Nine steps to solving common trailering issues
Many loading problems don’t stem from actually putting the horse on the trailer; instead, it is usually the stress or discomfort the horse endures once loaded, while in motion, or during unloading that causes the issues. Horses are linear thinkers, which means their thought processes follow step-by-step progressions. If they are having a problem while in the trailer or coming out of it, they may become reluctant to load on subsequent occasions.
The first step in creating a long-term solution is understanding which part of the trailering process is causing the most anxiety for your horse. This nine-step checklist gives you the tools to identify, understand, and resolve trailering challenges. Once your horse starts to associate positive experiences with the trailer, you should see improvement.
1 Is the trailer the right size for your horse? When a horse is squished into a trailer that is not large enough, he may scare himself by hitting his head or struggle with discomfort with his body jammed into too small a space. Balance can also be an issue if restricted space hinders his ability to shift his weight. Some horses travel better in one type of trailer over another (slant load vs. straight load, for instance, or loose in a stock trailer, facing backwards, etc.), or even in a certain spot within the trailer.
2 How is your driving? Erratic, speedy, or jerky driving is not only terrifying for the horses in the trailer, it is dangerous.
3 Is your horse in pain? Balancing in a moving trailer puts extra stress on the horse’s body. If a horse is in pain, or has chronic physical issues, the trailer may aggravate his discomfort. If a horse with a known painful issue or injury must travel to the vet clinic, make sure to drive especially carefully and discuss options with your vet to keep your horse more comfortable during the journey.
4 Is your horse used to being in a small stall? When a horse is on 24-hour pasture or housed in a roomy box stall and not used to being confined in a smaller space, it can cause stress and anxiety. Horses are prey animals that need to use all their senses and have plenty of room to move around. Being confined in a box can be scary, especially when they cannot look around or hear over the road noises to interpret what is going on. Gradually introducing the smaller confines of a standing stall or trailer is an important step to practice – especially with
5 Is your horse comfortable being isolated from his friends? Being separated from his buddies, especially when he can’t see them, can be very stressful to a horse. Start with isolating the horse for short periods of time and work up to longer stretches until he is accepting the situation calmly. (Be sure he has lots of hay to keep him occupied.)
6 Can you position your horse against the stall walls? Horses can usually navigate the space in their stall without bumping into the walls, which is not the case in the trailer. It’s not uncommon for a horse to resist having his body pushed close enough to touch a wall, or to jump a little when it does. Take this reaction out of the trailering equation by practicing positioning your horse in his stall until he touches the wall. Once he is standing calmly, praise and repeat on the other side. Also ask him to bring his head up close to the wall in front of him. It’s a simple step that can make a world of difference for your horse.
7 Can your horse back out of a stall and/or through a gateway? Horses have a blind spot directly behind them. Turning a horse around in a trailer is not always an option, so practice backing through doorways and gateways until your horse relaxes and trusts your directions.
8 Can he back off small ledges and down small ramps? When backing up, the trailer step or ramp is in your horse’s blind spot; he can’t judge the height and may fear it’s a bigger drop than it is. You can practice by backing down a variety of terrains and using your voice to signal when a step down is coming. Use the word “step” until your horse starts to associate it with a step down. Start with very small drop-offs or inclines and work to larger ones. This creates confidence in your horse and offers a safe way to train him while remaining by his head.
9 Is your horse accustomed to his trailering gear? This step is especially important for young horses who need to spend some time wearing their trailering gear. This includes boots, bandages or leg wraps, blankets, halter fuzzies, and a head bumper. The horse should spend time in his stall, being led, and even doing all the above exercises with his trailering gear on. It’s about making sure the only new concept your horse has to get accustomed to once he loads on the trailer is being inside a moving box!