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Trailering Help from Julie Goodnight: Slow the Backup

Does your horse come blasting out of your horse trailer faster than you’d like him to? That’s a dangerous situation for both you and your horse, and one that can be prevented.

Julie Goodnight has a solution in this Q & A from HorseLink magazine.

Q: When I unload my mare from the trailer, she backs out way too fast and seems panicked to get outside. What can I do to get her to slow down?

via Facebook

A:  I’m envisioning that your mare loads into the trailer with ease, but has learned to “blow out” backward once she’s in. This behavior is quite dangerous — both to your mare and to anyone who may be in the way as she rushes back.

To learn more from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight, download our FREE guide—Julie Goodnight’s Tips for Riding a Horse: How to Ride a Horse at the Canter.

You need to teach your mare to back out only on command and in a very controlled fashion. With my technique, you’ll teach her to move forward into the trailer and only move back with a specific backing cue. But first, find out if your mare’s behavior is based on fear or learned behavior.

Julie Goodnight Trailer Loading

Is it Fear?
Your mare may be claustrophobic and genuinely fear confined spaces. To find out, see if she’ll eat inside the trailer. If she won’t, that’s a sign that she’s genuinely panicked. Physiologically, horses can’t eat when they’re frightened. And keep in mind that using forceful tactics on frightened horses never works; it just makes them more afraid.

If your mare is backing out in a true panic, you may need to work with her in a larger space before she’ll settle down inside the trailer. Start with a larger trailer or even a wash rack or other confined area. Allow her to go in as far as she’s comfortable to eat some tasty food.

You can even feed her twice a day in the confined space. Gradually, put the food farther into the confined space, until she’s eating an entire meal inside.

Then load her into the trailer, as outlined below. As you do, avoid the temptation to leave the trailer windows and doors open to give her some breathing room. Panicked horses will escape through even the smallest windows and doors.

Once your mare is eating in the trailer, shut the back door, and let her eat inside the trailer for a week. If you want to expedite the procedure, do several sessions a day, with breaks in between, and feed all of her rations inside the trailer.

Note that while it’s good for your mare to know how to back out of a trailer, it might be helpful to allow her to turn and walk out a few times. This helps her know where she’s going and isn’t as frightening as moving backward down a step — that’s a move she’d never make in the wild.

Horse backing out of a trailer

If your horse is backing out of the trailer quickly, teach him that he must stay inside the trailer until you give a backup cue.

Step-by-Step Technique
Use this technique if your mare’s fast-backing issue is behavioral, rather than based on fear. If she’s fearful, first use the technique described above to teach her to relax in confined spaces. Here, I’ll first explain the correct trailer-loading technique, which forms the basis of a safe, slow unloading process.

You’ll need: A rope halter (for training only, not for trailering); long (at least 15-foot) training lead; a training flag; and a knowledgeable horseperson to work the training flag.

Before you begin: Hitch your trailer to your tow vehicle for stability. Drive to a hazard-free area with good footing. Outfit your mare in the halter and lead, and lead her to a level work area out of view of the trailer.

Step 1. Establish control. Walk your mare forward and back on a loose lead. Make sure you can control where her head is pointed. Establish a backup cue: Apply light, backward pressure on the lead, and say “back.” Teach your mare to respond well to this cue, taking one step at a time on your command.

Step 2. Approach the trailer. Lead your mare toward the trailer. As you do, control her head and neck to keep her pointed toward the trailer.

Step 3. Wave the flag. You’ll use a flag wave to urge your mare forward, rather than touching her rump. This will keep her focus forward and allow her to decide to enter the trailer voluntarily. Don’t touch her with the flag; the sound and movement will make her uncomfortable.

Ask your helper to hold the flag and wait behind you, subtly in the background. Your helper’s job is to concentrate on your mare’s feet for any sign of backing. At the first hint of backing, he or she will wave the flag vigorously. This action will apply mental pressure to your mare and motivate her to move forward.

Expert tip: Don’t desensitize a horse to a waving flag until you know you won’t need to use it for trailer training.

Step 4. Stop the flag motion. The instant your mare moves forward, your helper will stop waving the flag. This will release the mental pressure on your mare and reward her for moving toward or staying in the trailer.
Your mare will learn that if she backs, she’ll hear an uncomfortable noise, and if she steps forward, the scary stimulus goes away. Backing isn’t an option. Continue in this manner until your mare loads. If you don’t need to use the flag while loading her, leave her alone.

Step 5. Offer a reward. When your mare has loaded, offer her a bite of grain as a reward, and pet her to help her relax. The treat isn’t a bribe; it’s used to help her relax and to know that the trailer is a safe place to be.

Step 6. Begin unloading. Stay to the side of your mare, for safety. When she’s relaxed, ask her to back out slowly, one step at a time. Be careful not to pull her — that will make her want to pull back and move backward too quickly. Keep the lead loose.

Ask your mare for one step back, ask her to halt and pet her for a moment, then ask again. Stopping and relaxing between steps will teach her that going slow is the desired behavior.

Step 7. Use the flag. Have your flagger ready. If your mare takes more than one step and starts to “blow backward,” use the flagging process described earlier until she’s moving forward or still. Make sure your mare is settled and calm before you ask for a slow back up again. Repeat until she’s safely and slowly out.

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