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Trailer: step-up or ramp?

From: Kathy

Hi Jessica, Your article about slant vs. straight load trailers was very helpful. I am sure now that I want a straight load. I can't find anything in the archives about the advantages and disadvantages of a step-in trailer vs. ramp load. I would think that there might be safety issues to consider with both types. Most of the trailers for sale on the Internet seem to have ramps but my inclination is toward a step-in. Your views would be greatly appreciated. Thanks for this wonderful service which I am happy to support. Kathy

Hi Kathy! There's no definite answer to this question - the type of trailer you prefer is, effectively, the type of trailer you prefer.

There can be problems with both ramps and step-ups, there are ways of making each one safer, and perhaps that is a more logical place to begin.

Look at the difference between the two. A step-up is just a trailer without a ramp. Instead of walking up the ramp, the horse walks up to the trailer and steps up into it. Even when the "up" part of the step is eighteen inches, horses manage it very well. It's not difficult for them, and although most humans would prefer to walk up a ramp, most horses are quite happy to climb into a step-up trailer.

The difficult moment comes when the horse is asked to step down, backward, off the step-up trailer. With a ramp, the horse can move backward slowly, feeling the footing at each step. With a step-up, backing out means stepping out into empty space. The horse can't see behind itself, and has no idea how far away the ground is, or even if the ground is there. Stepping backward, blindly, into the unknown, is a huge "leap of faith" for a horse.

Horses DO this, though. The secret is trust and confidence - their ability to rely on the handler to tell them what to expect. Verbal cues are very useful - on a ramp, a simple "back" will do, but when exiting a step-up, especially a steep one, the horse will benefit from being taught the command "step DOWN".

So which design is better? It depends on which you prefer. If you live in a very wet, rainy area, you may prefer a step-up because of the danger of a slippery ramp, or you may choose to put something like coconut matting on your ramp to guarantee good traction even in the rain. If you're not very strong, you may find it difficult to lift some ramps; if you find a very light, easy-to-lift ramp, you'll ned to be sure that it's solid and steady enough for your horses to use with confidence. If your horses are elderly and somewhat stiff and infirm, a ramp will be easier for them. A trailer with a ramp may also be more practical if you intend to use it for very young horses - for example, if you plan to use your trailer to take your mares to be bred on their foal heats, you'll want to make it as easy as possible for a nine- or ten-day-old foal to get in and out of the trailer. For other horses, as long as they're active, healthy animals, it probably won't matter. A ramp can be a convenience, but it gives you more to clean, and more hinges and latches to maintain. In terms of the ease of entering and exiting, the very easiest trailers of all, from the horse's point of view, would probably be those with dual ramps, so that no backing out is necessary - the horse enters the trailer by walking up the rear ramp, and exits by walking forward and turning to walk down the front/side ramp.

Because there is potential for severe injury, it's best to take a few precautions in any trailer. Even in wide, tall trailers, horses will be safest if they wear head bumpers to protect the delicate poll area. Some horse-owners routinely use bell boots and shipping boots or shipping wraps, and these can protect the horse's lower legs from a close encounter with the front edge of a step-up trailer or the side of a ramp - two common sources of damage.

A horse that's reluctant to get onto a ramp trailer may walk around the side of the ramp and injure a leg on the edge or on the latch, and a horse in a hurry to get out of a ramp trailer may step off the side of the ramp and slide underneath, so it's best if the sides of the ramp are smooth and the latches don't protrude. The quality and position of the ramp matter, too. Any horse can become reluctant to climb a ramp that is flimsy, bouncing, not placed firmly and solidly on the ground - trailer ramps should be heavy and solid, with some sort of matting or other heavily textured surface so that horses can step on them without slipping.

A horse that's reluctant to get into a step-up trailer may bang its front legs against the edge of the trailer, or (whilst refusing to get into the trailer, or whilst backing off the trailer) may find its hind legs sliding under the edge of the trailer, especially if the trailer is parked somewhere with a slick surface (tarmac, wet grass, mud). If the edges are sharp - or even just straight - this can peel the hair and skin off the horse's cannons. To guard against this sort of injury, step-up trailers should have rounded tubing welded under the edges.

That said, I should also point out that injuries that occur to horses getting in and out of trailers are rarely due exclusively to the design of the trailer. More often, they are due to a combination of factors, including trailer positioning and stability - a horse entering a trailer that shifts or starts to roll forward is likely to try to get away from that trailer in a hurry, and can become injured on the way out. Handler error, usually compounded by the handler being in a hurry, is the cause I see most often. A horse's reluctance to enter a trailer is - assuming that the trailer is stable and of a suitable size - is unlikely to have anything to do with the type of trailer in use. It usually means one of two things: either the person attempting to load the horse on this occasion is causing a problem, or there is a more fundamental problem with the horse's basic training.

Some horse-owners insist that their horses' preferences are so strong that they will only consent to enter one type of trailer. Some even limit their activities: "I'd love to go to the show, but the only person from my barn who's going is Marlene, and her trailer is a step-up and my horse will only get into trailers with ramps, so I can't go," or "Oh, I wish I could go with you, but my horse won't get into your trailer, he doesn't know about ramps, he only understands step-up trailers, so I can't go with you, sorry." This puts too many limits on what they can do and where they can go - and it's silly.

Horses should be taught to load and unload, full stop. Most of us trailer for pleasure - we take our horses to the trailhead or to a competition. It may not matter terribly if we're late to a competition or trailride because the horse is reluctant to get into the trailer, those situations are certainly not matters of life and death, but... what if we're on our way to the vet clinic with a horse suffering from injury or colic? What if there's an emergency? What if we're fleeing a hurricane, or a fire? Those would be very bad times to spend half an hour dithering behind the trailer, wondering "Oh dear, will he or won't he get in, since he's not used to THIS kind of trailer?"

The type of trailer shouldn't matter - "go forward, go up, get IN, thank you" and "go backward, go down, get OUT, thank you" should apply to stock trailers, horse vans, trailers with ramps, and step-ups. Assuming, of course, that a trailer is large enough and solid enough to warrant asking the horse to enter, the issue in most cases is not "Is it the right sort of trailer?" but rather "Is the horse well-trained?"

If a horse is sufficiently well-trained to move calmly and willingly in any direction - forward, back, and sideways, one step at a time, when asked, and to stop and stand when asked, that horse will get into any trailer or horse van, whether it has to climb in, step in, or jump in.

If a horse doesn't move calmly and willingly in any direction when asked, it doesn't really know how to lead, and it will need to acquire that very basic skill. Its owner will need to do some remedial work to "fill in the hole" in the horse's training, because this isn't a trailer issue at all, it's a leading issue. A horse that accompanies you at the end of the leadrope, but only as long as he feels like going in the same direction you're going... is a horse that hasn't been taught to lead. If he leads well, you can put him into whatever trailer you buy. He'll walk up the ramp if there is a ramp, or climb into the trailer if there is no ramp. ;-)

Good luck, and how lovely to be trailer-shopping! If you're buying a new trailer, you can choose the type you prefer; if you're buying a used trailer, find the biggest, most sturdy and airy trailer available, and don't let the presence or absence of a ramp keep you from purchasing the trailer you want.


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