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5 Trailer Loading Tips for Anxious Horses

horse anxietyMy thoroughbred gelding was acting like a teddy bear nibbling carrots out of my hand one minute. Ten minutes later, he was acting like a wild stallion ready to fight to the death out in the riding ring.

His worthy foe… an out of place hay bale at the far end of the ring.  Yup, horses can become anxious for a wide number of (sometimes silly) reasons. 

We’ve all seen horse anxiety in action. It’s when these sources of anxiety crop up over and over, that horse owners become discouraged… and downright exhausted.

In this article, we’re going to look at the five common causes of anxiety for horses.  Then, we’ll take one of the biggest ones — loading into horse trailer — and give you some practical tips from a 3-star Parelli horse trailer for getting the job done.

5 Common Causes of Anxiety in Horses

#1 Nutrition

Let’s start with an easy one.  Are you feeding your horse the right amount of feed?

If not, you might be the reason your horse is acting like a tightly wound spring every time you sit on his back.  Too much feed can leave a horse with more energy than he knows what to do with.

This is especially true if you’re feeding too many nonstructural carbs in the form of grain.  To analyze your horse’s feed, try checking your horse’s body-condition score and talking with your vet.  They can help you adjust your horse’s feed so they can stay well nourished without enough energy to launch them into space.

#2. Turn out and exercise

My thoroughbred almost always kicks up his heels when I turn him loose into the pasture.  This freedom is an important part of his daily routine. It gives him a chance to wander around the grounds, graze, and interact freely with other horses.

Don’t assume it’s enough to ride him for one hour and then leave him in the stall for the rest of the day.  He needs time to exercise outside on his own.

#3. Separation

horse turn out

In the wild, horses form strong bonds with other horses in their herd.  It’s no different with your horses on the farm!  They become close friends with other animals and get understandably upset when separated.

Separation anxiety is especially a problem when just two horses live together for a long period of time.  Often, the one who is left behind will pace the fence, whinny, and work themselves up into a lather.

It’s best if you can keep horses in groups of at least three.  This way, one can go without leaving just one behind.  If you’re trying to fix separation anxiety, start slowly by keeping the second horse somewhat nearby until the horse who is leaving feels a bit more confident.  Do this regularly so they get used to being apart.  Overtime, your horses will adapt.

#4. Too much horse

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but sometimes a horse who is acting “anxious” is really just acting like his normal self.  You might actually be the weak link in the partnership. 

In this situation, you’ll want to seek help from a professional trainer.  They can help you build your own skills so you can better support your horse’s natural energy levels.  Or, in extreme cases, you might want to seek a different horse to partner with.

#5.  Mental or physical discomfort

We left the biggest one for the end.  Horses are prey animals so they are naturally going to be cautious of strange sights, sounds, situations, or other animals.  This is also the category where horse trailer anxiety fits in best.

Horses are naturally claustrophobic animals, so if you put them in a situation where they see something unusual, hear strange noises, or feel confined, they are likely to react.  The best way to overcome this type of anxiety is to introduce your animal to the strange new thing slowly.  If they are genuinely afraid, help them to learn that this is not something that will harm them.

If, and this was the case with the hay bale in my story, they are just using something as an excuse to act up, you’ll want to keep them focused on the task at hand.  I rode my horse in 20m spiral circles closer and closer to the scary hay bale at the end of the ring.

Eventually, he got close enough that I left him sniff it and he even took a mouthful.  (At which point, I told him how dumb he was acting.)

How to Fix Horse Trailer Anxiety

When it comes to horse trailers, this anxiety often has to do with the build of the horse trailer.  Is it dark inside with a narrow door?  Does the trailer make loud metal rattling noises when you step on the back ramp?  Are there enough windows to allow light and air to circulate?

Any one of these factors could make a trailer feel like a trap for your horse.  So, the first step is to choose a horse trailer which is designed to feel open, airy, and noise free.

As for loading your horse onto the trailer, here are some tips from 3-star Pat Parelli trainer Kelly Sigler.

  1. Let your horse get used to the trailer without any pressure.  Don’t make things about the trailer at first.  Just turn your horse out into an open space where they can relax.  Let them rest beside the trailer and wait until being around or beside the trailer is no big deal.
  2. Wait for your horse to be curious.  Once your horse begins to sniff the trailer up close, then it’s time to start asking them for more.
  3. Don’t confine them right away.  When you’re asking your horse to follow you onto the trailer, don’t immediately make them stay on the trailer.  Instead, let them go as far as they feel comfortable and then let them back off for some relief. 
  4. Stay longer and longer. Each time they walk onto the trailer, try to encourage them to stand on the trailer for longer and longer periods of time.  If your trailer has a butt bar, tie a string to the bar to swing it up without putting yourself in danger behind your horse.  If your trailer has a walk-on-walk-off configuration, try to just walking your horse onto and right off the trailer so they get used to the feel of the floor, the sounds, and the general space inside.
  5. Do approach and retreat with the back door.  Once your horse is into his stall space, do approach and retreat with the door.  Only secure the back if your horse feels comfortable with it.  And only tie your horses head if they are secured from backing up.  Never tie your horse before raising the butt bar.

One of the best horse trailer designs for horse trailer loading is the Reverse Safetack horse trailer from Double D Trailers.  We are able to build these models with custom sized stalls perfect for your large or small horse.

Side ramps and doors allow your horse to walk on and off the trailer without having to ever back up.  Plus, the rear SafeTack compartment swings open like a second door allowing for a wide open loading space unlike other conventional slant load trailers.

Loading onto a SafeTack Reverse trailer:

If you have any questions about horse anxiety and horse trailer loading, contact Brad Heath.  

Practical Horseman: How Can I Solve His Separation Anxiety?
Horse & Rider: 4 Reasons Why Your Horse is Too Hot to Handle
EquiSearch: Ease Your Anxious Horse: Tips to Handle Horse Anxiety
Equus: Calming the Anxious Horse

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