Understanding Horses Part 6: Trailer Loading, Part 2

Last month we talked about how to aggravate the horse to load into a trailer. Remember, this isn't beating the horse or getting angry. It's like the horsefly being able to make a 1,000-pound horse move. You merely make it more comfortable to be inside the trailer than outside. All you want to do is take away the horse's options he's used in the past for not getting on the trailer. You also want him to understand the trailer isn't a jail or trap, and you must respect that some horses are genuinely afraid.

This month, we'll talk about the other 15% of horses who don't respond to the gentle art of aggravation discussed in May.

Trailer Loading Exceptions

About 10% of the horses I've worked with fall into this scenario. I've tried to aggravate the horse to load him for about a half-hour. My shoulder and arm are tired from moving the fishing pole with the plastic bag or rag on the end. I've made zero progress in that half-hour. I'm now practicing the law of doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Time for Plan B.

This is more complicated because it requires two knowledgeable horse people--the "good guy" and the "annoyer." The "good guy" is on the horse's head and has to be smart enough to know not to pull, and the "annoyer" is behind the horse using the pole and bag.

I was asked to do this at the veterinary school at Louisiana State University once, and they brought out this mare who wouldn't load. They didn't tell me any particulars, but just left me there to sweat the first half-hour. I had to resort to Plan B with her. Fortunately, one of the students there was the son of a horse trainer I knew, and a good horseman himself. He got behind the mare and used the pole and bag to aggravate her while I controlled her head. He was smart enough to know when the mare was trying, and when she wasn't.

She began trying harder, and she got two feet in this step-up trailer with her back legs all spraddled out. He was smart enough to know the mare was aggravating herself standing like that, so we just left her to stand. Pretty soon she loaded all on her own. I reassured her and told her she was a good girl, then asked her to get out halfway, then asked her to reload. She started to think about not going back in, and the student was smart enough to just shake the bag behind her, and she just stepped back up and loaded.

Next, I took her out of the trailer and started from a long way back, and she loaded. I unloaded her halfway again, and she really didn't want to get back in. The student aggravated her a bit, and she made a halfhearted attempt to step in. She ended up with her back toes perched on the edge of the trailer floor. We just let her stand there until that aggravated her enough to step on in.

Other Scenarios

Last month I said I'd tell you a story that was a bit outside the norm. I had an associate who tried to load up a Paint mare for this client's granddaughter. He ended up getting mad and breaking the fishing rod over the horse's back and getting run off the farm because the grandmother and granddaughter were crying.

I went back there and talked to the grandfather a bit. None of them were experienced enough to be a second person outside the trailer, and my fishing rod was broken, anyway. Well, what we hadn't realized is that grandpa had had this mare sacked out, so nothing you could do with a fishing rod and plastic bag or feed sack was going to aggravate her at all.

So, I walked this Paint mare up to the back of the trailer, and she walked up nice as you please and just stopped and planted. I didn't yell or cuss or start beating on her, I just took the toe of my cowboy boot and started tapping her on the cannon bone. Pretty soon she decided she didn't like that very much and jerked that leg up to "hide" it. I just started in on the other cannon bone. It didn't take long for her to realize that just standing there and not loading wasn't an option, so she just loaded right up.

Here's a more drastic Plan B. One day a neighbor called, and I could tell he was pretty upset. He had a horse sold, and all he had to do was get this horse on a stock trailer to take him to the new owner and he'd have his money. Problem was, the horse wouldn't load no matter what they did. He'd heard I had some tricks up my sleeve to get horses loaded, so could I come over and help?

When I got there, the neighbor had a big stock trailer. He said they tried to load the horse, and explained they would snub his head in the trailer so he couldn't pull back, then the other fellow there would get behind the horse with a buggy whip and start whipping the horse on the legs to get him to move.

I took the horse's lead rope and led him up to the trailer, raised my arm with the fishing pole and sack, and the horse laid down. I had to back off and think a minute about that one. It wasn't a response I had seen before. So instead of getting mad, I stepped back to think it through.

A problem with people dealing with horses is they lose their temper when they don't know what to do.

Probably what had happened is at some point in all the fighting to get him on the trailer, the horse had probably lost his footing and fallen down during all the pulling and whipping. The guys probably took off the slack on the lead rope they had snubbed in the trailer and stopped whipping him. So, his option to avoid the trailer and stop these humans from pulling on his head and beating his legs was to hide his legs by lying down.

So, I flipped the lead rope back over his withers and pulled his nose back and just made him lie there. You can hold a big horse down easily by controlling his head.

Well, once he realized what had happened, he wanted to get up. I just held him there. Then he really wanted to get up. I let him lie there a little longer. Then he really wanted to get up. So I flipped the lead rope over his head, he got up and loaded into the trailer. I'd taken away his last option.

Demonstrations

There are some horses out there who are dangerous; that's the other 5%. They want to hurt you. They bite, they strike, and they run over you. Those horses need to be in the hands of professionals.

Sometimes when I'm doing demonstrations, they bring me really bad horses to work with. Those aren't good for demonstrations because that's not what most horse people are going home to try to deal with. It takes hours, and the audience loses attention and wanders away and doesn't learn anything.

It's those 85% of horses that owners can aggravate into doing what they want that are good for demonstrations. Owners can see what to do and go home and do it. But just because you see it doesn't mean you understand it. If I get through to just a few horse owners, then my demonstrations are successful.

You don't have to get mad or beat a horse to get him on a trailer, you just have to take away his options until he decides his best one is to load up. Ground work is everything, and working the three basics (see columns in the January and February issues) under saddle help enforce that.

Some owners miss the point of what a horse is telling them, then they don't know how to fix a problem. For example, let's look at a horse that doesn't like you to pick his feet up. That can be dangerous. So, use a longe line to hold him and spray water from a hose to "touch" his feet. He can kick and fuss all he wants without hurting himself or you. Pretty soon he learns that having something touching his feet isn't bad and he's wasting a lot of energy for no reward. The reward is leaving him alone when he stands still and doesn't fuss.

Take-Home Message

Trailer loading is a skill every horse must have, and he must load reliably every time you ask. If you have a horse that is scared or just doesn't want to load, you'll have to spend some time working on the problem. Pick a day when you don't have anything else to do, and be willing to spend hours if it is necessary. (The average horse usually requires 15-20 minutes.) Don't lose your temper, because that means you have run out of options.

If the horse is really bad, get a professional horseman to help you. The professional can teach you and the horse so you can understand why the horse doesn't load, and how to load him in the future.

--By Andy Anderson, DVM, with Kimberly S. Brown

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