Trailer Loading: All Aboard

If you've never endured the patience-battering task of convincing an unwilling horse to enter a waiting trailer, you're one of the lucky few. Most horse owners know this scenario from personal experience and understand the frustration and flaring tempers usually involved. Simply put, it's a recipe for trouble and trauma. In fact, many experts believe that more injuries occur during loading and unloading than during the trailer trips themselves. Still, getting your horse on and off of a trailer doesn't have to be risky business. With understanding, forethought, and common sense, you can keep everyone safe and calm while accomplishing these tasks more efficiently and effectively than ever before.

The Fear Factor

"People tend to forget that the reason most horses don't want to go on a trailer is that the horse is scared to death," says Pennsylvania State University Equine Extension Assistant Brian Egan, who works with the school's young horses and teaches horse handling and training classes. "When a horse is afraid, he'll do anything to get out of the situation," he continues. That includes kicking, rearing, plunging toward real or imaginary escape routes, scrambling backward, accidentally flipping, and even slipping--which can cause the horse to slide under the trailer and get trapped. You can easily get caught up in the horse's struggles, too--meaning that both horse and handler are vulnerable to injuries ranging from minor scrapes and bruises to deep lacerations and broken bones.

The situation is often exacerbated when people don't leave themselves enough time to get a reluctant horse on the trailer before heading off for a show or other important appointment.

"When people are rushed, they get impatient, and when they get impatient, they can get mad very easily," says Egan. That person is then more likely to get aggressive with loading measures, which only reinforces the horse's fear and resistance, heightens his desire to escape, and thus increases the risk factor.

Making matters worse, once someone does manage to get a scared horse on the trailer, the person usually locks him in and takes off down the road. Again, you're reinforcing the horse's fear.

"The horse was afraid to go into that dark hole, and he wasn't sure if he'd be able to get out," explains Egan. "Then you lock him in and confirm that he can't get out."

The only way to help the horse conquer this fear is to show him that he can get out, and that means loading and unloading him a lot. Ideally, you'll start when the horse is quite young and continue throughout his life.

"We often put foals on the trailer at three to four days old with their mothers," says Egan. "It breaks down their natural fear of entering a dark cave. And we haul our horses a lot, so they stay accustomed to it."

If you're starting with an older horse, take an afternoon or a day to work simply on loading and unloading, suggests Egan. Your first effort might take quite a while. Still, once the horse is on board, let him come right back out. Then repeat the lesson. You'll find that each successive loading effort takes less and less time. Eventually, the horse will walk on and off the trailer easily. When you reach that point, try loading him only part way, then stop him and back him out. Then load him all the way on and, as you're backing him out, stop halfway and ask him to load back up, suggests Egan.

The goal of the entire exercise is to get the horse comfortable with the process and to assure him that he will be allowed out of the trailer, says Egan. "He learns that if he gets off, you're going to put him back on, and that if he gets on, you're going to let him off. There's no excitement," he explains. Egan also notes that the technique works well in training horses which want to charge onto or out of trailers.

What about the old advice to put your trailer in the pasture with your horse's dinner inside? Egan says it probably works, although he's never tried it himself.

"Again, you break down inhibitions," he says. "The horse gets used to the feel of the floor, to the noises, and he knows he can get out."

Another tip comes from Neva Scheve, a trailering expert, co-owner of the Equi-Sport Trailer Company, and author or co-author of the trailer-related books Hawkins Guide: Horse Trailering on the Road; The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer; and Hawkins Guide: Equine Emergencies on the Road. She suggests that you "use the herd instinct to your advantage--if one horse goes onto the trailer, the second will almost always go in, too."

She recommends loading an experienced hauler first to encourage a new or nervous loader to follow. Conversely, she adds, unload the least experienced traveler first. If you take the veteran out first, the novice inside the trailer might get nervous and panic.

Training Dilemmas

"Training is the number one absolute safety net," says Scheve. "The better trained a horse is, the less likely he is to get hurt or to hurt you."

Unfortunately, many people overlook--or rush--this step when it comes to trailering.

Nancy Diehl, MS, VMD, a Pennsylvania State University professor of equine science with a particular interest in equine behavior, says, "People who do trail classes at shows will painstakingly take time to teach their horses not to be afraid of the tarp and other obstacles. But it's not clear that they'll take that kind of time to teach the horse to get on a trailer. Yet, it's like any other training procedure."

