It can happen to the best of us. You're late for a horse show or hunt meeting, you try to hurry your horse into the trailer, he refuses to load, and you end up missing the event. Or perhaps it's more than just an occasional occurrence. Maybe your horse has made a habit of battling when you try to load him and now you can't get him in no matter how hard you try.
Few experiences are more exasperating than trying to load a reluctant horse into a trailer. When the horse doesn't "cooperate," even the calmest, coolest-tempered person can become tense and aggravated. The situation is equally stressful for the horse. Not only is he being asked to go into a trailer – something he usually will not want to do – but now he's got an enraged human to deal with.
What Makes a Horse a Difficult Loader?
What causes a horse to turn into a difficult loader? One factor is simply the horse's instincts. "Horses naturally perceive anything that represents restriction and confinement as a threat to their safety," says Suzanne Ridenour, a horse trainer and riding instructor in Crystal Lake, Ill. Entering a small enclosure such as a trailer goes against a horse's instincts.
Some horses balk at loading because of an unpleasant experience in their past. "A horse will remember a traumatic or unpleasant trailer ride, and he will do whatever he cannot to repeat that experience," says Audrey Bray, a horse trainer and American Horse Shows Association judge in Seminole, Fla.
A particularly long ride, speeding over bumps in the road, taking corners too sharply, too many sudden stops, or an accident resulting in the horse being injured can cause the horse to associate discomfort with being in the trailer.
But more often than not, your horse may refuse to load because you are sending him the wrong signals. "Horses are very good at reading the body language of humans," Ridenour says. "If you lack confidence, your horse knows it, and he will respond accordingly." So if you appear anxious, your horse may think there's a real reason to be afraid of what's in the trailer and become fearful himself. Or, if he's a "bully" type of horse, he may sense your hesitancy and decide you're someone who doesn't need to be obeyed.
However, if you try to force him to load, that may make him even more determined to put up a fight, says Sandy Arledge, a professional horse trainer and American Quarter Horse Association judge in San Diego, Calif. Even if you are eventually successful in forcing your horse into the trailer, the battle will be waged again next time.
Tips for the Trailer-Shy Horse
So what's the best way to deal with a trailer-shy horse? Obviously, your best bet is to not give your horse a reason to dread the trailer in the first place. But if it's too late for that, here are some suggestions to take the load off your mind:
Put the trailer in the pasture with your horse, open the door, and allow your horse to explore the trailer on his terms. Let your horse walk up to the trailer, look inside, smell it, and maybe put one food inside. The idea, Ridenour says, is to "get your horse comfortable with the trailer when you don't have to go anywhere and you can be totally relaxed, rather than trying to load your horse into the trailer for the first time the day you're leaving for a show."
You might also consider feeding your horse his meals on the ramp of the trailer. "Each day you can move the food bucket or hay bag a little further inside the trailer," Bray says. "The horse learns that the trailer isn't that bad of a place and starts to associate it with something positive."
When preparing to load, make the surrounding conditions seem as "safe" as possible for your horse. If your equine is timid around strangers, limit the number of people present to two or three and make sure they are people your horse is familiar with. If your horse seems bothered by the thud of the ramp, put some bedding or padding on the loading ramp to muffle the noise. If you've got a very tall horse trailer and a steep ramp, park your trailer where you can rest the ramp on a hill so that your horse doesn't have to walk up a steep grade.
If possible, back your trailer right up to the stable door so the horse has nowhere to go but into the trailer. Don't give him the option to bolt.
Reward your horse with treats such grain or carrots after he makes some progress, Arledge suggests. You don't have to wait until the horse is all the way in the trailer or even halfway in the trailer to reward him. With an extremely fearful horse, even just a few steps toward the trailer may merit a couple pieces of carrot. That may be just enough incentive for him to keep going.
Allow yourself plenty of time to load your horse and to travel so you're not rushing. "If you're in a panic to get out the door, your horse is going to sense your anxiety and he won't want to get in the trailer – especially if you end up getting mad at him," Ridenour says. If you have enough time you can be more patient with your horse and he will be more willing to cooperate.
Lead your horse up to the loading ramp while telling yourself you know he'll go right in. "Horses get their confidence from their rider/handler," Arledge says. "A common mistake is approaching the trailer tentatively and stopping to look at the horse. Just calmly lead him as far as you can. Walk up to the trailer as though it were the most normal thing in the world to get into a narrow, cramped, dark box." Chances are if you have a positive attitude it should rub off on your horse.