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Free Articles from Willing Results


New England Dressage Association: October, 2006:


Trailer Nightmares


By Casey Sugarman, Behaviorist




Trailer nightmares...

Do you know a horse who hyperventilates when a trailer drives onto the property? How about the one who will come up to the trailer only to kick it? There's the horse who won't stand next to the trailer; he'll either trot in circles or drag you down the driveway. Your horse has a backwards slink which blossoms into a rear and bolt? Or does he fall off or 'super man launch' off of the ramp? Does she insist on standing behind the taillights, creating a hairpin turn that only an acrobat could traverse? Maybe she gets half way on but never more than half and ends up pulling everyone right out onto the dirt… for hours. Do your horse's eyes glaze over while he travels to Planet Nebulon only to suffer a panic attack when he comes back to Earth? If you can't put up the butt bar, or can't close the doors, if your horse won't stay on, or won't come off, if your horse paces and panics, scrambles or slams, hits the ceiling or falls down in the trailer, or worse… you are not alone. I meet horses like this all the time.


Wrong Trailer?

Don't blame the trailer. It's just an innocent hunk of steel, aluminum and rubber. It doesn't matter whether it has a step up or a ramp, a full or half or no divider, whether it has front load, rear load, slant load or an escalator! A horse is much better equipped to deal with every trailer on earth than any one trailer is equipped to deal with any horse. Why? Because the horse has a brain, and the trailer does not. The horse can change his mind. The heat, the rain, the time of day, all of those other uncontrollable factors are additional excuses we sometimes use to explain why the horse won't load or travel safely. But if the horse wants to trailer, no amount of rain will stop him.



If you are looking for the real culprit behind your horse's aversion to 'riding in the car', look to the experiences he or she has had. Knowing the history does not cure the patient, but it is certain that something in the history started you on the path to where you are today. One single trip with a poor driver, or a series of moderately stressful trips will set the 'wheels in motion' and start you down the slippery slope. Slippery floors or weaving turns are enough to make a horse feel like a sneaker in a washing machine, and if you don't believe it, a ride back there will convince you. But horses are rational. Bad memories are only enough to make him think twice before he loads, but he'll go. Unfortunately, it's what happens once he loads that causes the bulk of the trouble to come.


Lock Down

I believe that the biggest problem in horse trailering is that horses are typically not given sufficient time to think, compare notes, and re-learn that things are copasetic. Once coaxed to get on, the mousetrap springs, the doors get slammed and it's pedal to the metal to make it to the destination "before he has time to worry". In the words of Shakespeare, "Ay, there's the rub." You just proved your horse's worst nightmare: he is, in all truth of fact, a sneaker in a washing machine. By doing all of that quick-quick-quick, he has had no time to look around or settle in, no time to catch a breath, no time to think "well hey, that wasn't so bad." Even if your travel destination is not off-putting to him, a quick lock down procedure is. So, up go his defenses, down goes your tolerance, up go your offenses, and down the slippery slope with you both.


For most trailer nightmares, the story unfolds more or less like this. It begins with a little "head scratching" confusion about a mild incident or questionable history with a previous owner. The loading procedure progresses into a coaxing negotiation. Later it deteriorates into a battle of wills, and finally it sinks into a dangerous game of drugs, leverage and force. By the time most horses meet me, they have already seen the whole show, and they want their money back.



Horses who have been in trailer accidents can also learn to "get back on the horse", and trust those tires again. In response to a mid-trip accident, some animals have invented downright strange coping mechanisms. Some try to balance on only two legs, and others assume that they are the ones moving the truck, as if attached to the tires with a harness. But one thing is for sure. What bizarre corners the brain has gotten into, the brain is required to undo. Personally, I can't get enough of these cases. I love every one of them. Because when you let the full decision-making power of the animal work for you, the work is safe, rewarding, enlightening, and curative.


Who's afraid of the trailer, now?


Safe and timely loading is a linear string of events. We can't talk about butt bars until the horse is actually inside, and we can't talk about coming inside until the horse stops needing to flee the scene. Every animal is a snowflake, but by and large, the horse brain uses the same bag of tricks, because the human brain uses a set list of psychological and physical leverage tactics. Difficult cases require hours of treatment to undo their particular set of unfortunate beliefs, but luckily, not many animals have the whole laundry list of problems above. The trailer nightmare in you know may in fact have a little more fear than you suspect and/or quite a bit less obstinance than you perceive.


