Trailer loading is very often a big issue for horses and their owners. There are several main reasons for this which are outlined here along with some strategies to help. Trailer loading is a vast subject and I will not be able to cover it all fully in this article but here are some things that will be helpful.
- Being a prey animal, horses can be fearful of going into and being locked in a claustrophobic space.
- Horses can feel anxious about the movement and noise of traveling.
- Horses have had a bad experience and slipped or lost their balance in the trailer and are scared to travel.
- Traveling can be physically uncomfortable, exhausting and tiring. The muscle fatigue that horses experience when they have to use a lot of physical effort to hold them self in balance is often not considered.
- Some horses may not be looking forward to the experience at the end of the trip. Perhaps traveling to a new destination and an unfamiliar environment is the cause of anxiety, or the pressure of competition is too much. Another concern is that when they have been bought and sold in the past they went on a float and never returned home leaving their friends behind or their mother behind at weaning.
The principles involved to overcome these things are:-
- Building the relationship with the horse to one of trust so that the horse would trust that you would never put them in a dangerous situation.
- Using approach and retreat to build their confidence with the trailer and travelling.
- Making the trailer a haven of safety and comfort.
- Explaining to them where they are going and when they will be back and what is happening – this will have more effect than what you might think.
I have often seen the second last principle “making the float a haven of safety and comfort” be misunderstood and misused when people make being outside the trailer feel so uncomfortable or even unsafe to the horse by over pressuring the horse. In these cases when the horses goes into the trailer they are not relaxed and calm but instead are introverted. Sometimes horses in these cases rush in and people mistake this for enthusiasm when it is actually anxiety and fear. Physically the horse is in the trailer but mentally and emotionally the horse may be in such a state of anxiety that they withdraw and go inside themselves and become introverted. The horse psychologically is not coping and their only way of dealing with the situation is to hide this state of inner turmoil deep inside themselves. When horses are in this anxious state it will take just the slightest incident to upset the horse and for them to start refusing to go into the trailer.
As an example of this, quite a few years ago I had a horse that at the time I thought was very good at trailer loading. When I got him I could stand outside the trailer and direct that he should go in the trailer and he would trot in. He would always trot in. One day there was some dew on the rubber so as he trotted in his hind leg slipped a little. It was not much, the hind foot just skidded a few centimetres. He rushed back out about frantically and there was no way that he wanted to get back in that trailer again. I realized that in actual fact he really hadn’t had any confidence at all in regards to trailer loading.
I knew that it was not possible for such a little incident to cause such a big reaction if a horse was really confident. He had not been trotting in because he was eager or feeling good about the trailer. He trotted in because he was worried about the consequences of not going in, almost like he was holding his breath, closing his eyes and diving in. It was his anxiety causing him to be impulsive and rush in. I realized that he had been introverted when he was standing in the trailer. This led me to look a lot deeper into everything that myself and others did with horses and notice how the horses really felt on the inside about what they were doing. It was my first experience of seeing that a lot of horses were introverted in trailers and even though they went in and traveled places they were really not calm and actually were fearful about it.
In the case of trailer loading, signs of the horse being introverted could be:-
- The horse is not looking around or showing any interest in the trailer. A relaxed and confident horse when standing in the trailer will sniff or look around and check things out – observing what is different, looking for feed or interacting with you or another horse.
- The muzzle will be tight, the eyes not blinking and the tail will be tight. Generally they will be tight and tense throughout the body and not breathing fully. The horse may be braced throughout the body and in the legs.
The less pressure you have to use to get the horse in the trailer the less likely they are to be introverted because they won’t go in until they are ready. This doesn’t mean that you may not have to stimulate the horse to try because if you do not have a clear intention and encourage and support them to get in when they already don’t want to, then they will have no motivation to try. Our job is to have a clear intention and then encourage and support the horse. If a horse is introverted in the trailer, going back and using more ‘approach and retreat’ in the loading process and using less pressure to get the horse to ‘approach’ will be important.
If a horse is displaying signs of introversion whilst in the trailer there are things you can do to help change this pattern. Make sure the tail gate is down and the butt bar is open and the horse is NOT tied while you do this. The horse must KNOW that he can retreat at any time and he also must know that the WAY to retreat is by backing out of the trailer, not by jumping forward or trying to squeeze out through the front door. Sometimes having the front door open makes the float more inviting but I would have the door open on the opposite side to the side that you are loading the horse. This will make it less likely that the horse would try to use it as an emergency exit if they panicked. This is just an extra safety precaution, just in case they thought forward if they panicked, but it is an important one. If you have used approach and retreat well in teaching the horse to get in and not just tricked them or forced them in, then they should know to back out if they need to ‘retreat’ because you have backed them out so many times in the learning process. They must know that if they are ever unsure or not confident they can back out.