Egan recommends that you "take the trailer out of trailer loading" at the start. In other words, teach your horse basic ground manners long before you worry about getting him aboard a trailer.

"If you have no control of your horse on the ground, you'll have no better control when there's a trailer in front of him," says Egan. "But if your horse is responsive, he'll go anywhere you want him to."

Specifically, your horse should willingly walk forward, stop, turn both ways, and back up several steps at your request. Ideally, you'll also teach him to perform these maneuvers in a variety of settings, over different terrain, and while negotiating obstacles such as tarps, bridges, and gates. All of this will help give the horse confidence in himself and in you, while reinforcing those all-important ground manners.

Then he'll be ready for the final step: Adding the trailer into the mix. However, good ground manners won't overcome your horse's natural fear of enclosed spaces. You'll still want to take time to get him comfortable with the idea of walking into a trailer, as discussed earlier; good ground manners will simply ease the process.

Trailers as Traps

Quite literally, horses tend to see trailers as traps--a perception that's definitely aggravated when the trailer is cramped and dark. This can create fear and resistance, which leads to all of the dangers (and potential injuries) discussed earlier. Even a well-trained horse, or one that willingly hops aboard some trailers, might balk at entering a trailer that's too small or dimly lit. In fact, Scheve notes, "An airy, inviting, horse-friendly trailer can solve a lot of trailer loading problems."

Even if a trailer is big and bright and the horse is willing to step right in, injuries can still result if the trailer has sharp edges and/or protrusions that could cut or bruise him, trip him, or tangle his hooves. Scheve, along with her husband and business partner Tom Scheve, suggests that you check the following trailer traits to minimize the chance of loading/unloading injuries:

  • No sharp edges or points--Run your hand all over the trailer (including doors, walls, dividers, latches, and windows) to find sharp spots, then fix them.
  • No protrusions--This includes tie rings and latches that could bruise or cut your horse, or that lead ropes or hooves could get tangled in. Make sure to check the ramp; when it's lowered, no springs or latches should stick up where your horse could step on or get caught in them.
  • User-friendly butt bar/chain--You need to be able to hook and unhook butt bars quickly and easily, says Tom Scheve. This will help secure your horse in the trailer quickly, keep your fingers from getting pinched, and, in an emergency, allow you to get your horse out quickly.
  • Quick-release features--The Scheves recommend that all inside components of a trailer have quick-release features, primarily as a way to easily access or extricate your horse in an emergency.
  • Movable dividers--The Scheves, Egan, and Diehl all agree that a removable or swinging center divider is the safest option and allows you to create a more spacious (and thus less frightening) interior when loading a horse. The Scheves prefer a swinging divider, since it has no center post (the center post presents another potential hazard that the horse could bump into or scrape against during loading and unloading).
  • Safe doors--Full-height doors act as a channel, helping to direct the horse into the trailer. Half-doors, on the other hand, can pose a danger if the top half sticks out, but the bottom half folds back against the trailer's side. The horse might see that space under the top door as an escape route and, if he makes a break for freedom, he could get stuck underneath, says Neva Scheve. Similar problems can occur with trailer doors that have three sections.
  • Non-claustrophobic interior--First, the trailer must fit the size of the horse you're hauling--bigger horses need bigger trailers. Next, the interior should be bright, both from natural light coming through windows and from the use of light-colored interior paint and interior lighting.
  • A good ramp--Although ramp vs. step-up trailer style is an ongoing debate in the horse industry (see "The Great Debate" on page 58), the Scheves strongly believe that "a good ramp is always better than a step-up, because the chances of serious injury are less." By good ramp, they mean one that is not slippery or steep, and that doesn't wobble when the horse walks on it.

Don't Forget Footing

We all know how important good footing is when we ride, but we rarely think about what's underfoot when we load and unload our horses from trailers. Yet, a slippery surface--such as concrete or wet grass--makes even a calm, obedient horse more susceptible to slipping, falling, and even sliding underneath your trailer during the loading/unloading process. Similarly, if you set your trailer ramp down on uneven ground, it's going to shift and wobble, making it more difficult for your horse to navigate.

Ideally, you should load and unload your horse on soft, dry dirt on even ground, says Neva Scheve. She also like the method one woman uses to guarantee good footing wherever she travels: She simply brings along her own rubber mat to lay outside the trailer door.

