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Horse Trailers: Loading The Nervous Horse - Part 1 by Jeffrey Rolo

Loading a horse into a horse trailer for the first time can be an intimidating process for both the owner and the horse. Many horse owners hold their breath as the moment of truth arrives, hoping that their equine partner will cooperate and load painlessly. Meanwhile, many horses start behaving fidgety or outright defiantly when asked to enter a horse trailer.

It doesn't have to be that way!

The first thing to keep in mind is that there is a huge difference between a nervous horse and a defiant horse. Too many horse owners address a resistant horse with the same techniques when in reality they should handle a scared horse in a completely different manner as a stubborn horse. If you use the incorrect techniques on your horse, you might eventually get him into the horse trailer, but you'll do more long-term harm than good.

There are two reasons why a horse may be apprehensive of loading into a horse trailer:

bulletThe horse has no previous experience with trailers – it's all new to him.
bulletThe horse has had previous bad experiences with horse trailers. These are generally the most difficult cases to resolve.

Your goal when loading a scared horse is not to get him into the trailer, but rather to show him that he has nothing to fear from the horse trailer. This is a very important distinction to make, and actually runs contrary to the natural instincts of may horsemen. As humans we tend to be linear and results-oriented; success is defined by the horse entering the trailer and anything less is failure. Put this type of thinking out of your head – a successful session with a nervous horse might result in the horse not loading onto the horse trailer.

Obviously given the above, it's best to train a nervous horse to load onto a horse trailer long before you actually need to transport him anywhere. If you wait until the "moment of truth" to expose your horse to something he fears, you have failed him.

Establishing a bond of trust between you and your horse is a huge benefit for you both. Remember that when horses become frightened they look towards the herd leader to lend them strength and guidance. If you have already established yourself as a trustworthy and loved leader, your horse will react far less strongly to the object of his fears than he would otherwise.

The next key to keep in mind is that you should always take things slow. Don't just try and bully your horse into the trailer – allow for prolonged sessions such that when your horse finally loads the trailer, he did so because he wanted to rather than because he was forced to.

If your horse hesitates or jerks away from the horse trailer, let him. This is contrary to what many horse owners do – they think allowing the horse to shy from the trailer will actually make the horse worse. They want to dominate the horse until they win the battle of wills.

This would be a correct approach (sorta) if your horse was being defiant, but if your horse is actually afraid of the request or the trailer then this would be the worst thing you could do. You wouldn't toss a person afraid of water into the middle of a raging river, would you? Because if you did the victim might get over his fear, but it's more likely that he'll instead drown or become even more traumatized.

In other words, do not meet fear with force! When your horse jerks away from the horse trailer he's telling you that he's not ready for your request yet. Give him the time he needs to gain confidence.

Now that we have the basic ground rules laid out for loading a scared horse into a trailer, let's move on to Part 2 of Horse Trailers: Loading the Nervous Horse:

At the conclusion of Part One of Horse Trailers: Loading A Nervous Horse we discussed how a fearful horse should be allowed to retreat from the trailer anytime he wishes. This may have left some folks scratching their head wondering how in the heck they'd ever successfully load a horse into a horse trailer if they should let a horse back away from it anytime the horse wants.

This is a fair question, and one that we will address soon. First, though, I'd like to reiterate that the tactics described in these two articles are valid for nervous horses only. If your horse is not afraid, but rather is just being stubborn, using these tactics will indeed lead nowhere. It's your responsibility to correctly determine if the resistance is caused by fear or intentional defiance.

Throughout the loading process you are going to be acting as the horse's alpha leader, which means you will be the one setting the tone for the event. If you are cool, calm and confident at all times, your strength will rub off on your equine partner. On the other hand, if you are irritated and fidgety due to your horse's fear or resistance, your negative vibes will further shaken what little confidence your horse has.

Once you feel that your horse's muscles are no longer so tense, start advancing towards the trailer again. Continue this slow process until you meet with success.

Too often a horse owner will step away from the scared horse, or worse, go towards the hindquarters to tap his legs with a crop. When your horse is afraid of the horse trailer, it is your responsibility to reassure him that everything is fine. You can only do this by remaining in position – right by his shoulder. The further away you move from your horse, the more you're abandoning him.

If your horse is truly terrified of the horse trailer than you might need to tweak the above formula a bit by introducing some other little tricks or temporary distractions that will ease your horse's heightened stress. For example, if your horse backs away furiously from the trailer, you should not only allow him to – you should ask him to. Why? Although you are there to lend him security, you must always remain the boss too. By asking him to rear when he would anyways, you're actually making him meet your request rather than defy your wishes.

When your horse reaches an unhealthy stress level it will become increasingly difficult to convince him to load into the trailer. At this stage you either want to call the trailer lesson to a close or you want to calm him down by performing some familiar maneuvers that will take his mind off the trailer for a bit of time.

Sometimes a horse owner will actually place a horse trailer in the center of a riding arena such that nervous horses can become comfortable with its presence as they work on other tasks such as lunging or riding.

Never use force to load a nervous horse. You might get him into the horse trailer, but you will further imbed his fear and make him all that much worse the next time. A scared horse requires compassion, reassurance and patience – not force or domination.


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