survive by being suspicious.
  • Horses do not like to walk into dark spaces.
  • Many horses do not like to load on ramps. The footing feels insecure to them. They are also looking down to the ground.
  • Genetically some horses have a stronger fight or flight response when scared or feeling threatened.
  • Horses have a long memory learning through association. They may have negative baggage from past experiences unknown to you.
How I Train A Horse to Load
Example of One of Our Past Horses, Gambler's Gold Star, pasture name Gold

A past horse of my husband's did not like to load. He would do anything he could not to go up the ramp of the trailer. Gold (pasture name) also would not load on a step-up. We tried everything from making the trailer light inside, to using food incentives, to tapping him gently to go forward with a dressage whip, to using a rope behind his rump, to putting his easy to load pasture buddy on the trailer first. We did not rush him. We let him hang out around the open trailer to get use to its presence. Our trailer is a Rice trailer made in England. It has ramps that open in the back and from the side. The horses can be loaded in either direction. The horse can be backed off when unloading or walk through and out the side ramp. It is a thoroughbred size trailer and has plenty of light and space. There are no bad odors in the trailer. It is clean. Gambler's Gold Star just did not like to load. We suspected that he had a problem from his past--before us.

We hired Debby Samer to come and help us. She did. It took lots of patience and time. She was able to redirect Gold Star's psychological aversion to trailering. We gave Gold some Cool and Calm, a mild over-the-counter sedative, and waited for it to take the fear edge off. She had my husband, Bill, stand inside the trailer behind the chest bar. There was a long rope attached to Gold's halter. Bill enticed Gold with treats and treats were also put on the ramp. Gold was urged to approach the ramp. He was given lots of praise. Once Gold Star was bold enough to put a foot on the ramp he was given lots of praise and treats. He was not rushed. Debbie did continue to urge him forward with kind words (walk on) and a light tapping behind his elbow and then below his hocks. In time, Gold learned that entering the trailer was nothing to fear. Once he was on the trailer Bill gave him more verbal praise, pets and treats. He then unlocked the breast bar and walked Gold through the trailer down the front ramp. Everything about the experience was made to be pleasurable and reduce Gold's stress. It was also done in steps over a period of time. First Gold would approach the trailer without stress. Then he would put a foot on the ramp. Then he would step on the ramp. etc. We took short trailer trips once he would enter. Losing your temper and impatience on your part only reinforces the horse's fear of the trailer. It sets the corrective training back. It is wonderful if you can do this retraining over a period of a week or more. By taking that extra time you will reap the rewards of patience.

We will never know why the horse had such an aversion to the trailer, but eventually he would load and unload without problems. I might add that we always used a head bumper with Gold just in case he decided to rear or do the unexpected. We also wrapped his lower legs and put on bell boots to protect his feet. Gold was 16.2 hands and built like a tank. He had also been a breeding stallion before we got him. That handling during those years probably had something to do with his fear of the trailer.

Sometimes a horse may kick out while being tapped to impel forward. A hard wack or two below the hocks, when that behavior arises, should take care of that behavior. Make sure that the wacks are immediate so that the horse associates the wack with the kicking. Also, I use harsh words as well, "No!" The horse learns that kicking out is going to produce unwanted sensation!

Other Suggestions:

  • The use of a platform rather than a ramp or a step up. Not everyone is set up to do this. That way the horse can just walk directly into the trailer. Easier said than done.
  • Put the trailer in an enclosed area without any grass. Make sure that the trailer is secured. Place the hay in the open trailer. First, place the hay on the ramp. Each successive day move the hay up the ramp until it is in the trailer. If the horse wants to eat he will go into the trailer.
  • Rearing is another problem. Personally, I will not keep a rearer. Some trainers suggest that the horse should be hit with a whip below the knees while rearing. As soon as the horse comes down the whipping stops. I will not do that because the chance of injury to me is too great.
  • If a horse invades your space and tries to knock you over just remember the wisdom in "He who controls the horse's head, controls the horse!" Also key,-- make the horse move his feet away from you. You must be the dominant one.
Negative Associations When Trailering

A horse learns through association. If you use punishment when trying to teach a horse to load onto a trailer that horse will have negative associations with the trailer and you--such as hurt and pain. Rearing, bolting, kicking, dancing around and backing are often behaviors associated with fear.

  • Do not hit a horse while loading. When I say hit, I mean hurt. I use a dressage whip to tap behind the elbow, below the hocks or on the rump. It does not hurt the horse, it just is an aid to impel the horse forward or, in the case of kicking, sheds light on the kicking parts along with a stern NO! The horse makes the connection that kicking is not good.
  • No not be rough with your horse.
  • Drive gently while loaded.
  • No quick turns or swerves while a horse is in trailer. Be a defensive driver and think ahead.
  • Take short trailering trips, at first, until your horse feels safe while trailering. Long trips can be taxing physically and psychologically until a horse feels comfortable and at ease in the trailer.
Positive Associations When Trailering
  • Desensitize your horse.
  • Use rewards such as praise, treats, etc.
  • Be patient. It takes time to teach a horse to load and even more time to overcome previous bad experiences trailering. This can often take up to one month. Take the time it will pay off. Deprogramming is much more difficult that teaching a horse to load for the first time.
  • Be consistent. Horses do not like change. They like routine and repetitive things.
  • Put another calm horse in the trailer first and let your horse watch. Secure that horse and leave him in the trailer while you are teaching your horse to load. This is referred to as using social facilitation based in the herd instinct.
  • Load and unload in places other than your horse's regular living environment. That way your horse gets comfortable in other surroundings. You are your horse's strength. He should look to you for support and reassurance.
  • At your horse's trailering destination make sure he has a good time.
Suggestions to Solve Unexpected Problems

If a horse presents an unexpected problem and must be loaded immediately, the following may be of help to you:

Butt Ropes

Secure a long rope to both sides of the back of the trailer where you load your horse. Most trailers have hitching areas that are made of metal. Leave plenty of rope so that you can encourage your horse to enter by applying pressure across his butt area (the thigh area of the back legs) with the rope. Be mindful to make sure your horse or you do not get tangled up in the rope. If this happens, just drop the rope and get out of the way! Your horse will most likely off load backward ramp or step up. Not good, but hopefully no one gets hurt. I see people joining hands and applying pressure to the horse's butt urging the horse forward with the pressure from their bodies. I do not like this because it seems too dangerous to me.

Tranquilizers

I have used Cool & Calm in the past. I do not like to use sedatives because it can make the horse unstable in the trailer. Some horse owners use Xylazine AKA Rompun.

Downers from using tranquilizers are the side affects that horses often do not remember the trailering experience, therefore, do not learn when the trailering experience is positive. They can become unstable in the trailer, as well, because of the possible loss of equilibrium (dizziness). I would never use sedatives if I were going to any kind of competition.

Always check with your vet before administering any kind of drug!!!

For More Information:

Trailer Loading Methods

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