Horse Journal Performance Editor John Strassburger has some advice to give about teaching your horse to safely load into a trailer. A seasoned competitor and trainer, John offers a look at how he handles shipping horses:
Last month we needed to ship our three homebred 4-year-old horses in a trailer for the first time, and our success in this venture reminded me of how important it is to be prepared and to be positive in every kind of horse training, but especially with trailer training.
All three became trustworthy and confident loaders within a few days of practice, and all three shipped safely and quietly to their destinations.
I think that the first key to teaching a young or inexperienced horse to load and ship well is to plan ahead—don’t wait until the day you want to take him somewhere to introduce him to a trailer. Trying to induce a frightened horse to load while the clock is ticking is a good way to almost guarantee failure.
But, before you try to load your horse, make sure he has decent manners and thorough ground training. He or she must respect you as leader and must obey your commands, or he’s not likely to walk up a ramp or jump into a dark box. A horse who doesn’t lead quietly and confidently, stand or back up is unlikely to obey your new commands in this stressful situation.
The second key is that your attitude (and the environment around the trailer) must be quietly encouraging but firm. Give the horse reasons to want to enter the trailer, but don’t give him or her another option than to climb aboard. Make it clear that “no” is not an acceptable answer.
We began by putting a quiet, experienced shipper in the trailer first—as bait. (I think it’s a mistake to try to put a green horse on a trailer all by himself.) Then I encouraged each of the youngsters to walk into the trailer with a bucket of grain in my hand, allowing them to take bites as they walked forward and in. All three horses walked in to the trailer within about five minutes.
Once they were in, we shut the butt bar and ramp and had them stand in the trailer, while munching on hay and more grain, for a few minutes before unloading them and then loading them once more. Often the second attempt won’t go as easily as the first, sometimes because now they know what’s going to happen when they get in and sometimes because they are babies and that was a really hard mental exercise that you’re asking them to do again. Be patient but firm. “No” is not an answer.
The only other aid or tool we used was to tap one of them with a dressage whip when he thought he’d try to be a bit obstinate on the second day. But we had handy a stud chain, a longe whip and a longe line, just in case anyone needed some firmer encouragement.
You need to have these tools at the ready because once you start the process of trying to get a horse on a trailer, you’d better not stop until he’s on. If you don’t succeed on that first attempt, well, you’re going to have a really steep mountain to climb to fix the problem you’ve created, because he’s won this contest and probably lost respect for you.
I’ve found that, about 98 percent of the time, if you can get a horse to walk confidently into a trailer, stand while you shut the butt bar and ramp and tie them, and then confidently unload, they’ll ship well. Usually, the most important thing is to get them confident about standing in that small space. (After three or four days of practicing loading, we took each horse for a 20-minute test drive before their big days.)
But sometimes horses develop shipping problems later on. What do you do then? Those problems are usually tougher, because you have to win back their confidence—in themselves and in the vehicle they’re riding in.
The basic answer is repetition—calmly and positively putting them on and off the trailer, again and again and again, until they’re bored by it. Put them in and out and take them for a ride as often as possible. My superstar Merlin was a very difficult loader and also rode poorly in the trailer, largely because he had shivers (a mild form of stringhalt), which made him worry about controlling his hind legs, and because he was claustrophobic. But a couple of years of taking him for trailer rides one or more times a week (to lessons, to go foxhunting, or to events) made him into a self-loader.
And now a word about driving a trailer—a factor in how willingly horses load that people often overlook. Many times I’ve seen people frighten and even injure horses by driving their car or truck as if nothing is attached to it. I like to recommend that, before anyone gets to drive a horse trailer, they should have to ride in a trailer to experience how it and its occupants get pushed outward through turns, how they’re thrown forward if the vehicle suddenly brakes, and how they’re thrown backward by sudden acceleration. I’ve spent many hours riding in the backs of horse trailers and vans, and I recall how that felt every time I set off with one.
The amount of jostling horses receive while shipping depends a lot on the trailer too—by whether it’s a bumper-pull or a gooseneck, by how light or how heavy the trailer is, and by whether the horses are riding straight ahead or on a slant.
In my experience, the trailers that give horses the best ride are gooseneck slant-load trailers. Having the hitch over the truck’s rear axle provides much more stability than a bumper-pull hitch (although the T-bars attached to the frame provide much more stability than when you actually attached the trailer to your bumper), and the slant-load stalls allow the horses to easily shift from side to side to keep their balance. It leaves them much less tired at the end of a trip than riding straight ahead, and it dramatically reduces the over-reach injuries so common in straight-load trailers.
We’ve had a slant-load four-horse trailer for seven years, and we’ve been fortunate to not have a single over-reach injury in that time. And—on the advice of commercial shippers and because of the high temperatures out here—we never use shipping bandages or shipping boots.