Dr. Linda Aronson
Take a trip to any horse show or large animal hospital, and chances are you will observe this problem – a horse that won't load onto the trailer. Some owners/trainers will try to sweet talk the horse on board while others try offering food bribes. There are also those folks who try to strong-arm the horse onto the trailer, hauling him forward with ropes, slapping his rump, or hitting him with a broom. None of these strategies really addresses the problem. At best the uncompromising behavior of the horse leads to frustration and wastes time; at worst, the horse that won't load is potentially dangerous to all those around him as well as to himself. Should an emergency arise, such as a fire or natural disaster, a horse that won't load instantly and unquestioningly into any kind of trailer will inevitably be left behind. A two-horse trailer with the central divider
The average horse trailer has a dark interior, poor or insecure footing and an unstable ramp system. What's more, going into an enclosed space is contrary to a horse's nature, which directs the animal not to enter an enclosure where there is no obvious route of escape. A horse can become paralyzed with fear. However, with know-how, a little time, and some patience, almost any horse can be taught to load swiftly and efficiently.
In general horses that don't load well, are not well mannered when led in hand. Before you start worrying about the trailer, make sure your horse leads politely without forging ahead, lagging behind, barging into you, spooking, stopping to graze or to check out other horses or points of interest. He should go forward with his shoulder beside yours; he should walk when you walk, turn when you turn and stop when you stop. He should also back-up on command.
Once your horse can follow you without distraction, you can bring him toward the trailer. Ultimately, you will expect him to enter a trailer of any kind, but the best options initially are either:
Any bright, airy open trailer
The openness of these types of trailers will make early lessons easier for most horses. If your horse has previously had bad experiences during loading, expect him to become tense and agitated when he sees the trailer. Resist the urge to pet and reassure him. This will only convince him that his fears are justified. Instead, talk to him in a matter-of-fact voice and work on some of your earlier handling exercises. For example, you might practice walking in a 10-meter circle. Reward his compliance. As he relaxes you can gradually work toward the trailer. Some horses can be brought to the trailer quite rapidly but then will balk at the entrance. Others need a more gradual approach to overcome their fear. Proceed at a pace that is comfortable for your horse. Always end a training session at a point where your horse is successful, even if it's only a few feet closer to the trailer than where you started.
Once your horse will approach the trailer, walk him around it, let him sniff and explore it. You can reward this interest, but try to keep relaxed yourself. Once the horse is comfortable with the outside of the trailer, take him to the entrance – be it a ramp or a step up. Encourage his curiosity. Let him stretch his neck inside and explore. He may even take a step up. Calmly reward him if he does. If he doesn't, give him your usual cue to go forward. If he won't move, resume the hip tapping to get his feet moving. Reward him and stop tapping as soon as one foot goes on. At this point some horses may happily load themselves. There's nothing wrong with this, except you may have a problem unloading him. It may be simpler after getting one foot on if you tell him to stop and then ask him to back up. Once he is happily loading and unloading one foot, you can proceed to load and unload two, then three and finally all four. For the step up he will now be in the trailer. If there's a ramp you can walk him forward on this until he is in the trailer. Do not immediately rush to tie him and close the rump bar. Practice standing quietly, then unload and repeat several times before adding these steps. Talk to him quietly as the ramp or back of the trailer is closed.
Once he is loading happily you might practice with other styles of trailers. You should also try loading him at night, in rain and high winds or other unpleasant types of weather. This will prepare your horse for being loaded under any circumstances.
Other Trailer Problems
For some horses, it is not the loading itself that causes fear as much as the ride. These horses may have been involved in a trailer accident or were the victims of a careless driver who shook them up too many times. Learning to drive a trailer with respect and concern for the occupants is important. You have to avoid sudden stops and starts, speeding around corners, and anything else that can send an unwary horse off balance. It is not safe for handlers to accompany horses while the trailer is in motion, but having a seasoned companion horse inside will help the horse relax. Don't tranquilize your horse for travel; it will make it harder for him to find its balance, and he may not learn as well from the experience. Instead, gradually desensitize the horse. Once he's loaded, start the engine, run it for a short time, shut it off and unload him. When he can handle this, begin driving short distances (just a few minutes), on fairly smooth and straight pieces of road if possible. Gradually build up the time he rides, and if he tolerates the trip well, make a big fuss over him when you stop.
Some horses load fine but then don't want to get off. They may feel insecure going to new places, especially backing into areas that are unfamiliar. In general, using the same one-foot-at-a-time loading and unloading strategy should circumvent this problem. However, if you become aware of this behavior only after you have the horse loaded, there are a few things you can try. Back your ramp trailer up to a bank so the ramp is less steep. If there is room in the trailer you may be able to turn the horse around. Most horses will go down the ramp when they can see where they are going. Failing this, attach a lead line to both sides of the horse's halter with a handler on each. Usually horses will exit quickly with this arrangement.
If you haven't had time to work through the loading process and you must load your horse, the following strategies might help. If possible, give him time to sniff and explore the trailer. Sometimes turning him in tight circles several times before attempting to load may get him on before he realizes what is happening. Grain or carrots may lure some aboard. If these tactics don't work you may need to re-examine the need to load him right away. Blindfolding, goading and using a butt strap can all be extremely dangerous.
Tranquilizing is also a poor idea.
Current research in France may soon offer a solution. Researchers there are using a relaxer pheromone applied intranasally. Pheromones are natural substances secreted to the outside of the body and perceived (as by smell) by other individuals of the same species. Animals use these odors as a means of communication. The pheromone being tested appears to relax the horse, allowing even extremely temperamental horses to load calmly within five minutes of application. However, if and when the pheromone becomes available, it will probably be expensive.
In the meantime, training all horses to load happily and quietly, whether or not you think it's necessary, makes perfect horse sense. In the process, your horse's ground manners will also have improved and you'll have forged a deeper bond with him while overcoming an annoying and potentially dangerous problem.