Trailer Troubles

Do you have any recommendations for how we can help a horse overcome a trailer loading problem?
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Q. My 16-year-old mare has been horrible about trailer loading since the day we purchased her 11 years ago. That day it took three hours to get her in the trailer, and the only other time we’ve been able to get her in a trailer it took several more hours. We’ve tried what feels like everything—from putting the rig in her field and feeding her in the trailer to sedation and veterinarian assistance to help overcome—or even improve—the problem with no avail. She needs to move in a few months, and I’m concerned about getting her in the trailer. Do you have any recommendations for how we can load her, and is there anything we can do to help her overcome her trailer loading problem?

Lynn, Michigan


A. At this point, my recommendation would be to seek the help of a certified applied animal behaviorist (CAAB) who practices all-positive reinforcement methods of trailer loading for horses. This way you and your horse can start fresh. If you can’t find a CAAB to train you and your horse on-site, you might be able to work long distance either by communicating with the behaviorist on Skype or another video service or by using video and written training materials. These days you can quite easily incorporate such a video communication link. Or you might be able to add the help of a local trainer the behaviorist recommends or supervises.

A word of caution, though: Positive reinforcement methods are not yet well-understood in the mainstream training world. Plenty of misinformation remains in the media, and even in academic equine programs, confusing positive and negative reinforcement. It’s no wonder we get so confused about very simple, effective methods! Offhand, resources I can recommend for training materials and local referrals for truly all-positive reinforcement-based trailer training and rehabilitation include Shawna Karrasch of On Target Training and Evelyn Hanggi, MS, PhD, of the Equine Research Foundation—both in California—and our behavior lab here at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. All offer courses and consult on individual cases

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Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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