Acid Test for Fear

In order to work safely, you'll need your hitched trailer enclosed in a fenced-in area, and your haltered horse off lead. Stand inside with a bucket of grain freely offered. If he doesn't come inside to take the offering, there's your answer. He's got fear, either of the enclosure or of the mousetrap springing. I always suggest walking into the trailer first, having the horse come to you. No tap-tap squashing him in from the outside. Why? If it requires any leverage to load him, he's not ready to choose it himself, and he has a dilemma.


I call this the Indiana Jones Dilemma. A person (or horse) who is on the edge of a cliff has one problem. A person on the edge of a cliff, being chased by aboriginals with spears (you), has two problems. One problem is manageable. Two simultaneous problems gets dangerous. If it's too dangerous for you to be in there with him, it's too dangerous for him to be in there with himself. The solution to fear is support and communication. Good behavior shaping methods (not covered here) are the right answer.


Acid Test for Obstinance

Horses don't invent head shyness out of thin air. It is a learned, evasive move, and we know where it comes from. By the same token, every time a horse has been bribed, cornered, yanked, pushed, or ratcheted into a horse trailer, each experience leaves a specific behavioral scar. For every point of pain or fear, the animal is forced to learn a new evasive move, like yanking or rearing or pushing. My job is to help the horse meet these old demons on his or her own terms, so that s/he can compare notes and make rational choices again. Over-willful horses are usually fronting to cover up specific fears. Most of these fears are very real. But just like some people, some animals have learned that it is effective to pretend to be afraid at certain points when they really aren't.


To tell the difference between these emotional states, pay attention to the respiratory system. In my experience, I have found that heavy inhaling with flared nostrils = fear. Deep exhaling = learning. Breath holding = panic, and explosive outburst is coming imminently. A horse who is holding his breath is putting you and himself in danger, and you should back up to an earlier point in the path. Fast exhaling snorts = obstinance. Through all of your trials and tribulations, if your animal is only blowing his nose on you over and over, you may have an obstinate horse. If any other breathing patterns are present as well, you are also contending with a true underlying fear.


Getting Past His Threshold

A difficult phobia rehabilitation case (the horse that will never load on lead) requires honed skills, but you can fix mild loading trouble (the horse that makes you an hour late) all on your own with a little bit of 'Zen and the art of horse loading'. This is the single most important horse loading skill I teach. It is safe enough for anyone to try, and it yields almost instant results. Whether his threshold is still outside, venturing inside, or staying in while you work with the rear gates, try the skill below. There are similar keys to unlock every door in the maze we call the trailer nightmare.


Step 1. Stand on one foot. (Yes, I am serious.) It's best to stand on the foot that is closest to the horse.
Step 2. Put only two fingers on the bottom of the halter, and push it toward the truck, but only use one ounce of pressure and hold it there.
Step 3. When horse's chest rocks to you even a microscopic amount, it pushes a pretend button that ejects your fingers from the halter.
Result: A mildly difficult horse just wants to pull you out with him. If you have to balance on one foot, you can't possibly offer him any resistance and he will be playing tug of war with himself. That's a boring game and he'll give it up. When he stops again, repeat steps. Once you get the feel of the 'button' you may replace your fingers with a lead line, but stay on one foot.


Lose the Equipment

Please note that in order to achieve re-learning, it is best to check all of your dressage whips, chains, lunge lines, tightening halters, chutes, barrier walls, brooms, and insults at the door. They are of no use to you here. The more difficult the case, the more important that is. Trust in that noggin of his or hers. Animals are learning all the time. It's what brains were built to do. If you don't purposefully invite your horse to learn the good stuff, he'll be diligently studying the finer art of the bad.


Note: This article is not intended to be instructional. Emotional recovery in dangerous horses should be directed by a professional behaviorist to reduce risk of injury to people and animals. For help with difficult cases, please contact Partnership Engineering. Phobias and behavior problems of all kinds cases can be addressed.


Casey Sugarman, Phobia Specialist/ Behaviorist
Sugarman has been reversing phobias in animals and in people for 18 years.


Note: This article is not instructional. Emotional recovery in phobic individuals should be directed by a professional behaviorist to reduce risk of injury.


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