The Hapless Handler

Handlers often make little mistakes that can lead to major trouble. For instance, how many times have you slapped your horse's hindquarters to urge him forward? Under normal circumstances, he might react calmly. But under pressure--i.e., being loaded into a trailer he's afraid to enter--he might respond with a quick kick.

Similarly, using "butt ropes" (or clasping hands with another person to form a human "rope") can create problems. If the horse kicks or rears with a butt rope behind him, he and you could get tangled and end up with rope burns; if your arms and hands take the place of a rope, injuries could be even more severe.

To avoid these problems, Egan recommends using a longe whip whenever you need to urge the horse forward.

"I use it the same as my hand, but this whip puts me six feet away and I'm able to stand in front of the hind leg, so I'm less likely to get kicked," he says. (For Egan's tips on using the whip as part of a pressure-release training system, see "Please, Do It, Thank You" at left.)

Another common mistake is to load the horse and tie him up right away. Instead, says Neva Scheve, you should secure the butt bar first and tie the horse second. Egan agrees, noting, "If you tie the horse first, he could back up and get his back feet off the trailer." The horse could get cut and might panic, leading to even more trouble.

For the same reason, adds Neva Scheve, when you unload the horse, always untie him first, then take down the butt bar.

Just Say Yes to Protection

"When the horse goes anywhere, have leg protection on him," insists Neva Scheve. "Remember, most accidents happen when you're loading or unloading, so it doesn't matter if you're just driving down the road. And the cost of a nice set of shipping boots is far less than the veterinary bills or the loss of your horse."

Diehl agrees and notes that the ideal leg bandage or boot will cover the horse's leg from below the coronary band and heel bulbs to (or including) the knee or hock. The thicker the padding, the more protection it will offer the horse, but even minimal bandages will protect against minor scrapes and lacerations, she says. (For more information on bandages and boots, see "Safeguarding Lower Limbs" on page 117.)

Head bumpers are also a good idea, says Egan. "One problem with a horse that's afraid and wanting to back up is that he's liable to throw his head up and crack it on the top of the trailer," he notes. Not only does that give the horse a bad experience to associate with trailering, but it could also lead to serious injury.

Finally, says Neva Scheve, protect yourself. "Wear boots and gloves and, if you're working with a scared or green horse, it's not a bad idea to wear a helmet, too."

Drive With a Smile

"Your goal should be to trailer with a smile--to be that comfortable and confident," says Tom Scheve, adding that a good loading experience can help you do just that. "It ruins the whole day if your horse loads badly," he adds. "No matter what goes on once you reach your destination, in the back of your mind you'll be thinking, 'What will happen when I need to load up and go home?' "

It's better to squelch that concern from the start by teaching your horse to load and unload calmly, confidently, and safely long before you actually need to trailer him anywhere.


FURTHER READING

Anderson, G. F. Trailer Loading: A Common Sense Approach. 40th Annual AAEP Convention Proceedings, 149, 1994.

Sellnow, Les. Horseman's Day. The Horse: AAEP Wrap-Up, February 2002, 52-57. Article Quick Find #3322 at www.TheHorse.com.


SEDATE FOR SAFETY?

"I'm not averse to sedation, but I really discourage it for trailering," says Pennsylvania State University Assistant Professor Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS. She notes that a tranquilized horse might be so sleepy that he'll have a hard time getting on the trailer. He also can become unpredictable, and thus dangerous. In addition, she says, people handling sedated horses often get overconfident, taking more chances and putting themselves at greater risk. Or, they might take advantage of the horse, getting too aggressive or rushing him aboard.

However, Diehl does say, "If the horse is really nervous and you anticipate problems, and you absolutely have to get him on now--for instance to get him to the veterinarian in an emergency--sedation can work. Other than that, I'd tell people to go back to the beginning and practice loading."--Sushil Dulai Wenholz

 


THE GREAT DEBATE

One ongoing trailer safety controversy is the ramp vs. step-up debate. Pennsylvania State University Assistant Professor Nancy Diehl, VMD, MS, and Brian Egan, Equine Extension Assistant at Pennsylvania State University, feel that neither style is significantly more or less dangerous than the other when dealing with a well-behaved horse. However, Egan does feel that ramps are more dangerous than step-ups when handling disobedient or fractious horses. In addition, his loading technique involves parking the trailer against a wall; with a ramp, there will be a gap between the ramp and the wall, which can become a trap if the horse slides off the side.

Trailering experts Tom and Neva Scheve acknowledge that a step-up is better than a bad ramp--but they believe a good ramp is always better than a step-up.

