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Problem loading and unloading

From: Julie

I have a problem with my six year old Arab gelding, BeyZhing. He has always loaded fine in a two-horse trailer. Recently I bought a four-horse trailer because my mare explodes in a two-horse, we think partially because she may be slightly claustrophobic. She rides like a champ in the back of this trailer (with the partition removed) and now I'm having the problem with him! I can only get him to load with a butt-rope. That has worked pretty well, but now I can't get him to un-load. He will back all the way to the end but not step down. This trailer is not equipped for a ramp so that's not an option. He actually got turned around on me the other day and managed to jump out front feet first. He slid on the pavement and that method seems like an accident waiting to happen. HELP!

I would really like it if I could get him IN and OUT without this much trouble. My nerves are usually shot by the time we get to where we're going. I think the height of the trailer has something to do with it. But I'm at my wit's end in trying to figure out a solution other than getting rid of the trailer and buying a smaller one.


Hi Julie! When you say the "height" of the trailer, I assume that you mean the distance between the trailer floor and the ground -- the size of the "step" your horse has to take to get in or out. Horses can learn to take larger or smaller steps up and down, but sometimes it takes time for them to adjust to a new trailer if it's very different from the one they are used to.

If you're certain that the travel-time is not what's bothering your horse -- some horses will be unwilling to load and anxious about travelling for YEARS after even ONE bad experience. There's an art to driving when you're pulling a trailer, and not all drivers are careful and smooth. If your horse has come back from a show with someone else at the wheel, he may have a good reason for wanting to avoid the entire situation. If he's ever had to step into or out of a trailer that was attached to a truck with its brakes not set, and the whole thing MOVED as he was loading or unloading, he has a good reason to be afraid.

You shouldn't have to load your horse with a butt-rope! Any time you have to add an extra piece of equipment or an extra person to get a horse into or out of a trailer, the risk of an accident increases. What you need to do, I think, is spend a day re=training your horse to get into and out of a trailer.

BEFORE you do that, though, give him a refresher course on moving when asked. He should respond quietly and willingly to a "walk" command -- and to "whoa" and "stand" and "back. " These commands, and a calm obedient horses, are your "loading equipment" -- not butt-ropes and brooms. ;-) The problem is NOT that he won't get out of the trailer nicely, the problem is that he isn't responding properly when he is told to go forward, stand, stop, and go backward. . . one calm step at a time.

After you've given him a refresher course in voice commands, repeat the course, but this time with a large sheet of plywood on the ground. Treat it like a trailer -- ask him to step up on it with his front feet, stop, stand, and back off, ONE step at a time. Give him lots of praise when he does what he's asked. Repeat the process many times, and when he will walk calmly onto the plywood, stop when he's asked, stand until he's asked to move, and then back off it quietly, you'll be ready to start work with the trailer.

Trailer training means that you'll have to drive your truck and trailer into an enclosed area with safe footing -- an arena or pasture would be ideal. Turn the rig so that the sun is shining INTO the trailer, and park it it with the brakes on. Then open up everything, so that the interior is as light as possible, tie the doors OPEN, and begin your loading lesson. (If your trailer mats are old and slippery, change them or add a load of shavings -- again, your horse needs traction and safe footing IN the trailer as well as out of it). Put whatever safety gear you need on your horse -- definitely a head-bumper, but perhaps leg wraps as well.

You must let your horse go partly into the trailer and then back out again -- be patient. He may put one foot in and then back out shaking his head. That's okay. He may get partway in and then back out -- fifty times. That's okay too. You're trying to teach him that the trailer is safe and that it's okay to get in and out of it, and you cannot teach him this by forcing him in and closing the doors. He has to know that he CAN get out, and that there will be no stress or violence involved in getting in or getting out.

Your horse must be calm, which he WILL be if there is no threat, and if he is allowed to get partly in and then back out again. And after he does that, say fifty times, he will be much less worried, and even a little bored.

For hauling two horses, a four-horse should be lovely -- and if it's a stock trailer, that's ideal! Use only one partition: the one that divides front from back. That will give you a double stall for each horse: in front for BeyZhing, in back for the mare.

More room means more trailering comfort, less concern about being trapped in a tiny space. A double stall means something else, too -- a horse can turn around and walk out of the trailer IF YOU ASK HIM TO. This is especially easy for the horse in the FRONT stall. If you want to get him accustomed to walking out this way (as an option) set this up at home, practice calmly. Stay quiet, have lots of treats, etc.

Remember, all loading and unloading is just basics: it's simply a matter of whether your horse is calm and obedient, and whether he responds promptly and well to "walk", "whoa", "stand," and "back. " When he does, you can get him into and out of anything, whether it's a trailer, an unfamiliar stall at a show, a starting box at an event, or medical stocks at the vet clinic.

Once he's secure about the process, you'll still have to take a few precautions -- but these are sensible precautions for trailering ANY horse, anywhere.

Any time you get a new trailer, take the time to do a quiet loading lesson. This is generally when you find out whether your horse is actually obedient to your specific commands, or whether he has just learned a pattern of getting in and out of a specific trailer.

Be sure that the footing IN the trailer is comfortable and provides traction. Be sure that the horse can stand comfortably, with his head low -- this is important for his breathing.

Drive as carefully, gently, and slowly as you need to -- allow extra time to get where you're going, use your brakes as little as possible, make all turns wide and gradual, and change lanes as infrequently as possible. When you're driving a car, you can shift from slow lane to fast lane frequently, and move over politely whenever someone needs to merge onto the highway. When you're driving a truck and pulling a horse-trailer, you need to stay in your lane and let the people who need to merge WAIT until you have gone by. Think of your horses first.

Avoid loading or unloading on pavement, or on any hard, slippery surface. This is frightening to horses, and dangerous, especially if they are shod. If you know that you are going to have to unload onto pavement for some reason, carry stall mats or trailer mats with you, and put those down FIRST so that the horse can be unloaded onto a surface that offers some traction. Otherwise, you won't be able to talk him out of a perfectly reasonable fear!

I'd like to suggest a book for you to buy: Trailer-Loading Success, by Diane Longanecker. It's a very thorough, sensible, systematic guide for training horses to load and unload -- and for REtraining horses! Your bookstore should be able to order this for you; the ISBN is 0- 9635320-0-6.

Good luck!


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