TAILS FROM THE TRAILS
Being the center of attention in a show ring may bring joy, but being the center of attention at the show grounds because your horse won’t load into the trailer can bring humiliation and frustration. Trust me: I’ve been there more than once.
One time, a friend had to leave her horse at a show grounds overnight after hours and hours of failed attempts to get him into the trailer. It’s a humbling experience, one Andrea Stonecipher knows all too well.
“I’ve seen all the tricks,” she laughed. “Food, a butt rope, swatting with brooms, lead rope chain over the nose, getting more people to help. These may or may not work, but it’s still stressful for the people and the horse.”
Andrea lives in Jupiter Farms, where she has owned Smooth Sailing Stables for 13 years. She teaches basic English hunt seat with a nice, healthy dose of natural horsemanship thrown in. Her other specialty is working with problem loaders.
“Over the years, I’ve helped many desperate horse owners,” Andrea said. “The worst ones are people calling me at the last minute who have to move their horses immediately. I’m talking bad situations, like the gal who called from a boarding barn where the barn owner threatened to hurt her horse if it wasn’t off the property immediately, due to a disagreement. The horse, who usually loaded well, now refused, spooked by the emotionally upset owner and the screaming, irate barn owner.”
And then there was the time a horse was already in the trailer, but no one noticed the wasp nest. “Already on the road, the trailer started bucking around,” she recalled. “They got the horse out, cleared out the wasps, but the horse refused to get back in. Unfortunately, I’ve seen it all.”
Andrea said the best way to ensure a calm, reliable loader is not to be in a hurry but to take time and build the horse’s confidence.
“The person loading the horse should be quiet and self-assured,” she said. “When you’re worried or nervous, you give off negative energy, which upsets a horse. Your fear can make a horse afraid. Horses look for leaders. Changing to negative energy changes the outcome.”
Andrea has borrowed many of her techniques from some top trainers, especially Clinton Anderson and Pat Parelli. “I watch the best. What they do makes sense to the horse,” she said. “Once you’ve gained a horse’s trust and respect, they’ll do anything for you, even walk into a metal box on wheels. A horse with trailering problems often has problems in other areas as well.”
Andrea characterized problem loaders as two types: horses that are stubborn and horses that are fearful. Regaining these horses’ respect requires different approaches.
“A stubborn horse knows how to load; he just decides he doesn’t feel like it. It’s a choice,” she explained. “The fearful horse, however, has become irrational. He believes going into the trailer will injure or kill him; he’s in fear for his life. This horse can be really dangerous, and he or the handler can easily get hurt.”
Getting a stubborn horse to load takes thinking like a horse. “The stubborn horse locks his legs and suddenly develops a long, giraffe-like neck, which can reach soooo far into the trailer,” Andrea said. “Or he may stand with just his front feet inside but his back feet outside. He’s not afraid, just refusing to go in. This is a lack of respect from a smart, fat, spoiled horse, typically confident in himself, one who likes to outwit people, push into their personal space.”
Andrea will often use reverse psychology and make it the horse’s idea to get in. “I put him to work near the trailer, make him move his feet. I lunge him in small circles, make him back up, change speed and direction, get his heart pumping,” she said. “When he’s a little tired, the only place he can stop and rest is in the trailer. I lead him to the trailer and give him that option. If he steps all the way in, he gets to rest. If not, it’s back to work immediately. I’m establishing that I’m in charge, I call the shots. It increases his respect for me. It usually takes less than a half-hour.”
Fearful horses have other challenges.
“A fearful horse knows he’s about to die. The whites of his eyes show, he’s snorting, his muscles are rigid, his head’s up, he’s spooky, ready to flee,” Andrea said. “Maybe he has had a previous bad experience, or it could be lack of exposure to trailering. You can’t shove or push this horse in. I teach him that a trailer is fun, safe buffet on wheels. I let the horse look at it all over, sniff it. This horse usually takes a while to get in — you can’t load this horse when you’re late for a show. Getting into a trailer should become a regular part of daily training. Ideally, the best way to teach this horse is to park a trailer, safely, in its paddock, leave it open, and feed the horse in it. Soon, the horse will be standing in the trailer, waiting for you.”
I actually used this technique with one of my mares. She went three days without grain (but lots of hay), until she finally decided to walk in and eat. After that, she became an easy loader.
“The most important thing with both types of horses is to remain cool and calm,” Andrea stressed. “Before loading, make sure the trailer is safe, tall enough, and free of hazards like wasp nests. When getting ready to load up, allow enough extra time so you’re not in a rush. Know your horse, and make sure he’s prepared and you’ve practiced. Have an experienced friend along to help, if needed. Make sure the horse feels good about getting into the trailer. Reward him with a treat or a pat.”
The goal isn’t getting somewhere, Andrea explained. “The goal is having a horse who feels safe in a trailer and loads up calmly, confidently and consistently, because he trusts you,” she said.