Trailer Unloading Problems

Q. One of our horses has a problem with unloading from a trailer. He bolts out of the back as soon as we start to open the back gate, often before we can undo the butt bar. He has done this since we got him over a year ago. He loads and rides great but just scurries or explodes out backwards.  We can't figure out why he does this. He is a really nice horse otherwise. So arrival and unloading have become a nightmare.  We have to be sure there is a long safe path behind the trailer so he doesn't hurt himself. Now sometimes he'll begin to rush backwards just after he gets inside the trailer, before we can do up the rear.  We end up doing the in and out thing, sometimes for several tries, before we get the back up and secured. It is getting dangerous, particularly for the person closing the gate.  We have tried all sorts of ties at the front and butt bars on his rear, but when he's ready to go, there's no stopping him. He can break just about anything.


A. In my experience most horses that rush out of the back of the trailer, or similarly out of a stock or chute, seem truly afraid. In most cases you'll probably never know what frightened the horse to rush out backward in the first place, but once the behavior starts, it's tough to correct.  The panic and commotion of rushing out seem to reconfirm the fear for the horse each time.  As with your experience, trying to hold the horse back seems counterproductive in many instances. Discipline also seems to further confirm to the horse that this really is a fearful situation.

Interestingly, the panic and rushing typically seem specific to the back out unloading situation. Simply changing to a van or stock trailer in which you can lead the horse out can immediately reduce the danger to the horse and the handlers.

If it is necessary to try to re-train your horse for a regular trailer, the most efficient and long-term effective approach I know is to go back to the basics and re-train the horse to walk forward, to stand, and to back on command. For the first training session, just work on these commands in an open area without a trailer. Keep repeating the training until the horse responds and calmly obeys on voice command, without any tension on the lead shank.  While the horse is obeying the stand command, give him a treat.

Then move on to doing the exact command sequence but going into and out of the trailer. Load, stand, and unload several times at first without trying to close up the butt bar or back gate.  Just lead the horse into the trailer, ask him to stand, and give a treat while he is standing quietly.  Try to maintain a loose lead and a relaxed calm manner.  Then use your back command and direct the horse to back slowly out of the trailer. As he backs out, you can give the stand command and reward his stopping and standing as he unloads. Be sure that the ramp and pathway behind the trailer have good footing. Use a long lead so that if the horse does scoot out in a hurry, you won't lose him or put tension on the lead. Just quietly gather him up and resume your relaxed, positive training attitude and procedure.

What you are looking for is steady improvement with each practice replicate.  With each replicate of entering the trailer, encourage the horse to stand quietly for longer before giving the reward for standing; then give the back command. Keep repeating these exercises until he seems to be taking all commands from you to enter, stand, and back out quietly.  Avoid fighting the horse or disciplining him for scooting out too fast. Gradually increase and vary the time the horse stands in the trailer before the back command is given. If the horse goes before the command or rushes, just skip the treat and resume.  Then, once he begins to follow the commands reliably with little or no tension on the lead, reintroduce the butt bar and the closing of the back gate.  Try to be as calm and relaxed as possible, so that your fear of the potentially dangerous situation doesn't alert the horse to the "boogeyman." While the back is being done up, the person at the head can distract the horse with a treat for standing quietly.  When the gate is taken down, again calmly hold his attention with a treat rather than tension on the halter or lead.  Wait a variable length of time after the bar is removed before giving the back command.  After the horse is calmly following all commands in this situation, you can actually practice going on short hauls and repeating the procedures.

Some would argue that this problem is a situation-specific variation of head shyness, in that it develops and is exacerbated by tension on the head. So, some trainers advocate re-training without a halter or a lead so that the horse readily learns that it will not have tension on the head.  The same re-training procedures could be done without restraint --have the horse follow or self-load into the trailer, stand, then back out on command.  You can work within an enclosed paddock so the horse cannot escape.  The popular clicker and target training programs demonstrate similar techniques.

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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