Horsemanship: Solving Trailer Problems, Part 1

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

By Jonathan Field

Click Here for Part 2 of this article

See below for article sidebar - Tying in the Horse Trailer

There are some legitimate reasons why horses do not like horse trailers. To a horse, even the most open, spacious trailer is still a small, confined space. You would never see a horse in the wild checking out the inside of a cave. Being a flight animal, nature has wired horses to be claustrophobic in order to protect them from predators.

Because trailers are off the ground on wheels, climbing inside is a bit unnerving to a horse as the trailer moves around. Once inside the trailer, horses are further confined with the closing of the divider, and the shutting of the door. Finally, after being locked inside, the trailer starts to move. It bumps along the road, eventually stops, and then the doors are opened, and by this time the horse is thinking “Get me out of here!”

In this article, I will address the issue of horses that turn around and bolt or rush out of the horse trailer. Using Cuda, an 11-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, as an example, I will outline a strategy using an angle haul trailer.

Horses want to rush out of the horse trailer because they become overly emotional about being inside. While you might be able to get them to go in, they naturally do not see the trailer as a place of comfort. The physical mechanics of the trailer will keep the horse inside, but the whole time he is thinking about getting out. Even being in a parked trailer or going for a short ride can be a stressful experience for a horse.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

The Danger Factor

A horse that turns around and rushes out of the trailer can be very dangerous if you are inside the trailer with him. When loading, it is difficult to get the horse into position, and closing the divider can be a risky procedure. Upon reaching your destination, getting the divider open in order to let him out can be even more challenging as he has likely become more emotional and impulsive after being locked inside.

You can see in this picture that Cuda is in the process of turning around to rush out of the trailer. If you have ever been in a situation like this, you’ll empathize with the handler, as you can see she could be in dangerous position.

Sending the Horse in Alone

I began by using ground skills to allow me to stand outside of the trailer and send Cuda inside. Even though I could easily have lead Cuda into the trailer, I chose to send him in alone so that I could remain safely outside while he was going through the phase of wanting to be out more than he wanted to be in. I teach all my horses to load this way because they will ultimately ride in the trailer alone. 

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photos: Robin Duncan Photography

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Allowing the Horse to Come Out

Once he got into the trailer, Cuda immediately turned to come out. I did not try to stop him or prevent him from doing so, and allowed him to come out. Blocking him or preventing him from coming out might have physically kept him in the trailer, however, mentally and emotionally Cuda would still be thinking about how much he wanted to get out. I wanted the inside of the trailer to be comfortable for him, so that he did not feel trapped.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

I was not concerned with him turning around, because, at this stage, Cuda saw the trailer as being an uncomfortable place. Before I could insist that he stay facing forwards in the front of the trailer, I needed him to first see the trailer as a comfortable place. Since I was not holding Cuda inside, he came out right away at a trot! I allowed him to come out of the trailer. 

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Comfort is Inside, Not Outside

Once all four of his feet were out of the trailer, I created a bit of discomfort for Cuda, and then sent him back inside right away. I did not need to cause huge discomfort outside the trailer, but just enough stimuli that it showed him a contrast – comfort is inside the trailer and not outside. It needed to be Cuda’s decision to stay inside.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

I did this with him several times, and each time he was in less of a rush to come out. Here you can see Cuda still wanted to turn around and come out, but he was no longer in as much of a hurry, and he was less emotional about it. I continued to allow him to come out, only to send him right back in.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Beginning to Relax

After just a few minutes, Cuda was starting to think that maybe the trailer was not such a terrible place, and might even be more comfortable than outside. In these photos, he had loaded inside, paused, then turned to come out and stopped. At this point, Cuda had made the decision to stay inside the trailer. I allowed him to come out this time and then I invited him to relax outside the trailer. I did not create any discomfort outside but simply allowed him to relax. It wasn’t until this point, when Cuda was calm and relaxed and not in a hurry to come out, that I felt safe going inside the trailer with him. If he had still been rushing to come out, I would not have gone inside.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Closing the Divider

The next time I sent Cuda into the trailer, I stepped up into the trailer to position him for the divider. You can see that after walking up into the trailer, I was able to step out again and Cuda stayed in position. He looked around, but remained in place.

When he could hold himself in that spot, I could begin moving the divider. When I went to close the divider, I made sure to stay out of its swing radius.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

If Cuda was to react and try to turn around I did not want to become trapped behind the divider. With a horse that wants to rush out of the trailer, it is important to desensitize him to all stages of loading and unloading.

I opened and closed the divider several times in order to desensitize Cuda to its movements. Just because the divider opens, it does not mean that he is coming out! When he was relaxed with the divider opening, I practiced asking him to slowly come out. By now he had no pent up emotion about being in the trailer, so he was in no rush to get out.

 training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Photo: Robin Duncan Photography

Securing the Horse

Once the divider was closed and the mechanics of the trailer were holding Cuda inside, I looped my rope up over the divider, went around to the front window, and tied him. Now he was standing quietly and the session was over. I did this on a day when he didn’t have to travel anywhere, so he could come out of the trailer after the lesson and have had a good experience.

This story is not over yet – Cuda has more lessons for us! In "Horsemanship: Solving Trailer Problems, Part 2", I will discuss horses that rush backwards out of the horse trailer, as well as horses that paw while inside the trailer.

 

Tying in the Horse Trailer

Generally, I like to tie my horses when they are in the trailer because I want to know where their heads are at all times. If I hear anything going on in the trailer, I want to know that they haven’t gotten themselves in a situation, with their head over or under a divider, or they haven’t gotten half way turned around, stuck, or any number of “how did they do that?” situations. That being said, there are exceptions to every rule, and often when I am traveling long distances with my very well-travelled horses, like Hal and Quincy, I will leave them untied.  If I add another horse to that load, however, everyone gets tied up.

When tying a horse in any location, it is important that the horse is tied to something secure that is high enough that he will not be able to get his head below his knees. In the trailer, I use short nylon trailer ties, or I my lead rope.

Do not tie your horse inside the trailer until the mechanics of the trailer (divider/door/bum bar) are holding him in, and when unloading, be sure to untie before opening these mechanisms.

If the only thing holding your horse inside the trailer is the lead rope or trailer tie, there is potential for a huge disaster if he steps back and gets half way out or pulls back. If he does get his hind feet out of the trailer, and he gets scared and pulls back, his feet can easily slide under the trailer and get trapped. He could do devastating damage to his legs, or if the lead rope breaks and he falls, he could do much worse. Another scary situation can occur if you are up inside the trailer, tying up or untying your horse when the horse pulls back on the lead. After a big pull back, most often the horse will lunge forward. If you are up in front of him, you could be trampled as you are trapped and can’t escape. I’ve witnessed both these scenarios and they can be deadly!

Click Here for Part 2 of this article

training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer training jonathan field, natural horsemanship, trailer loading, load a horse trailer

Main article photo: Robin Duncan Photography - Trailering can be a stressful experience for horses, but with a little bit of work, we can train a horse to see the trailer as a place of comfort.

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