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Re-training after trailer accident

From: Steven

My mare, Bruja, put her foot through the floor of a trailer. Thankfully, she was uninjured, but it could have been horrible. Since that time she has been a pill loading. What is going through her mind now? On occasion she still loads perfectly, but most of the time she pulls back and needs the rope secured to the trailer and a little swat on the rump to get in. I took a friend's advice and fed her out of the trailer for a month. He said this was certain to cure her fear. It didn't. The second I put a halter on her to load for a road trip, her rebellion returned. I've been told that she will eventually get over her fear of the trailer after repetitious loading. Is this likely?

Hi Steven! I'm sorry your mare had the accident, but at least you know exactly what happened to her and why you're now experiencing difficulties when you ask her to load.

What's going through her mind is quite simple - she had a very bad experience in a trailer, and is understandably reluctant to get into one and go somewhere. You're asking her to do something that she knows may have unpleasant results - and sometimes she isn't able to overcome her fear. The solution is to help her overcome it, and that means going back to the beginning, if necessary, so that you can teach her that getting into the trailer (a) is a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and (b) has no unpleasant or frightening or painful consequences. This means that you'll have to be patient and break down the training into small, comfortable "bites". Forcing her into the trailer won't do the trick - and tricking her into the trailer won't work in the long term either.

The fact that she WILL load perfectly some of the time is very encouraging. You're not starting with a horse that flat-out refuses to go anywhere near the trailer, or that pitches a fit when she approaches the trailer - this one just needs to be provided with a LOT of calm, pleasant experiences to counterbalance the bad one.

Feeding a horse in the trailer can be a good way to get a horse over its fear of the unfamiliar - so if your mare had never seen a trailer before, it might have been a useful way to get her used to the idea of a trailer. As it is, IF she had any fear of eating in the trailer, I'm sure she's over THAT. But feeding a horse in a trailer isn't a valid training method when you want to teach the horse to load into the trailer, ride in it calmly, and unload calmly when you reach your destination.

Repetitious learning is helpful ONLY if the lesson that's being repeated is a good and useful lesson. Your mare will eventually overcome her fear if the "repetitious loading" is gentle, calm, uneventful, and even rewarding... otherwise, it will simply increase her fear. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect, but practice definitely makes HABIT.

The two techniques that will help you the most in a situation like this are these: You'll want to desensitize the horse whilst simultaneously conditioning the horse - that is, you'll want to get the horse used to the trailer again so that it can accept the trailer calmly, whilst simultaneously creating an association between the trailer and something that the horse particularly likes or enjoys.

Treats are good for creating a positive association, but don't think that you are "bribing" your mare into the trailer. You aren't. You CAN use food treats to help her build a mental connection between "approaching trailer" and "mmmm, doughnut!", but she will not ever think in human terms, so if your plan is to tell her "I'm going to give you your favourite food IF you'll get into the trailer and stand like a good girl", don't even bother. It won't work. Instead, think of the treats - a series of small treats - as small pleasant experiences that help her relax when she's not quite sure whether the current experience is pleasant or not. Food is easy, but treats don't have to be food. What motivates your mare? Some horses will do anything for a handful of grain or a few slices of carrot, apple, or pear. Some horses are highly motivated by peppermints or raisins. Some aren't particularly motivated by treats but will do anything if they think someone is going to brush their itchy areas with a really scratchy, stiff brush. Do whatever works best with YOUR horse - and realize that you aren't going to go on doing this forever, it's a temporary measure that you're taking so that you can create a new, pleasant expectation to associate with the trailer. Be patient and plan to take the time it takes - it will take a LOT of good experiences to counter that one bad experience.

Why would one bad experience weigh so heavily in the balance? Let me put it this way - if you've ever had an elevator fall even a foot or two when you were inside it, you have a notion of just how terrifying that foot-through-the-floorboards experience was for your mare. (If you haven't had the experience, try to imagine how you would feel, and how suspicious you would be of all elevators from that day on.)

Trailers are intrinsically frightening places for horses, because they are small, confined areas. Horses are prey animals and plains animals, and have all the instincts of both. Their two main defenses are awareness and speed, and to use those, they need to be able to see everything around them, and they need to be free to move. In a trailer, they can't see much of anything, and they can't go anywhere - they're effectively trapped in a very small space. Moving trailers are also uncomfortable for horses - riding in a trailer, even a very nice one, is hard physical work for a horse. If a trailer is big, solid, light and airy, and is attached to a big, solid towing vehicle driven by a good driver, traveling by trailer is bearable - but it's still physically and mentally stressful for horses. If a trailer is too small, dark, with poor air circulation, or if it shakes and wobbles as it chases a small, inadequate towing vehicle down the road, the trailering experience will be exhausting AND frightening, absolutely miserable for the horse. Most horses can learn to accept trailering, and are surprisingly calm about it all, but even years of acceptable experiences can seemingly disappear from a horse's memory after a single really bad experience or accident. An accident in which the trailer turns over, a sudden stop that puts the horse headfirst into the manger, or a few miles of really bad road - all of these things can quickly convince a horse that it doesn't really want to get into one of those little boxes again.

Having a hoof go through the floor of a trailer is one of the most frightening things that can happen to a horse. Again, remember that you're dealing with a prey animal that has, through conditioning and trust in humans, learned to tolerate getting into and riding in a small enclosed box. Now, its footing is suddenly insecure - a HUGE issue with horses (they're creatures of flight, remember?) and AN INVISIBLE PREDATOR HAS GRABBED ITS LEG. Every small child who leaps nervously into bed from halfway across the room can relate to THAT fear.

