A successful road trip with your horse in tow begins with the proper rig, includes performing appropriate inspections and being prepared for emergencies, but as a horse owner, you also have a responsibility to make sure your horses are good travelers.
“People just get in a big hurry, and the horses feel trapped,” said natural horsemanship expert Mindy Bower. “The other thing is, if they do get in trouble, if you have the horse prepared correctly, they’re not going to panic if something goes wrong. The goal is to have them feel comfortable moving in a small space.”
From The Ground Up
Trailering is stressful for horses because it goes against their nature as prey animals to walk into a dark enclosed space. A horse with no prior trailering experience is unlikely to walk right in, and one that’s had negative experiences while loading or shipping will be doubly resistant. Bower said teaching your horse to lead well in general will reduce the chance of having a problem when you want to load up.
“In my experience with horses with trailering issues, if I can get them very good about leading, the trouble stops,” said Bower. “The main thing is to make the horses get in and get out like it’s a continuation of the ground work. They think the trailer is just something else.”
Bower said it was surprising how often leading—the most basic of ground manners—is neglected.
“Most horses don’t back or lead forward very well. You should be pulling a feather, not a boat,” she explained. “They should come forward lightly when you pick up the slack on the lead rope. A good test of whether you have a horse halter broke is leading them through a gate. You stand on the outside of the gate and move them out. Or, sit on a fence and pull them toward you.”
Certain horse trailer designs will also encourage your horse to load and travel well.
“A horse is more inclined to enter a trailer that is non-threatening. It should look open and be well lit, and easy to enter and back out,” said Tom Scheve, designer of EquiSpirit Trailers and co-author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “The trailer you use will be critical to reducing stress and injury when teaching your horse to load and travel. A well padded, roomy, well lit, well ventilated trailer can make the experience much easier.”
Additional Trailer Safety And Comfort Tips
- Install padding over the interior entrance in case your horse rears up.
- The center partition shouldn’t go all the way to the floor to give your horse more room to spread his legs for balance.
- A swinging center divider can be moved over to the side when loading creating a bigger, less intimidating stall.
- Pick a trailer that doesn’t have a rear center post dividing the stall entrance.
Getting On And Off
When you introduce your horse to the trailer, make it a slow process. Don’t get anxious or demanding and keep the groundwork the same. If you have a ramp, introduce your horse to it in small steps and don’t insist the horse fully load on the trailer right away.
“Get them to understand they can easily and safely get in and get out,” said Bower. “They have to be able to move their feet while they’re in there, too. Get them to move forward and back. Do all of this before shutting the door.”
Most horse trailers are designed for horses to load going forward and to unload going backward. If you can find a safe way to turn your horse around and lead him or her off, the horse will find this more comfortable.
If you can’t turn your horse around, Bower suggested practicing backing up on the ground. Teach your horse to back up slowly in a straight line, taking short, careful steps.
“A non-steep ramp will allow the horse to easily cross over into the trailer rather than climbing up into it,” said Scheve. “A shallow ramp will also allow you to let the horse stand on it to get used to it and to look into the trailer before stepping in. If the horse decides to bolt backwards out of the trailer, the shallow ramp will provide a safe exit to the ground and keep the horse from sliding under the trailer.”
The saying “practice makes perfect” definitely applies to hauling horses. The more you work on making your horses familiar with trailering, the better they will travel.
Another potential manners issue related to trailering is that many horses don’t know how to stand quietly when tied. Not only is this important in the trailer itself, but also if you have a breakdown and need to get the horses off the trailer, tying to the trailer may be your only option.