Troubleshooting Horse Trailer Loading: One Step at a Time

Consider these 4 behavior-science-based approaches to help your horse load safely.
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Consider these 4 behavior-science-based approaches to help your horse load safely

loading mare and foal into horse trailer
Many horses develop frustrating problems with loading at some point during their lives. The good news is fixing these problems might be easier than you think. | Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

As it typically happens, the one day you’re running late to meet your friends for a long-anticipated trail ride is the day your horse refuses to get on the trailer. He rears a bit when you try to lead him up the ramp, and when he finally does walk forward, he takes two quick sidesteps and you have to start over.

Many horses develop frustrating problems with loading at some point during their lives. The good news is fixing these problems might be easier than you think. Here, three equine behavior researchers weigh in on how to safely teach your horses to become more comfortable with trailer-loading.

Training Methods

First, recognize that each situation is unique. How you’ll train or retrain a horse to the trailer depends on the source of the problem: Is it due to fear or anxiety, or has he simply learned an avoidance behavior?

“The method that I recommend depends on the horse’s past experience and exactly what kind of problems the owner is seeing,” says Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, a Seattle-based IAABC-certified horse behavior consultant, research professor at the University of Puget Sound, and affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

To ensure long-term success and safety for all involved, Foster advises handlers to avoid confrontational methods and those that cause discomfort. “For serious loading problems, when you apply a confrontational method, it can actually make things much worse for the next time and for the future, especially if that horse starts out with serious fears,” she says. “If people become frustrated, their frustration can spill over into perhaps being a bit more physically harsh even than (they) intended.”

She also suggests owners watch the horse’s body language for signs of relaxation vs. impending distress. Signs of fear or anxiety include a tense body, wide-open eyes, snorting, flared nostrils, twitching ears, and dancing feet.

The following four methods can help the horse overcome this trailer-loading anxiety.

Positive reinforcement

Foster says research supports the efficacy of positive reinforcement (reward for doing the desired behavior) as a training method, and personally she has had long-term success with it. She uses treats to reward subtle behaviors, such as taking one step forward during trailer-loading attempts. This approach allows the horse to connect the action and the reward, a key part of the learning process. However, she does warn owners not to use food as a lure.

Using positive reinforcement, you should first work with the horse away from the trailer and teach him that you will reward each step forward with a treat. In addition, you can use a “marker” (such as a clicker) before the reward to reinforce and strengthen the desired behavior.

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Cert. AAB, is the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square. She says she often uses the word “good” as a marker. Once the horse responds consistently to the positive reinforcement, she begins using that method when trailer-loading.

Target training

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With this form of positive reinforcement, a horse follows a target, touches it with his nose, and receives a food reward. “Doing this with target training is really fun for the horse and the owner, and so a lot of people enjoy the whole process,” says Foster. “It does take some time, but it’s worth it in the long run.”

When rehabbing a problem loader or first training a young horse to load, McDonnell asks the horse to follow a feed pan filled with sweet-smelling alfalfa or senior feed (within an enclosure such as a paddock or pasture).

She says she spends about 10 minutes teaching the horse to follow the “target” pan through various obstacles (over a hose, through a doorway, through a gate, etc.), often without using a halter and lead rope. Then with trailer loading, she just walks into the trailer with the target and the horse follows. Once on the trailer, McDonnell feeds the horse a meal while he relaxes.

Behavior adjustment training (BAT)

This is one of Foster’s favorite training methods. As the handler leads the horse toward a trailer, he or she watches for the moment the horse focuses his attention on the trailer and stops before he shows signs of anxiety or tension, she says. She calls this “attention without tension.” The handler stays in place, allows the horse to relax, and then applies light pressure with the lead rope to take one more step forward with the horse before walking him in an arching turn away from the trailer.

First, “the horse has a lot of control, and you’re not pushing the horse past its emotional comfort limit,” says Foster. “And second, you’re rewarding the horse for stepping forward or staying calm, without putting it into a high-anxiety situation that could end up compromising safety or the horse’s emotional ­well-being.”

Differential reinforcement (aka pressure-release)

Angelo Telatin, MS, is an assistant professor in Delaware Valley College’s Equine Science and Management Department, in Doylestown, Pennsylvania, who compared equine training techniques and the psychology of learning in his master’s thesis. Telatin’s favorite training method is differential ­reinforcement, which is a pressure-release approach or a form of negative reinforcement (releasing the unpleasant stimulus when the horse performs the desired behavior).

This process involves adding pressure on the halter and tapping the horse gently on the chest or the shoulder with a long whip to elicit the response of moving forward one step at a time. Telatin first makes sure the horse understands these cues during groundwork. As soon as the horse steps forward, he stops the pressure and tapping and rewards with a clicker sound and a treat as positive reinforcement.

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After allowing the horse to investigate the trailer, he repeats the process while asking the horse to enter the trailer one step at a time. If a horse performs an evasive behavior, such as moving sideways or rearing, Telatin taps during the unwanted behavior, only stopping once the horse either comes down out of a rear or, if he has gone sideways, steps toward him.