One of the techniques to change the pattern of being introverted if they are rushing into the trailer is to not allow the horse to go all the way in. Lead the horse up the ramp a few steps and then back a few steps, then forward one step and back one step etc. Get them to stop half way in the trailer and lower their head. This will just quietly interrupt the pattern and get the horse thinking again instead of doing something robotically while being mentally and emotionally shut down and not thinking. It will get the horse to acknowledge and accept the fact that he is OK in the trailer.
You can work both at a psychological level and a physical level to change their emotional state. Talk to the horse, rub them gently and reassuringly and then by changing the physical muscle tension patterns in the body you can start to affect the emotional state. Because the physical patterns that go with unconfidence and an introverted state are tight tense muscles, gently massaging the muscles and gently moving the skin over the muscles in small circles, similar to the Tellington Touch method, will physically communicate with the cells and change their tension. By not allowing the body to stay in the physical state needed to maintain this negative emotional state you will release that emotion and it will be replaced with a more positive emotion which is associated with soft muscles.
When the muscles let go and relax, the body cannot stay in an anxious, fearful emotional state and the chemistry and the messages relayed throughout the nervous system will change. So you will be changing the emotional state by changing the physical state of the horse. I especially like to massage their muzzle, nostrils, ears, the hindquarter muscles of the rump, the back of the thighs ( a cupping massage can work well on the hindquarters when the horse is confident enough to handle that) and then gently move all the joints in the tail and lift the tail and move the tail bone around. All of this helps unlock the tension and negative emotion physically trapped in the body. When working on this you would either stand up the front and have the front door open so you could get out easily if you needed to or be on the other side of the divider if you were working on the side of the horse. Make sure you have a clear and safe space for your self and an exit route for yourself if the horse did panic, so have the divider open half way, butt bar open and the front door open. If a horse really gets scared in a float it can be dangerous for both you and the horse so be prepared and be safe. When a huge powerful animal gets really scared it can be really dangerous. So as said earlier, teaching your horse their exit route is critical. It is quite possible that the horse will need to back out as you start massaging or touching them because you will be bringing emotions to the surface that have been hidden. They may rush out!!!! Allow that if it happens. In the teaching process horses build confidence to stay in the trailer when they know they can get out when they need to.
I also like to see if the horse can move their feet and pick their legs up while they are standing in the trailer to test how relaxed they are. PLEASE NOTE that you need to be very careful if you do this because the horse could kick or run back out when you first try this. At first you do NOT want to bend down and use your hands to do this because if they did run back or kick you could get hurt. Teach them before you go in the trailer to pick up their legs when you gently tap the legs with a stick. Using the Positive Reinforcement and Marker Training will be particularly helpful with this as it can be with the whole process of trailer loading. You can find out more about this in the article called Motivating Horses on my website.
Ask the horse to pick up their legs by gently tapping the legs with the stick outside the trailer, then again when they are on the ramp. When they can pick up the feet on the ramp and half way in the trailer then it should be no problem once they are all the way in. When asking them to pick up the feet you would be standing in the opposite bay of the trailer. You don’t need them to hold their feet up, just see if the horse can lift them for a moment. As mentioned previously when I do this I have the back butt bar open and the horse is not tied so they can back out of the trailer and can do their own retreat if they need to. A horse that cannot confidently lift all of their feet is likely to have problems traveling because to be balanced and comfortable the horse needs to pick up and move the feet around rather than rigidly stand fixated in one place. Just imagine how exhausting and muscle fatiguing it would be to travel a long distance physically fixed and holding tight in one position. I load the horse on both sides of the divider and check all this out on both sides as it helps them to be more confident.
Feeding the horse in the trailer can also help to change introverted emotional patterns because the movement of relaxed chewing will not facilitate negative emotions but it will support positive emotions. Using treats and Positive Reinforcement and Marker training can be really helpful with trailer loading for this reason and more. Feeding your horse on the trailer can also turn the trailer in a place where “good things happen”.
You can talk to your horse and explain about traveling. It is important to be honest though and acknowledge the fact that you know traveling can be uncomfortable and you are doing your best to make it the best experience possible. Centering and breathing fully and expansively yourself will make a big difference to helping them release their anxieties and using some homeopathic remedies or rescue remedy can also help them. In some cases it might be good to give yourself some too while you are working with the horse because often the human is just as anxious as the horse. You need to know and feel certain that things are safe if you want the horse to trust you and feel safe.
Your next step will be preparing the horse for the movement and noise of the trailer. Again the back of the trailer must be open so that the horse can go out whenever they feel the need to and of course the horse is not tied up. You can do things like move the butt bar back and forward, lift the pins up and down, tap the sides of the float and the roof with a stick. You can step up and down off the ramp and then progress to where you move out of the horses view. Going out of view is important as it prepares the horse for being in their by themselves and makes sure that they are not just getting their confidence from you. They need to be self confident in there. Eventually you would want to be able to bounce on the tailgate and have your horse be unperturbed. Your horse will experience all this movement and noise and more when they are actually traveling in the trailer so you need to prepare them for this.