The reason your mare didn't just shake her head, realize that it was just ONE bad experience, and then "snap out of it" is that horses don't work that way. And to be fair, neither do most humans! A happy, well-trained, untraumatized horse will typically view a trailer in the same way that a normal, untraumatized human will view an elevator - you get into a not-particularly-pleasant small box, and then it moves, and then you get out of it and you're somewhere else. It's not a particularly pleasant experience in itself - it's just something you accept. And it takes only ONE really bad experience to make a horse aware that horrible things can happen in a trailer - just as it would take only ONE elevator dropping a few feet to make YOU very aware of the possibility, It's something that you'll think about every time you get into an elevator, probably for the rest of your life.

So, be patient with your mare. Don't try to pull her into the trailer by her leadrope - instead, teach her a signal that means "move forward", preferably one that involves a painless touch on her hind legs or hindquarters. Don't use a swat on the rump - you need to encourage her and reassure her, not punish or reprimand or rush her. You want her to do this reliably and calmly, and those are things that cannot be forced or hurried. You need to give her the impression that you have all the time in the world and are happy to take it - so if you're in a hurry or impatient on any given day, postpone your trailer-training session until you can be calm and relaxed yourself.

Instead of a swat on the rump, which is more punishment than signal, I suggest that you ask her to move forward as you usually do when leading her or directing her into her stall. If she doesn't go forward, you know that this is a skill you'll need to work on, because it's obviously not a confirmed habit! Meanwhile, instead of swatting her, begin a steady, annoying, very light tap-tap-tap on or just above the hock with a long dressage whip or buggy whip. Be alert, because you will STOP the tapping whenever she takes a step forward or lifts her foot or even THINKS about taking a step forward. Even reaching forward with the nose counts as a "try", and every single try should be recognized and rewarded with a moment of peace and quiet. Then you can begin tapping again. TAPPING. Just TAPPING. No smacking, no swatting, no hitting - the idea here is NOT to induce fear in your mare, but to do something that's mildly annoying, and that you will STOP doing whenever she shows ANY indication of moving in the direction you want her to move. And don't escalate the tapping - keep it at the same, low, annoying level. Think of your ten-year-old self sitting at the family supper table - drumming your fingers, not very hard. Your sister says "STOP THAT, it's annoying!" and you pause briefly, glance at your mother to see whether she's going to say anything, and then begin again, very softly, so that only your sister will notice.... THAT is the sort of tapping you're going to do here.

When your mare loads, praise her, pat her, and take her for a VERY short ride - five or ten minutes, no more. Do this every day, several times a day whenever possible, until she retrains herself to react to the prospect of trailering with a big bored yawn. Drive slowly and carefully, make the turns wide and soft, and when you stop, do it very gradually and gently - and don't forget to set the parking brake before you ask the horse to get in or out of any trailer! A parked trailer that MOVES is almost as terrifying as a floorboard that crumbles - they both remind the horse of how insecure trailers are and what a very silly idea it is to climb into them in the first place.

If you want to try something a little bit different, clicker-training is a nice way to help a horse learn or re-learn trailer-loading skills. You'll find more about this in the HORSE-SENSE archives. If you're an old hand at clicker training, try target-training, and teach your horse to follow that target right into the trailer. If there are some things you've always wanted to teach a horse to do - load itself when asked, walk into the left or right side of the trailer on command, etc.,

Whatever method you use, remember to stay very calm and quiet. If you become impatient or lose your temper, you won't be able to teach your mare anything about being calm, quiet and trusting. If you become angry when trying to get her into the trailer, what she will learn - again, this is horse logic - is that there is something very dangerous about that trailer, because she's not the only one reacting to it, you're obviously reacting to it as well. Horses are our mirrors in so many ways. If your attitude is one of calm, relaxed persistence - not "I can MAKE you go into this trailer" but "I'm perfectly happy to stand here all day while you decide just when you're getting into the trailer", you'll get your way, and she'll get on the trailer more calmly and quickly the next time.

And speaking of the next time - when your mare does walk into the trailer, allow her to walk off it as soon as she wants to. Don't be in a hurry to lock the butt bar and slam the gate. Part of her fear has to do with being trapped, remember? If all of the doors close and lock as soon as she walks in, she'll have every reason to be fearful and every reason to be unwilling to load the next time. Plan to spend an afternoon just loading her, praising her, and letting her back out in her own good time. If she rushes off the trailer in a flurry the first ten times, that's fine - just pick up her leadrope when she stops, talk to her, and ask her to load again. Don't let anyone tell you that "She's learning that she doesn't have to stay in the trailer". What she's actually learning is that she doesn't have to fear being trapped in the trailer - that's the difference between the way people think and the way horses think. Every time she gets out of the trailer and goes back into it, she's had one more painless experience of being IN the trailer - and not being trapped, frightened, or hurt. If you're calm about everything, she'll eventually relax and realize that the trailer is a familiar place where she can feel calm too.

When she'll stand calmly, you can close the trailer, wait a few minutes, and open it again and let her out. When she's calm about THAT, start taking her on short - very short, just a few minutes at first - trips on or around your own property. Be extra-careful about your driving, so that the ride will be a comfortable one. By the time you're up to half an hour's ride, she should be much more relaxed about the whole idea.

You are fortunate because in your mare's case, the specific precipitating event - her hoof breaking through the rotted floorboard - is never going to be repeated, because I'm sure that you will never again allow her to enter any trailer with an unsound floor! It takes very little to turn good horses into "problem loaders" - in this case, the cause was unique and can be avoided entirely, and the re-training may take you no more than a few weeks of patient loading and short rides. I think that you may have "dodged a bullet" this time.


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