Few things in the horse world are as frustrating as trying to load a reluctant horse into a trailer. It usually happens when you’re in a hurry and need to get to a show or hook up with a buyer. You find yourself in a battle of wills with you on the losing end, since there is no way a horse will get into a trailer unless it wants to.
Horses tend to be claustrophobic by nature, so it’s not surprising that trailer loading is a common problem for many horse handlers. However, with patience and the right approach, you can teach just about any horse to load reliably into a trailer.
Reasons for Trouble
The main reason most horses don’t want to load is pure fear. Their behavior seems to indicate they fear the worst if they set foot in the trailer.
“Previous unpleasant loading or traveling experiences can increase an animal’s fear of loading,” says Barbara Janelle, a trainer and certified TTEAM practitioner in Santa Barbara, Calif. (TTEAM is a training method developed by trainer Linda Tellington-Jones, renowned for dealing with horse problems such as refusal to load.) “High speeds, fast corners, and very bumpy roads can all play havoc with a horse’s balance. This in turn will cause a horse to tighten its body and hold its breath, and even lead to lurching or falling accidents in the trailer.”
Trainer and TTEAM practitioner Jodi Frediani, of Santa Cruz, Calif., notes that horses can become difficult at loading because of the trailer itself. “An inappropriate trailer, like one that is too small, unsteady or even unsafe, with rotting floor boards unknown to the owner, but sensed by horses through mats, can cause fear in the horse,” she says. She also adds, “Things like the movement of the trailer during loading, the hollow sound of the floor, the roof close overhead, the tight space, the step up and out, or other factors can make a horse frightened.”
Making Matters Worse
When a horse has trailering problems, the worst thing a handler can do is try to bully the animal into loading because he is in a hurry. “It’s a bad idea to wait until a trip before finding out the horse has loading issues,” says Shannon Finch, a trainer and TTEAM practitioner in Stanwood, Wash. “A trainer losing his temper aggravates the situation, as does pulling or otherwise forcing a horse in. This latter approach may get the horse in for that trip, but will probably result in balking or outright refusal on the next trip. I have also seen terrible wrecks from forcing horses into trailers: they rear and hit their heads, or fall down because they’re scrambling.”
“When dealing with loading problem-solving, you must have all the time in the world, both literally and figuratively,” says trainer Tina Hutton of Auburn, Calif., also a certified TTEAM practitioner.
Retraining a horse to load easily into a trailer takes some time, so it’s important to work on this problem well before you need to trailer the horse for a show or other event.
“Practice beforehand without stress and the pressure for results,” advises Frediani.
Finch advises that you first calm yourself before attempting to work with the horse. “The primary key for anyone handling a horse at any time is to keep breathing,” she says. “This helps the body stay relaxed and keeps you thinking. The horse will often mirror the human, and certainly stay more relaxed if the human is relaxed. Quiet talking to the horse is a very simple way to keep breathing.”
Finch says that she chunks down the trailering process into smaller sessions before the horse needs to be trailered, applying TTEAM methods. “I use a 6-foot long soft chain lead, threaded over the noseband of the halter so it’s not on sensitive tissues, or if the horse tends to throw his head up when he’s frightened, up one side of the halter,” she says. “The use of this lead allows the handler to give more subtle signals—it’s not used to shank the horse. We also use a stiff 4-foot dressage-type whip. Longe whips and buggy whips are not stiff enough. We use the wand to stroke the horse all over, which gives a horse a sense of his body, and is very calming as well.”
Finch begins by working on leading exercises that give the horse confidence to move forward or backward in spite of his fear. “Teaching a horse to move one leg at a time teaches focus and balance,” she says. “If a horse is rushing or balking while leading, we need to work on that before I attempt loading.”
The next step is to simulate the elements of the trailer for the horse. “For instance, I’ll start by getting the horse to walk calmly over a piece of plywood to recreate that hollow sound,” she says. “The horse also needs to back off the plywood—many horses are afraid to go backwards, so we make it easy to begin with. If you have a step-up trailer, you can practice backing off of a raised piece of plywood. I use the dressage whip to tap each front leg to signal a backwards step, while gently signaling back on the lead. I don’t want the horse to run backwards, but rather take measured backwards steps as I signal.”
Finch then simulates the confines of the trailer, something that is particularly important with horses that tend to be claustrophobic. “I use hay bales or jump standards draped with plastic to be the trailer,” she says. “Depending on the horse, I might start with the bales or standards quite far apart, and then gradually draw them closer. I also use plastic to simulate the low roof of a trailer. I start by working under a piece of plastic just rolled up, and then gradually unroll it.
“I have also seen terrible wrecks from forcing horses into trailers...”
“I never rush the horse or go beyond his comfort level—if I observe elevated respiration and a high head, I need to back off a step or two. The TTEAM view is that a horse can learn much better if there is no fear, pain or tension involved. It might take us five 20-minute sessions, but this process gives the horse confidence both in himself and his handler, and we find that this more often than not carries over to the actual loading process.”
Finch also uses food in the retraining process. “I will use a bit of grain, not as a reward, but as encouragement,” she says. “It’s not, ‘If you walk into this trailer, I’ll give you some grain.’ That’s a bribe, and not very useful in teaching. Rather, we use grain when we sense the horse is holding his breath, or getting too hyped up, or while we’re stroking with the dressage whip. Chewing overrides that “fight or flight” instinct.
“When it comes to the actual loading, I want everyone involved to be breathing and thinking about what we want rather than what we don’t want,” she continues. “So often an owner will stand there saying, ‘I hope he loads, I hope he loads.’ If we’re projecting a negative attitude, it’s probably what we’re going to get. Holding our breath transmits tension right down the lead rope to the horse, and confirms his belief that loading is really a scary thing. We take our time for this initial session, focusing more on the process than the end result. A horse that is a difficult loader has the expectation of a bad or scary experience, so I want to change that expectation by giving him a good one.”
Many people argue that all this takes too much time, but Finch notes that she is working in short sessions so as to not overwhelm the horse’s nervous system. “We give the horse time to process his experience, which is almost as important as the work itself,” she says. “In the end, what might take five sessions is still only about an hour and a half or two hours, which is often how long someone will struggle to get their horse into the trailer in one session. The advantage to this method is that both of you come out of it confident and calm, with your relationship intact.”