You need to be always using the concept of ‘approach and retreat’. The more rhythmical you are in applying this stimulus the more easily accepted it will be. Approach in the sense of ‘Approach and Retreat’ means that you stimulate just enough to stretch the horse out of their comfort zone but only to a point where the horse can still cope with the situation. If you push them ‘over the edge’ emotionally you will be having an adverse affect. You retreat, or decrease the stimulation before the horse gets reactive or overly concerned or feel that they need to physically move away from the situation. Gradually you will be increasing the levels and range of what they can feel safe with.
I would do all of this and have my horse confident with it all before I would even consider closing the butt bar. To prepare your horse for the butt bar put your stick ( a stiff “energy stick” ) behind the horse’s butt and let them feel the pressure. If they panic when they feel it just allow them to back out. A lot of people might think that would teach the horse to push their way out but in fact it does the opposite. Allowing them to come out and not feel trapped builds their confidence. You never want to lock the butt bar until a horse is 100% confident in there. If they back out, as they do so, keep a firmish pressure against their butt with the stick with an intention on the stick that that suggests that they could stay in there, whilst you allow them out. You are not trying to hold them in with the stick. After sometime you will get to where the pressure of the stick stops them and then you could tap a little bit with the stick and get them to walk forward again. When they are really good at this then you are ready to do the same with the butt bar. Reach across behind the horse to take hold of the butt bar DO NOT STAND DIRECTLY BEHIND THE HORSE OR THE BUTT BAR in case they rush out. You might need to “hook” the butt bar with your stick and string. Allow the horse to feel the pressure of the butt bar and back out if they need to. If they are extremely emotionally as they rush out just release the butt bar, if they are not too extreme hold a little bit of pressure or tap them gently on the rump with the stick to see if you can change their mind and get them to walk forward again. When they can feel the butt bar and stay in and relax then you are finally ready to close the butt bar. Phew !!!!!!!
Some horses are not terrified of the trailer itself but know that the experience of traveling is not comfortable and they are nervous about their balance while traveling. Often horses load without too much difficulty the first time they are taught to load but it is after they have had a trip and didn’t feel good about it that problems arise. The more relaxed and confident the horse is in the trailer the less physically stressful and tiring the trip will be because the horse will not be holding all their muscles tight through anxiety. Also the horse will move their feet to balance rather then just hold and brace in their muscles because they are out of balance. Apart from implementing the techniques described above we also need to look at some other factors in regard to the horse’s safety and comfort whilst traveling.
Have you ever traveled in a horse float or trailer? Do you have any idea of how uncomfortable, physically exhausting, noisy or hot they can be. Sometimes it can even get hard to breathe in there if there is not adequate ventilation. So anything we can do to make this experience more comfortable is important. If horses have pre-existing conditions of sore backs and weak hindquarters traveling is going to be harder for them. So treating these issues can improve the traveling experience for them. A few short trips rather than marathons with a good experience at the end destination like grazing or whatever else might motivate your horse to want to travel again will help. For example, a free play in an arena with another horse for a horse that usually doesn’t have much room or a mate to play with might be something they could look forward to.
The design of floats will make a big difference and if you want to get more ideas about what design features help horses to travel more comfortably and with less stress you could go and look at the website for the JR Easy traveller www.jr-easytraveller.com This company has done a lot of research into this subject and they also have a free CD available on some of their research experiments. I like their way of thinking and their website can give you a lot more information than I can give you here. It will give you some insight and possibly ideas on how you might be able to improve your horses traveling experience.
Here are some things that I have found important:-
- Non slip floor surface. This is a very important factor to consider. Although most trailers have rubber on the floor it often is slippery as soon as it gets wet. I advise all reading this to go and test the floor of the float by sliding the heel of your boot along it when it is wet – pour some water on it or test the rubber with just the moisture from the horse’s manure. Even those floors that visually appear to have a lot of grip can be slippery when wet and a horse has little chance of staying on his feet. The horse will be unconfident and physically straining himself to hold his balance if he doesn’t trust the surface he is standing on.
The rubber matting on the floors and tailgates can get wet from rain blowing in the back while a horse is in transit. It can be wet from urine or even just the manure from the horse is often all it takes to make the rubber slippery. If horses are sweating through overheating or anxiety when the sweat drips and hits the floor the rubber becomes very slippery.
