Horses seem to have a sixth sense about it—everything is ready and you’re right on time for a lesson, a show or the vet. It’s time to put the horse on the trailer. And then he decides that the trailer is actually a horse-devouring monster. It’s frustrating!
The most common trailering problems usually involve the predictable issue of walking into the trailer. After all, you’re asking a claustrophobic prey animal to enter a suspicious, often dark box.
Opinions differ on whether loading with a step or a ramp is easier for horses, but we find it all depends on the horse, and perhaps the trailer. Some horses are anxious about the unsteady feel of stepping on a ramp, while others are convinced that they can’t hop up a step.
Sometimes, though, you have to get creative. We once had a horse named Jake, who was a horse full of anxieties. He’d been rescued from a field full of debris, where he was left after an unsuccessful racing career, so his reaction to anything that worried him was definitely to “shoot first and ask questions later.”
Not surprisingly, Jake was never eager to climb into the frightening box and was the master of the planted feet, the rolled eye and the suspicious snort. But we found if we could get him to put one foot on the ramp of the trailer and relax for a moment, that he would take a breath and then go on. Getting him to put that first foot on the ramp often required us to physically lift up a front leg and place it where we wanted, but it worked.
We have a gray Thoroughbred named Sam, now 18, and he’ll happily walk into the trailer, then immediately back out before you can attach the butt bar or shut the back doors. Sam always stands quietly if someone’s holding him, so the obvious and easy fix is to have someone who can shut the doors while we hold him quietly in place.
For horses like Sam, a large food reward, such as a pile of carrots, can distract him from his desire to fly out. Sam, though, is a sly old dog, and he can always tell when you’re alone, even with food. We’ve never broken Sam of his habit, so we’re always ready for him.
Frightening Experiences. The next most-common issue is a horse that simply doesn’t travel well. He loads OK, but then he kicks, or paws or scrambles in the trailer, most often the result of a frightening shipping experience.
Sometimes these experiences result from accidents, but we’ve seen people cause problems by driving their trailer too fast around curves or turns, usually because they don’t understand what it’s like to remain standing while the trailer is moving. So, if you have a horse who doesn’t travel well in the trailer, examine your driving and take extra caution when you are navigating turns and stopping.
But sometimes a young horse just needs experience in how to stabilize himself and sense changes in the road. We’ve found short, slow trips, usually with a friend, can get him over this hump.
But not always. When I was a teenager, my horse Buddy survived a terrifying trailer accident, so it was understandable that whenever he felt a turn coming, he would panic and scramble frantically, falling into the partition. It was as though his panic prevented him from remembering how to stand up.
Getting him over it was difficult. We hired a professional hauler’s three-horse Imperatore van, and for more than a year I would ride with him. When a turn was coming, and Buddy would start to check out and panic, I would make him move back and forth, tapping him with a whip, getting the horse to concentrate on something other than his fear and move his feet appropriately. After a few trips, Buddy became less panicky and more able to cope on his own, and finally he was able to ride in a trailer again.
(Author’s note: We don’t recommend riding in a trailer with a horse. It may even be illegal in some states. If necessary, it’s best done by a professional trainer/handler dressed in safety gear, including a helmet and protective vest.)
It’s Complicated. The most unusual of trailering issues is a horse who loads and travels great, but then doesn’t want to depart from his carriage upon arrival. Sometimes it’s a buddy sourness issue, one that can be solved by removing the other horse first. But sometimes it’s more complicated than that.
Cincy was a horse who had the unusual issue of loading and riding like a champ, but she refused to back out—she would leave if she could turn around and walk out facing forward. Often, an issue like this can be a lack of a horse understanding how to back up appropriately, but Cincy was actually excellent at backing up under saddle.
When we studied her resistance, though, it became clear that when she would start to take a step back, and her foot touched the lip at the edge of the trailer or a wall in a slant load, she would freeze and then lunge forward. She clearly didn’t trust any change of ground when she was going backward.
We started by teaching her to back up in the barn aisle and on the arn apron on command. Holding her with a chain shank attached to her halter, I would call her name and then command, “And back; and back,” with some clucks of my tongue. When she didn’t respond immediately, I tapped her on the front legs with a dressage whip. With a couple of days of work, she would immediately step backwards on command.
My purpose was to teach Cincy to associate my verbal commands with immediately moving backward (just as with any form of training), despite her anxieties.
Next, we taught her to back up onto and off of a raised cement platform that we use as an outdoor wash rack. This was a bit of a lengthy process, as her reaction to the raised lip of cement was the same as her reaction to the lip of the trailer.
Once we had her consistently backing up into the wash rack, we started backing her through poles laid on the ground in the arena, first rather widely apart, then rolled closer together, only slightly wider than her own width. Eventually, we added a second set of poles at a 90-degree angle, so she had to negotiate a turn while backing.
With this groundwork laid, we went back to the trailer, and found, happily, that Cincy now understood that she could trust the sensations of her feet touching something new, and she could back out happily.
Bottom Line. Understanding what your horse’s issue is with the trailer and why he’s having that issue are the keys to solving whatever the problem is. There is no one perfect method for training or re-training horses who have trailer issues. Experience, creativity, intuition and common sense can almost always get you through. See also Trailering Extras.
Article by Performance Editor John Strassburger