It’s a cool summer morning and everything’s all set for the county horse show. The horse has been washed until he shines. The tack has been oiled and hours of training are finally going to be put to the test in the show ring.
There’s just one problem.
It’s been 1.5 hours and this Thoroughbred gelding still will not load onto the trailer. He’s gotten close a few times, teasing with two feet on and two feet off… right before he explodes backwards in a rush of energy.
No amount of pulling, pushing, coaxing, tempting or begging has worked to load the stubborn beast. (Check out this pic... he looks so innocent!)
His young teenage owner and her mother are at their wit’s end. And after another 30 minutes of trying, they finally throw in the towel and give up. It’s too late to make it to the show in time.
Now, if you’ve ever been in a similar situation, you understand the frustration and disappointment felt by these two women. Literally hours can be wasted trying to get a horse to load onto a trailer.
So what’s the deal? Why won’t the horse just get on the trailer?
In this article, we are going to take a look at why some horses are so tough to load. Then, we’ll share some ideas that may help you next time you’re ready to hit the road.
It's not in a horse's natural instinct to want to walk into a horse trailer. Everything about it feels unnatural to them. The floor feels hallow and unstable, the bars clatter with every step, and the walls are very closed in.
You see, horses are prey animals. They operate under the rulebook of “flight or flight.” So, asking them to walk willingly onto an enclosed trailer goes against their natural desire for space and room to flee.
We spoke with Kelly Sigler, a 3-Star Parelli Professional, who explained, “Their instinct tells them NOT to get trapped — or they will get eaten.”
Plus, horses, just like people, have different personalities that help determine how they’ll react when asked to load.
Kelly explained how the Pat Parelli training system divides horse’s personalities into four basic quadrants. Horses can be introverted, extroverted, right-brained, and left-brained.
A right-brained horse will need more time to develop their confidence. A left-brained horse may be braver with the trailer, but they are more likely to react badly if they see you as a predator trying to force them in.
It’s important to know your type of horse and gain their trust before asking them to follow you onto a horse trailer.
To illustrate how different horse’s can be, just look one of our clients named Bonnie. She told us how she successfully trained twenty horses how to load onto her conventional slant load aluminum trailer (similar to photo right -- note the narrow doorway).
Then, one year, she purchased a four-year-old Lusitano mare. Bonnie shared, “I took her through the same process of trailer loading and getting her comfortable on my trailer.”
But after their first training drive around the block, her horse exploded out of the trailer in a blind panic. “First time she unload, she came outta there like a rocket! I mean like a rocket backwards!”
Bonnie continued to work with her horse, but could see things would not improve. This particular horse needed a different solution.
In cases like this, you may think of methods you’ve used over the years to force a horse onto the trailer.
One woman even told us how she witnessed two strong men physically lift the rear end of a stubborn quarter horse mare. They locked arms behind her haunches and shoved her into the trailer before slamming the back doors shut.
But is that really best for the horse?
We believe that horse owners should take the physical and mental well-being of the horse into consideration. When horses experience stress — because they are on a horse trailer where they don’t feel safe — they experience physical symptoms.
They’ll have an elevated heart rate, cortisol release (stress hormone), and adrenaline and epinephrine release that will amp them up so they can flee from danger. They may also sweat a great deal and become dehydrated.
All of these physical reactions put your horse in danger of physical illness. Your animal may arrive at a destination exhausted and shaking with nerves. He may also contract illnesses like shipping fever (pleuropneumonia) — associated with a persistent and severe cough.
In many cases, the type of trailer is playing a large role in your horse’s fear. Just look at a conventional slant load trailer. It has a stationary rear tack area and leaves a very narrow doorway for both horse and handler to pass.
One of our customers, a woman named Karen from Georgia, was having a terrible time teaching her gelding Rhett to load onto one such slant load. He was absolutely terrified to set foot on the trailer, so she began to look for other options.
Another of our customers, Tina from Pennsylvania, had a different type of issue. Her horse had survived multiple trailer accidents during his early life. These scary experiences left him scared of traveling… and very tough to load. She could get him on, but he was always a nervous wreck by the time they arrived.
Both of these women found success when they switched to our SafeTack slant load horse trailer — a more horse friendly trailer design. You see, horse’s have four basic needs in life: light to see, room to move, air to breathe, and safety from danger.
(Photo - Karen and horse with her old conventional slant load versus her new SafeTack slant load horse trailer.)
Let’s discuss these one by one…
LIGHT: Look for a trailer that has a wide open entryway so that light floods into the interior. There should be large windows and the inside of the trailer should be painted a light color so everything is easier to see.
ROOM: The inside of the trailer should be appropriately sized for the horse. If you have a large warmblood or draft horse, a regular sized horse trailer built may not be large enough. Instead, you’d need a warmblood horse trailer built for 17+ hand animals.
Horses also don’t like to back up since they can’t see directly behind their bodies. The right trailer configuration — like one with a walk-through design — can make it so you never need to back your horse again. Our SafeTack reverse load trailer works well for this. Some owners find they even have room to fully turn their horse for off-loading.
AIR: When thinking about the air quality in your trailer, look for one that has tubular head dividers so air can move around freely. Overhead vents and room for the horse to lower its head to snort out debris are also key.
Plus, the interior temperature of the trailer should be comfortable. Oftentimes, aluminum horse trailers with mill-finish aluminum roofs become extremely hot in the summer time. Look for a trailer with an insulated horse area so they temperature can stay in a safe range.
SAFETY: Finally, let’s think about safety — from the horse’s perspective. They won’t know if the trailer is made of the latest and greatest building materials. They will notice if the side of the trailer are jabbing them with sharp edges or if they rivets in the walls screech as you drive down the road.
That’s why we recommend at least 2-inches of padding surrounding the horse stall and 3M chemical bonding rather than rivets on the walls of the trailer.
Once you’ve identified a horse trailer that fits these criteria, your horse will feel more safe stepping on board. Here are some more tips to help train him to overcome his fears.
1. Help your horse become comfortable around the horse trailer.
Use approach and retreat to help your horse become more comfortable walking up to the trailer. Walk your horse up to the trailer calmly until they reach a point where they become bothered and want to stop. Let him take a breath and look around. Then, walk him away and repeat the process. Over time, he should be able to walk closer to the trailer and see it as no big deal.
2. Wait for your horse to take the lead in looking at the trailer.
Let your horse become curious about the trailer. He may reach out his nose and smell things. Reward him for the slightest try. When his confidence and curiosity are up, you may ask for him to go onto the trailer.
3. You should be the one to ask your horse to back off.
Don’t force him to stay on the trailer. Instead, ask him to back off (even if he’s only got two feet on) before he thinks to do it on his own. This will help your horse see you as a hero rather than a predator trying to force them onwards.
4. Slowly increase the time they stay on the trailer.
After they are comfortable standing there for a minute, start playing around with the butt bar or divider. Get them used to the noise and movement of these trailer parts.
5. Do ‘approach and retreat’ with the butt bar, divider, and door.
Again, approach these steps slowly to build your horse’s confidence. A second helper may be needed to help secure these items while you are at your horse’s head. Stay safe. Don’t tie your horse unless the butt bar is secure and door is closed. Then, untie before releasing either of these items.
6. Use a ‘walk-on-walk-off’ trailer so your horse never needs to back off.
Some trailers come with a side loading door which provides a true walk-on-walk-off experience. With a reverse load trailer, the horse can load from the side into a rear facing stall. Then, walk straight off the back of the trailer to unload. Since you’re not asking your horse to back up, this does a lot to lower their stress levels.
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