By Andy Anderson, DVM
Behavior – Jun 15th, 02
As presented at Horseman’s Day 2001, San Diego, CA
Horses who refuse or are difficult to load can cause a lot of frustration to their owners. In addition, they can be a danger to themselves and their handlers. Veterinarians are often asked to become involved because many people believe that tranquilization or sedation will help them load their horse safely. This is usually not a workable option for several reasons.
First, horses traveling to shows or races may be in violation of medication rules if they are drugged for loading. Second, sedated or tranquilized horses may be more likely to have an injury from falling as they may become unsteady. Third, drugged horses do not really learn how to load well for future trips.
The method to be described is a safe and effective way of teaching horses to load and stand quietly in the trailer without resorting to drugs or force. Plus, the principles and concepts used here can be applied to many other areas of human-horse interactions. They also can apply to such equine unsocial behaviors as a horse rubbing against you with its head; stepping, pushing or leaning on you; pulling on the lead rope to eat; not keeping up with you; being hard to catch; not tying and being head or ear shy.
Materials and Methods
Required materials include a halter and soft lead rope (a chain shank should be available but is used infrequently), a horse trailer in good repair, a stiff fishing rod 6 to 7 feet in length with a plastic bag taped to the end, and, most importantly, a positive, patient attitude.
The methods used encourage the horse to make positive choices to load and discourage his attempt to escape or evade loading. This is done by convincing the horse that he really wants to be in the trailer. Make him think it is his idea to get into the trailer. The rod with the plastic bag is used to aggravate or annoy (i.e. shaking the rod and bag behind the horse ’s head or gently tapping the rod and bag at the horse’s hind quarters or on the legs) the horse when he tries to avoid the trailer. The rod should never be used to inflict pain. The aggravation should be stopped the instant the horse tries to load. With some horses, just looking toward rather than away from the trailer is a positive try. Pointing ears into the trailer and lowering the head are also positive choices that are always awarded. Most horses will explore all of their options before deciding that the best place to be is in the trailer.
The handler must be prepared to deal with each evasive action as it occurs. For example, if the horse wants to back away from the trailer, back him up much farther than he intended, and he will quickly learn that backing is not a good choice. If he turns sideways at the rear of the trailer, continue to aggravate him until he makes some attempt to straighten up with the trailer. Do not lead him away from the trailer as this rewards his turning sideways and reinforces the behavior we do not want.
After he begins to choose the correct options, reward him by rubbing his head or neck and by stopping the aggravation. Do not be concerned if he starts to load then backs out. Aggravate the horse as he is backing out and stop when he steps forward. Remember, many of these horses have legitimate reasons to fear the trailer because of their previous experiences with unsuccessful attempts to force them into the trailer.
Never pull or push on a horse because this teaches him that he can win every tug of war or pushing contest. When he does enter the trailer, do not trap him with the back door or butt bar, and let him back out if he wishes. Then reload him until he is content to load and stand quietly and until asked to back out.
I prefer to teach a horse to unload on two cues, a tug on his tail and the verbal “back”, rather than by getting in front of him and backing him out with the lead shank. However, a second person is sometimes needed in front to teach the horse these cues. When you tug on the tail and ask him to “back”, the assistant uses the shank to back him out of the trailer.
The handler must train him or herself to recognize the smallest try on the part of the horse. Many people actually teach the horse not to load by inadvertently punishing his small tries and rewarding his attempts to escape or evade loading. Inconsistent signals on the part of the handler are another factor that can lead to equine misbehavior. Remember, recognize and reward positive behavior and recognize and discourage negative behavior. The goal is to give the horse clear-cut choices that result in him entering the trailer because he wants to, not because he was forced to.
This trailer loading method and overall philosophy of working with horses has been developed over a 30-year period of dealing with horses. After seeing too many people and horses injured, I realized that there had to be a better way to deal with horses and trailer loading.
Actually, it wasn’t one of my friend’s or client’s horses that changed my life, it was one of my own horses that was hard to catch. This led me to seek out one of the master horse communicators, Ray Hunt. Applying Hunt’s low resistance methods (developed from a keen understanding of what makes horses react the way they do) I learned to think more along the lines of “how to teach your horse to catch you.” It is the same kind of thing that should be applied to trailer loading.
I have loaded hundreds of horses without a single injury to horses or people. This method may require more time the first few times a horse is loaded, but it will save a lot of time over a lifetime. Many hard to load horses can be retrained in less than an hour, but some require longer. Most remain trouble-free afterwards, so the experience is a wise investment. As with most preventive medicine programs, this approach works best when applied before the disease (non-loading) becomes deeply seated. These methods can be used for confirmed bad loaders, but the results will come more slowly. The bottom line is that there is definitely something you can do about this particular equine behavior. Whether you choose to attempt retraining yourself or enlist the help of a competent professional, your horse will soon be safer and more pleasant for you to load and handle in general.
About the author:
Dr. Andy Anderson is a private practitioner and owner of Equine Veterinary
Associates in Broken Arrow, OK, and horseman.