Trailer Loading Methods

Q:

Our clients have a wide range of horse handling styles and skills, and even among our own group we have different ways of doing things and opinions about the various "carrot and stick" approaches. So all this tends to add to the confusion and frustration of the moment when dealing with a difficult loading situation.

We have also been discussing the many different factors that cause these situations; for example, most of the horses are not "old pro" shippers. Some only trailer for this sort of urgent situation. Some we know have had bad experiences loading or unloading. In some cases the condition of the vehicle itself is an obvious part of the problem. We need to be able to improve our success at loading client-owned horses here at our facility.

We have been seriously considering hiring someone with really good horse-loading skills or sending a staff member to specialized training at one of the horse handling clinics to be the designated "loading assistant," who would eventually train the rest of us in one "best method" that would become our standard.

In the meantime, do you recommend a particular method for efficiently helping owners load their horses under these veterinary clinic circumstances? Do you have a list published anywhere summarizing the most important concepts and tips? We'd appreciate something like that to use as a starting point for organized discussions with our staff. Once we settle on a method, we could also post it in the loading area of our clinic where staff and clients can see it.

via phone


A: As you say, there are many different methods and styles that work for loading horses with difficulties in a clinic or situation such as yours, where you just have to get the job done as efficiently as possible. And I appreciate your need to have one good method for effective loading. A little of this and a little of that usually doesn't add up to effective success.

Let me start by summarizing the main methods that are effective and humane enough for use in a veterinary clinic. It's probably not too much of a simplification to view these as three basic strategies.

The negative reinforcement method Proponents of this method describe the strategy as quietly and methodically making the outside of the trailer more negative or scary than the inside, without making it so scary that the horse resists in a big way. The idea is to basically position the horse behind the trailer and quietly pester with mildly annoying stimuli--for example, gently tapping a stick on the butt or a limb, shaking a plastic grocery bag on a stick behind the horse--then letting up on the pestering with each forward movement. The pressure is titrated so as to stay below the explosive resistance state, and eventually the horse takes the path of least resistance into the trailer. This method requires patience to keep the level of pestering below the punitive level and good timing to recognize and reward forward movement or intention by release of pressure (a pause in the pestering). You also need to understand and respect the difference between negative reinforcement and punishment. The downside of this method is that things can quickly go wrong. For example, as the horse moves forward human nature often seems to be to increase the pressure to maintain the forward momentum, rather than to release the pressure as a reward for forward movement. With enthusiasm that the horse is finally moving into the trailer, the mistake is made to increase the pace or rate of the pestering action to punitive or explosive levels. So instead of, "go--go--good, thank you," the horse gets the message, "go--go--go-go-go-GO-GO-GO-ouch-bad horse." Also, with a potential weapon in hand, frustration can quickly lead to inadvertent aggression toward the horse.

The positive enticement and reinforcement method The strategy is all carrot and no stick, with the goal of teaching the horse that the whole process is positive and that there's nothing to fear. You basically ignore any undesirable behavior and put all your resources into enticing and rewarding forward movement, with no pulling, pushing, or pestering. For some horses gentle guiding alongside or simply lifting a foot onto the ramp or step up while rewarding can be helpful. With each increment of forward movement or observed intention there is a pause to reward. With any undesirable responses, for example, backing away, pawing, or kicking out, just quietly pause and start again. I have two frustrations with this method. Everyone involved does have to be on board with the technique. Well-meaning helpers often rush in with a "negative" at just the wrong moment. The second frustrating aspect of this method is that some otherwise good horse owners find it beneath their dignity or an incorrect tact to bribe a horse onto a trailer with a grain bucket. So they tend to far overestimate the time it takes and give up too soon.

The "raccoon trap maneuver" This brute strength "starting gate push" involves a push from behind, followed by closing them in as fast as you can, and it requires courage, strength, and skill, because it can be quite dangerous. While it can get the job done in a pinch, it probably does not make things better for the next time. For fearful or confused horses, it's likely adding to their future fear.

In any setting, especially a veterinary setting, we should be aiming for the most humane and best positive reinforcement method, which is, in my opinion, for all horses and eventually for most owners an all-positive approach to gaining compliance with patients, whether loading in the trailer or abiding a treatment. The only form of negative reinforcement that I also like to have handy for some horses is a stout soft cotton rope to bring from either side behind to ever-so-gently guide the horse, while enticing/rewarding forward movement.

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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