The better the traction between the floor and your horse’s feet the safer, less physically tiring and more confident your horse will be about traveling. You may need to lay down some ‘grippier’ rubber matting on top of what you already have. This can also serve as protection for the spray on rubbers that are frequently used in floats. It will prevent horses pawing through the spray on rubber and allowing moisture through which will start rotting through wooden floors or rusting metal structures underneath.
Another remedy is to put wood shavings on the floor. It will soak up the moisture and give more traction. The shavings need to be renewed after several uses as they can become dusty. You could also use sand or dirt on the floor and in times of desperation I have even cut open a bale of hay. A big piece of carpet can also be very good. Having the footing safe and non-slip is a must. It is our responsibility to make sure the trailer is safe.
- Large front window – horses like to be able to look ahead and see where they are going.
- Light and airy – Good ventilation is very important. Many horses over heat in trailers especially when they are traveled with rugs on. Have windows and air vents open and check your horse regularly on long trips.
- Butt bars – placing this forward of the tailgate leaving a gap between it and the tail gate allows room for tail. To aid their balance many horses sit back on the tail gate and lean on their tails even to the point of rubbing themselves red raw to take some of the stress of holding themselves upright off their back and hindquarter muscles and joints. I have found that solid metal butt bars are generally safer than chains as horses are more likely to go under chains if they panic and try and get out of the trailer in a hurry.
- More room to spread the legs – the wider apart the horse can spread his legs the easier it is for them to balance, so NOT having a central divider that extends all the way to the floor will give them more leg room.
- Encased and supported upper body – if you go to the JR Easytraveller website and view their CD this theory will be explained. It makes a lot of sense and I feel that it takes a lot of the physical strain out of traveling.
- Room to stretch and lower the neck –This is important for comfort, breathing and drainage of the sinuses and balance. Remember that the horse’s head and neck is an important part of their balancing system and room to stretch the neck will allow the horse to be more relaxed throughout the rest of his body. Not enough room to stretch the neck is often a huge problem and disadvantage of a lot of angle and side loading trucks and floats.
Unfortunately this has to be mentioned because it is seen all too often and people wonder why they have horses that don’t want to load. Going too fast around corners, too fast through roundabouts, too fast on uneven bumpy roads and braking too hard are all going to make the horse’s balance difficult and the trip uncomfortable. You may think I am stating the obvious but when I watch how many people drive they are very inconsiderate or unaware of what the horse is experiencing. When you are towing your horse you have to be totally mindful of them and not worrying about holding up other traffic or being in a hurry to get somewhere. If you have asked a horse to put his life in your hands by getting in a horse float you better be sure to make it the best and safest experience you can for them.
When coming into a corner give yourself much more time to slow down so you don’t have to brake hard and when coming out of a corner you should not accelerate until the float is on the straight after the corner. Quite often you will see that the driver accelerates as soon as the car is on the straight but the float is still right in the middle of the turn.
Tying horses in floats
While we are on the topic of traveling horses in floats it is worth talking about tying horses in trailers. There is one golden rule and is that when loading a horse he should not be tied until the back is secured at least with the butt bar across and even preferably waiting until the tailgate is up. The reason being that if the horse was to panic and try to back out of the trailer, if they felt the entrapment of the halter in that moment, they are likely to panic more, throw themselves around and injure themselves and / or damage the trailer. When unloading, the horse should always be untied first before the tail gate and butt bar is opened for the same reasons as above.
While traveling I prefer to have horses tied rather than loose. The reasons for this are that by restricting how far the horse can turn their head around they are less likely to try to turn their whole body around if they were to panic in the trailer for some reason. Also in case of an emergency they will already have their halter on if you need to get them out in a hurry. If a horse did fall down in the trailer, having the head tied can help stop the front end from going all the way down especially if the lead rope is tied up high and tying could help the horse to stay on their his feet or assist them to get up if their back end goes down. Tying will also prevent the head and neck from going under the chest bar.
Always use a quick release knot, baling twine or other quick release gadget and have a knife in a place that is easy to reach to cut the lead rope/string if you needed to. If possible have the lead rope tied up high and in a place where you could reach in and untie it without physically having to get your whole body into the trailer.
Other safety aspects –
- Don’t have loose unsecured items in the trailer that can move around and injure or get tangled around their legs frightening them or making it difficult stand.
- Check the safety of the floor and structure under the floor boards and ramp.
- Make sure the braking system is working correctly along with lights and indicators.
- Make sure the interior pins holding the dividers etc are kept well lubricated so they could be easily removed if needed.
- Also check that there are no pins or other things that the horse could get the halter hooked on or bump their eyes on.
- Check and double check your vehicle and float hitch connection before leaving and I even check it again when I stop in transit on a trip.
Applying all of this knowledge should really help you to understand loading and traveling more from your horse’s point of view, give you ideas to help build the horse’s confidence and help to make the whole experience a lot better for both you and the horse.