Troubleshooting Trailer Loading: One Step at a Time

Troubleshooting Trailer Loading: One Step at a Time

Photo: Christy M. West

Consider these 4 behavior-science-based approaches to help your horse load safely

As it typically happens, the one day you’re running late to meet your friends for a long-anticipated trail ride is the day your horse refuses to get on the trailer. He rears a bit when you try to lead him up the ramp, and when he finally does walk forward, he takes two quick sidesteps and you have to start over.

Many horses develop frustrating problems with loading at some point during their lives. The good news is fixing these problems might be easier than you think. Here, three equine behavior researchers weigh in on how to safely teach your horses to become more comfortable with trailer-loading. 

Training Methods

First, recognize that each situation is unique. How you’ll train or retrain a horse to the trailer depends on the source of the problem: Is it due to fear or anxiety, or has he simply learned an avoidance behavior? 

“The method that I recommend depends on the horse’s past experience and exactly what kind of problems the owner is seeing,” says Robin Foster, PhD, Cert. AAB, a Seattle-based IAABC-certified horse behavior consultant, research professor at the University of Puget Sound, and affiliate professor at the University of Washington.

To ensure long-term success and safety for all involved, Foster advises handlers to avoid confrontational methods and those that cause discomfort. “For serious loading problems, when you apply a confrontational method, it can actually make things much worse for the next time and for the future, especially if that horse starts out with serious fears,” she says. “If people become frustrated, their frustration can spill over into perhaps being a bit more physically harsh even than (they) intended.”

She also suggests owners watch the horse’s body language for signs of relaxation vs. impending distress. Signs of fear or anxiety include a tense body, wide-open eyes, snorting, flared nostrils, twitching ears, and dancing feet.

The following four methods can help the horse overcome this trailer-loading anxiety.

Positive reinforcement Foster says research supports the efficacy of positive -reinforcement (reward for doing the desired behavior) as a training method, and personally she has had long-term success with it. She uses treats to reward subtle behaviors, such as taking one step forward during trailer-loading attempts. This approach allows the horse to connect the action and the reward, a key part of the learning process. However, she does warn owners not to use food as a lure. 

Using positive reinforcement, you should first work with the horse away from the trailer and teach him that you will reward each step forward with a treat. In addition, you can use a “marker” (such as a clicker) before the reward to reinforce and strengthen the desired behavior. 

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Cert. AAB, is the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Veterinary Medicine, in Kennett Square. She says she often uses the word “good” as a marker. Once the horse responds consistently to the positive reinforcement, she begins using that method when trailer-loading.

This article continues in the April 2017 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care. For more behavior-science-based approaches to training your horse to load and our expert’s tips for dealing with some of the most common unwanted trailer-loading behaviors, subscribe now and get an immediate download of this issue.

About the Author

Sarah Evers Conrad

Sarah Evers Conrad has a bachelor’s of arts in journalism and equine science from Western Kentucky University. As a lifelong horse lover and equestrian, Conrad started her career at The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care magazine. She has also worked for the United States Equestrian Federation as the managing editor of Equestrian magazine and director of e-communications and served as content manager/travel writer for a Caribbean travel agency. When she isn’t freelancing, Conrad spends her free time enjoying her family, reading, practicing photography, traveling, crocheting, and being around animals in her Lexington, Kentucky, home.

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