Essentially, the key to the controversy is how easily a horse can slide off and get trapped, an occurrence that can lead to serious cuts or even broken bones. Egan believes that a horse is more likely to slide off of a ramp. However, says Tom Scheve, "We've seen horses slip off the side of a ramp, but we've not seen any with major injuries. One reason is that you can lift the ramp off easily, whereas you obviously can't lift the trailer if the horse slides under."

An additional problem with ramps is that they can put you at risk, too. When you bend over to lift a ramp, it's possible that your head could be within kicking range of the loaded horses. In addition, notes Diehl, many ramps are heavy, which can be rough on your back.

The Scheves offer some suggestions for evaluating how horse- and handler-friendly a ramp is. They recommend ramps with:

  • A low angle--Steep ramps are more difficult for the horse to traverse, especially if he's backing out. They're usually short as well, putting your head in the danger zone when raising or lowering the ramp.
  • Good traction--To a large degree, traction comes from a lowered ramp angle. However, good quality ramp mats can also help.
  • Stability--The ramp shouldn't move when the horse steps on it. Movement not only gives the horse shaky ground to walk on, but can also frighten him, possibly causing him to scramble off and injure himself. (Remember that even a good ramp will move if you let it down on uneven ground.)
  • No obstacles--Springs and latches should not protrude at the sides of the ramp, where a horse could easily get tangled in them.

Finally, says Neva Scheve, any time you can have the horse walk out forward, whether by turning him around or leading him through a side/front door, you reduce the chance of injury whether the trailer is a ramp or a step-up style. This is because the horse can see where he's putting his feet. However, when unloading, some horses might bolt out of a trailer when facing out (possibly slipping on the trailer floor when they launch), while backing out makes them slow down and rely on the handler.

The bottom line is that training your horse to load and unload calmly will help prevent injury regardless of whether your trailer is a ramp-load or step-up. --Sushil Dulai Wenholz

 


PLEASE, DO IT, THANK YOU

Pennsylvania State University Equine Extension Assistant Brian Egan teaches his students to use a pressure-release system when teaching horses ground manners--an essential element of safe trailer loading. At Penn State, they call this method, "please, do it, thank you."

The first step, Egan notes, is to ask the horse to do something by applying very slight pressure. For instance, use your left hand on the lead rope to ask or gently guide the horse forward ("please"). If he doesn't respond, tap the horse's hip with the longe whip to tell him to "do it." If he continues to ignore the tapping, increase the pressure by tapping the horse's hip harder or faster. As soon as the horse responds by moving even a half-step forward, tell him "thank you" by immediately releasing the pressure--stop tapping.

Applied to a trailer-loading scenario, let's assume that your horse has walked quietly up to the trailer door, but won't put his foot on. You ask him to please move forward with the lead rope. If he doesn't, then tap him on the hip with your whip, telling him to walk forward one step and put that hoof on the trailer. If he doesn't respond, tap harder and keep on tapping. Eventually, the horse will become irritated and try to get away from the tapping. If you've set things up right, his only choice will be to move forward and onto the trailer. (You're standing to his left, so he can't go that way. You're tapping him with your whip from behind, so he can't back up. And you either have a trailer door to the right or you've positioned your rig next to a wall, so he can't go in that direction.) As soon as the horse moves forward, whether it's a tentative half-step or a full step onto the trailer, stop tapping.

"The idea is that you're not forcing the horse on," says Egan. "We ask him to do something, and he chooses to go forward. Then, one step after another, he gets onto the trailer."

However, he adds, it's important that you continue the ask-reward-ask-reward sequence. Don't rush the process once the horse gets a foot on the trailer. "If he puts a foot on, you have to say 'thank you.' And even if he takes it off, that's okay. You just start again," says Egan.

And, he adds, the nice thing about this technique is that "once the horse gets used to the idea of pressure and release, it sticks with him for life."

There is one instance when you should stop applying pressure even if the horse doesn't respond appropriately: If the horse rears. "You can't keep up the pressure while he's in the air, or the horse might flip over," says Egan. "So you stop. Then, as soon as his front feet come down, continue the process."--Sushil Dulai Wenholz

About the Author

Sushil Dulai Wenholz

Sushil Dulai Wenholz is a free-lance writer based in Lakewood, Colo. Her work appears in a number of leading equine publications, and she has earned awards from the American Horse Publications and the Western Fairs Association.

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