If you stop to think about how unnatural it is to ask a horse to step into a tin can so you can seal it up and bump and rattle 65 mph down the road, you might wonder how we ever get them to do it.
There are so many things wrong with trailering — where do you begin? For one, a horse is a visual creature. They can see tiny movement from a great distance and thrive on looking over a wide range of grass, scouting for predators. Forcing them to stand tied surrounded by walls is pretty harsh punishment. (This includes life in a stall, but that is a story for another time.)
Secondly, a horse balances on its hindquarters — throwing it forward every time you brake puts a lot more stress on the equine body than you might think. If you turn a horse loose in a stock trailer, he will face the rear of the vehicle while traveling.
With this you can add traffic noise, gasoline or diesel fumes, etc. I could go on. But when you combine all this stuff with a bad experience, well, an open trailer can quickly — and righteously — become the Gates of Hell.
So when my friend Linda called me about a mare that was coming back to her farm with a trailering issue, the way she put it was, “I want you to come and fix her.”
She called in May and although I was happy to come right away, she wanted to give the mare more time to settle in. She had been sold and returned after some time at a different location. I don’t know how long she was there.
When we finally agreed upon a date, it was the first week of September and I met Spring, a tall dark bay Morgan mare, around 15 years old, who had returned to the farm of her birth a mere shadow of her former self… An equine skeleton, nervous, planting her feet and reluctant to even come out of the stall. When she was led, she would plow into the handler with her left shoulder, hard enough to knock you off balance. She screamed for the other horses and couldn’t concentrate on anything she was asked to do.
My first day there, I decided to spend time on the hand leading problem. The first step was to target train her. I had my handy target stick along with me, one I purchased years ago from the talented former whale trainer, Shawna Karrasch. I was happy to see that Spring was handily food motivated. She especially loved carrots. She quickly learned to touch the target stick through repitition: Touch, click treat, touch, click, treat.
Once this is learned you can pretty much put the horse’s nose wherever you want it, and then the head and body follows naturally.
In walking her, I found her very eager to forge ahead. I think maybe the new owners had raced her around on a lunge line. A lot of horses that are taught to lunge in a hurry never do learn to properly lead. They will try to circle in front of you. Spring had to learn to yield out away from me, backing up a step when I took a right turn. She eventually learned to give me space, but it took about two days of hard work to get her there.
We spent a lot of time practicing in the driveway, calmly leading in different directions or just standing around, hanging out. She did earn a lot of treats, but she had to earn them. I didn’t do a lot of yelling and there was absolutely no correction. No jerking, no yelling, no punishment. Just easy stuff.
When we first approached the trailer, she planted her feet, her nostrils got as big as saucers, and she snorted and blew. Her head became a skyscraper, pointed straight up, eyes rolling in complete fear.
The mare, I had learned, had broken a trailer window with her head. Whatever else happened after leaving the farm just added to her PTSD. There was a whole lot of stress associated with that trailer.
This is where the target training came in handy. There is nothing bad associated with the stick. It is a simple point of focus, from which only good things come. It is easy to lower the head, which will naturally calm the horse, and the treats — especially delicious carrots — lead to a lot of contemplative chewing.
We spent a couple of days walking up to the open trailer door, looking in and then leaving. She was able to stick her head and neck in and she ate a bucket of grain that was placed inside.
Eventually, I began reinforcing her for touching the edge of the door with her knees. As she learned this new trick, she began lifting her knees higher, bumping the edge again and again until she volunteered to put one front foot up and in.
We worked in short shifts, three and four times a day. Some of these involved just walking her around and hand grazing. Not all of them involved the trailer.
On the fourth day, when she was comfortable with leading and approaching the trailer and putting her head in, we loaded another horse on board and started asking Spring to put her front feet in. Barn manager Janice accomplished this by lifting her front foot and placing it firmly inside. I stood in the trailer and reinforced her heavily for just keeping her foot where Janice had put it.
Normally I would have just waited for the mare to offer up her own foot, but we were working under some time constraints. This worked out okay. If possible, it’s always best to let the animal choose the right path. The healing happens faster that way as the brain engages.
Once Spring put two feet in on her own, we would immediately quit and then come back again a few hours later. The first time we encouraged her to get her whole body in there, she leaned down, stretching her neck wayyyy in, and crawled up into the trailer like a cat.
She earned a tub of grain and stood there and ate it nervously, but before she had even licked it clean, she was asked to unload again, calmly and went back to her stall.
It took six days and she finally climbed in on her own with no hesitation and no other horse.
If I had more time, I would keep loading her and unloading her with random sessions.
The additional benefits to this confidence building target training were remarkable. She is calmer away from the other horses and stopped calling for them. She leads politely without pulling or crowding. She is even calmer under saddle.
And she learned a really cute trick!
As her stress has decreased greatly, she will continue to gain weight and go back to her old lovable, funny self.
I encourage anyone who is having behavior issues to go back to the ground. Use behavior modification to address the fundamental cause of these problems. Building confidence works so much better than suppression through punishment or other “quick fixes.”