When horses go through a traumatic event while loading or riding in a trailer, it sticks with them. It can be very difficult to retrain a horse to load on the trailer after this happens. Riding in a trailer is not a natural thing for a horse to do.
While there is no quick fix for trailer trauma, in this article you’ll learn some techniques for helping horses with traumatic experiences loading and riding in trailers. With these methods, plus time and patience, you’ll get your riding companion loading with confidence again.
Remain Calm and Patient
Horses will often react based on the emotions of people. If you are anxious and aggressive when approaching the trailer, it will only add to the anxiousness of the horse. Staying calm will help calm them down as well. Approaching any new or scary activity with your horse will go better if you are patient with them. Do not rush things. It is best to break up the training sessions into smaller lessons. Spend a few minutes working with your horse, and when they have made progress, give them a break.
Pay Attention to Body Language
Make sure to watch your horse’s body language closely. When they are recovering from a traumatic event, the last thing you want to do is make it worse. If they are panicking, it is best to give them a break. Keep in mind that you want the trailer to become a positive experience for them, and that starts here. Similarly, whenever they seem relaxed and calm, make sure to reward them and not push for too much progress right away.
Be Aware of the Cause
As you work with your horse, keep in mind what caused the trauma in the trailer and try to adjust for it. For example, if your horse fell and got stuck under the partition, try to find a way to take the partition out and still trailer them safely. If they were attacked by a neighboring horse, try only trailering them alone.
Be Ready with Rewards
Overcoming something terrifying is very stressful for a horse. Make sure to reward them as they progress. This lets them know not only that they have done a good job, but that the scary thing (in this case, the trailer) isn’t so bad after all. A reward can be anything your horse likes: treats, grooming, scratches, etc. The bigger the thing they are overcoming, the more special the reward should be.
Use a Comfortable Trailer
Even horses who have not been through a traumatic trailering event can find a horse trailer to be scary. For horses that have been through trauma, it’s even more important to make sure the trailer you are working with looks safe and inviting.
💡 Making sure it has a lot of light is a good start. Keep both back doors open so it looks like a bigger space. If the trailer has center partitions, remove them while working with your horse. It will give you both more room inside the trailer. It also wouldn’t hurt to have some hay waiting inside to help entice them to go in.
If you have access to a trailer with a side-loading door, this may be even more helpful. Leaving the side door open will make the trailer not look like a dark, claustrophobic place. It also might be easier to lead the horse straight through the trailer to start out with instead of trying to load them up and back them off, or trying to turn them around inside.
Load a Friend First
If your horse has a fear of the trailer, then using one of their friends may help keep them calmer. If there is a horse that your horse is attached to that also loves being in the trailer, then bring them along for some training sessions.
Having a calm horse is more important here than one your horse is bonding with, but if the buddy horse checks both of those boxes it’s even better. Put the buddy horse in the trailer first so your horse can see that their friend is ok standing in the scary trailer. Horses are herd animals, so they naturally want to be where their friends are, and they take a lot of their cues from the horses around them.
If your horse won’t even go near the trailer, then one option to start out with is to park the trailer near their pasture.
If they seem agitated, then move it slightly farther away to start with. Let them look at it from a distance and get used to seeing it. Each day, move it a little closer. Eventually, try parking it in the field with them. They are not likely to go and explore it themselves (although they might), but they will at least get used to being around it so you can start working with them on loading.
Start by approaching the trailer, then walking away from it. Forcing your horse to stand close to it if they are not comfortable will only cause them to panic and slow down your progress. You can also try doing groundwork with them in small circles next to the trailer. This will help get their attention on you, and also get them used to being near the trailer. You can gradually move them closer to it as they relax.
Take It One Step at a Time
As you work on leading your horse into the trailer, remember to take each step slowly, and reward all progress. If they walk up and sniff the trailer, or check out the opening, give them a reward and back them away.
Next time, wait for them to put a hoof on the ramp or in the trailer.
Then reward them, and back them away. Keep doing this until you get them all the way in the trailer.
From there, slowly increase the amount of time you are asking them to stand in the trailer before backing them out. Eventually, you can start feeding them their breakfast or dinner in the trailer, or grooming them while standing in the trailer. To get past their trailer trauma, you want to make the trailer a comfortable place to be.
Start With Short Trips
Once you get your horse comfortable standing in the trailer, work on closing up the doors. Again, start slow and build up. When they are used to the doors being closed, you can try moving the trailer. Start out with very short trips, just to get them used to the trailer moving. You can gradually increase the length of the trip each time depending on how your horse is handling it. If they go back to panicking, then back up a few steps and keep working with them to build their confidence back up.
Be flexible with How your Horse Rides
It’s best not to force a traumatized horse into the tight quarters of a slant load trailer and tie them. Researchers have found that when horses are left loose in a box-stall type trailer, most (but not all) prefer to ride facing backward 1 Borrowing a stock trailer or other large, box-stall type trailer might be easier to load and help your horse ride more comfortably.
Keep in mind that a horse that has been through a traumatic trailering event is not refusing to load in the trailer just to be difficult. They are reacting out of fear, and that can be very difficult to retrain. It’s different from teaching a young horse to load in a trailer or troubleshooting other reasons for loading refusals.
Remember that each horse will handle trauma differently, so it may take some time to find what works best for your horse.
Research sources used for this article:
- Smith, B. L., Jones, J. H., Carlson, G. P., & Pascoe, J. R. (1994). Body position and direction preferences in horses during road transport. Equine veterinary journal, 26(5), 374-377.