“He has to be able to perform that escape behavior, find out that it’s not successful, it gets extinguished, and then the horse gets rewarded for the new (behavior),” says Telatin. He adds that if the procedure doesn’t work within five minutes, the handler is making a mistake within the sequence somewhere or rewarding the wrong behavior and should stop the session.

“If you’re thoughtful, mindful, and paying attention to what exactly you’re releasing pressure for, you can overcome some mild trailer-loading issues using that approach,” says Foster, but she cautions that many people do accidentally reward an unwanted behavior, especially if it’s a dangerous one, by releasing the pressure. “For many people, it can be potentially dangerous,” she says. “If you’re going to use that approach, it’s important to know when to stop and call it a day.”

McDonnell cautions handlers to never go from tapping to punishment. “When you’ve got a weapon in your hand or something that’s nagging like that, it can very quickly put the horse into a negative emotional state,” she says.

Aversive Reactions to Trailer Loading

Our sources also offered specific tips for how to deal with some of the most common unwanted trailer-loading ­behaviors.

Going sideways

Many horses will either turn entirely to the side or bolt sideways. Telatin says that while it’s natural to want to straighten the horse, in the horse’s mind the resulting release in pressure and delay in loading reward the behavior.

To block sideways movement and encourage the horse to move forward, both Foster and Telatin use a sturdy physical barrier that the horse cannot knock over, such as a gate, portable fence, or barn wall.

Balking/Refusal to move

McDonnell says that a horse that plants his feet and refuses to move is “shut-down scared.” She takes the horse for a walk and a change of scenery, where she then does target training for a couple of minutes before returning to the trailer.

Foster’s ultimate goal for balking is to keep the horse moving. Therefore, she likes to use BAT or target training. Telatin still uses differential reinforcement, but he will gently tap the horse’s hind legs or flank instead of the shoulder or chest.

Flying backward

For horses that like to reverse as soon as they load, Foster recommends using a calm and collected companion who will quietly demonstrate how it’s done. She allows both horses to relax in the trailer with a meal without closing them in. She starts with a short time spent in the trailer and increases it gradually over future sessions several days in a row.

In addition, McDonnell allows the anxious horse to unload at will. “That always is very hard on people because they’re sure I’ll never get them on again, but actually they always go on the second time easier,” she says. “If you let them off, that’s telling them they are not trapped and they can get out of there, and that’s a very important thing to some horses.”

Rearing and/or kicking

“At some point, the horse has learned that becoming aggressive works at preventing or delaying getting loaded,” says Foster. She focuses on safety for both horse and handler and reducing pressure so as not to trigger these behaviors.

McDonnell says kickers might be responding to an assistant that’s applying too much pressure from behind, while horses that rear might do so because the handler is putting too much pressure on the head while trying to pull the horse into the trailer. “I can keep slack on the lead, but the best way is to work without having a halter on them, which eliminates the horse’s worry that you are going to pull on them,” she says.

Anxiety inside the trailer

The handler needs to determine if this problem is due to the actual trailer movement or the duration of the trip. Both Foster and Telatin recommend building on sessions in the trailer gradually, starting with just turning on the truck’s ignition to going on short and then longer trips. Have the horse ride with a calm companion, and provide plenty of hay to make the process a positive experience.

Using a different rig can also ease a horse’s anxiety, because it’s often the trailer itself, or some aspect of it (the narrowness of the entrance, wobbliness, a tack area near the rear that makes the entrance smaller, a dark interior, etc.), that the horse has a problem with.

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If possible, McDonnell recommends training horses to load using a variety of trailer configurations—from big rigs to small, slant-, and straight-load trailers, step-ups and ramps, and trailers with different designs (side load, front load, tack room in the rear, tall, narrow, etc.)

Many horses do better with either a step-up or a ramp configuration, says McDonnell, adding that she loves trailers that offer both options.

Foster says she often works with a horse away from a trailer on another ramp or in an area with a step and builds up to the trailer gradually.

To reduce anxiety about a ramp’s footing transitions and to create a visual pathway, McDonnell suggests using a heavy rubber runner or several similar mats run end to end from the ground, up the ramp, over the tailgate’s seams, and into the trailer. She has even painted mats to match the ground as a sort of camouflage. Sometimes she uses mats when loading from a pre-built stone dust mound onto a ramp, which creates a more level transition for the horse.

Additional Safety Tips

When trailer-loading, McDonnell says it’s crucial to be calm, unhurried, and totally focused on the task at hand. Avoid all distractions, including your cell phone. Discuss the plan of action with any assistants beforehand to prevent miscommunication during the process. For added safety, handlers should wear helmets, safety vests, and steel-toe shoes.

Always remember that the best method is the one that helps that particular horse learn to be compliant and relaxed in the long run, not just on one particular day.

Most importantly, handlers should evaluate their skills objectively to know if they can handle a specific trailer-loading situation. If the handler can’t maintain safety at all times and move with the horse, says Telatin, then the horse will find a way to delay loading. If you aren’t up to the task, call in a professional or take your horse to a trailer-loading clinic.

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Written by:

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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