We purchased a 15 year old thoroughbred gelding from a local auction to use as a subject in a video series we produced last year. The gelding, Cruiser, is a retired racehorse and is currently an excellent trail horse prospect. Cruiser was hard to load when we picked him up at the sale barn, so part of our training plan with him included working on getting him to load and unload easily.
When you purchase a horse like Cruiser, who has been raced and transported many times, you don’t expect to encounter trailer loading problems. When you do, it’s crucial to determine if the issue is fear-based or simply a result of poor training. Either the horse is scared due to a bad experience loading in the trailer, or it is an attitude that has allowed him to get out of loading in the trailer.
Since Cruiser is a tall horse, one might expect that he dislikes the trailer because he has previously hit his head on the trailer roof. On the other hand, he has somewhat of a stubborn streak, so maybe he has been able to buffalo his previous owners. Since our problem solving strategy will be different for each of these possible scenarios, the first thing we do is try to figure out if he is actually scared of the trailer, or if he has just become stubborn.
Our trailer is a 3 horse gooseneck with a high ceiling, so there’s plenty of room for a tall horse like Cruiser. The first time I started to walk Cruiser into the trailer, he pulled back, backing well away from the trailer. I then put a flake of hay in the front part of the trailer and tried again. This time he walked right in, proceeded to eat the hay, relaxed and happy. I then unloaded him, took out the hay, and tried to reload him. He pulled back again and would not load.
Well, that pretty much narrowed it down to an attitude problem, which is usually a lot easier to fix than a horse with a fear issue. So our plan was to put him through the Horse Sensible Level 2 Groundwork program. The lessons in this level will accomplish two things: change his attitude, whereby he views us as the leader; and reinforce his response to give to basic pressures which ask him to move and take certain shapes.
At completion of Level 2 Groundwork, we proceeded to load Cruiser. These are the steps we took in the first training session on loading:
- I first walked him up to the trailer and he would not load
- I then held up my left hand for direct and drive (Lesson 13)
- I then tapped the back of his fetlocks on the front legs
- Once he moved forward with try, I stopped tapping, dropped my left hand, and rubbed his neck.
- I repeated the process and he backed up so I disengaged his hindquarters (lesson 8) 8-10 times then tried again.
- After 5-6 attempts he started to step in the trailer when I walked him up to it.
- Each time I rewarded him by rubbing his neck.
- When he finally walked in the trailer, I rubbed his neck and backed him out, then reloaded him several times.
I ended the first session with him loading and unloading willingly. Always end a session on a positive note.
For the next couple of weeks I loaded him after his training session without a problem.
So the main take-aways for solving this problem are:
- Determine why he is not loading: scared or attitude
- Build a foundation for changing attitude and taking shape desired
- Reward for the smallest amount of try
- If the horse will not try, put him to work by disengaging his hindquarters behind the trailer so he figures out the easiest place to be is in the trailer
- Never get into a fight
- Never rely on getting a horse in a trailer with feed. One night you might be trying to load him without feed around and that’s when the fight starts.
- Most trailer loading problems can be eliminated if you put in the time at home before you head out somewhere and are forced to make him load without the proper training.