A successful road trip with your horse in tow begins with the proper rig, includes performing appropriate inspections and being prepared for emergencies, but as a horse owner, you also have a responsibility to make sure your horses are good travelers.
“People just get in a big hurry, and the horses feel trapped,” said natural horsemanship expert Mindy Bower. “The other thing is, if they do get in trouble, if you have the horse prepared correctly, they’re not going to panic if something goes wrong. The goal is to have them feel comfortable moving in a small space.”
From The Ground Up
Trailering is stressful for horses because it goes against their nature as prey animals to walk into a dark enclosed space. A horse with no prior trailering experience is unlikely to walk right in, and one that’s had negative experiences while loading or shipping will be doubly resistant. Bower said teaching your horse to lead well in general will reduce the chance of having a problem when you want to load up.
“In my experience with horses with trailering issues, if I can get them very good about leading, the trouble stops,” said Bower. “The main thing is to make the horses get in and get out like it’s a continuation of the ground work. They think the trailer is just something else.”
Bower said it was surprising how often leading—the most basic of ground manners—is neglected.
“Most horses don’t back or lead forward very well. You should be pulling a feather, not a boat,” she explained. “They should come forward lightly when you pick up the slack on the lead rope. A good test of whether you have a horse halter broke is leading them through a gate. You stand on the outside of the gate and move them out. Or, sit on a fence and pull them toward you.”
Certain horse trailer designs will also encourage your horse to load and travel well.
“A horse is more inclined to enter a trailer that is non-threatening. It should look open and be well lit, and easy to enter and back out,” said Tom Scheve, designer of EquiSpirit Trailers and co-author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, And Servicing A Horse Trailer. “The trailer you use will be critical to reducing stress and injury when teaching your horse to load and travel. A well padded, roomy, well lit, well ventilated trailer can make the experience much easier.”
Additional Trailer Safety And Comfort Tips
- Install padding over the interior entrance in case your horse rears up.
- The center partition shouldn’t go all the way to the floor to give your horse more room to spread his legs for balance.
- A swinging center divider can be moved over to the side when loading creating a bigger, less intimidating stall.
- Pick a trailer that doesn’t have a rear center post dividing the stall entrance.
Getting On And Off
When you introduce your horse to the trailer, make it a slow process. Don’t get anxious or demanding and keep the groundwork the same. If you have a ramp, introduce your horse to it in small steps and don’t insist the horse fully load on the trailer right away.
“Get them to understand they can easily and safely get in and get out,” said Bower. “They have to be able to move their feet while they’re in there, too. Get them to move forward and back. Do all of this before shutting the door.”
Most horse trailers are designed for horses to load going forward and to unload going backward. If you can find a safe way to turn your horse around and lead him or her off, the horse will find this more comfortable.
If you can’t turn your horse around, Bower suggested practicing backing up on the ground. Teach your horse to back up slowly in a straight line, taking short, careful steps.
“A non-steep ramp will allow the horse to easily cross over into the trailer rather than climbing up into it,” said Scheve. “A shallow ramp will also allow you to let the horse stand on it to get used to it and to look into the trailer before stepping in. If the horse decides to bolt backwards out of the trailer, the shallow ramp will provide a safe exit to the ground and keep the horse from sliding under the trailer.”
The saying “practice makes perfect” definitely applies to hauling horses. The more you work on making your horses familiar with trailering, the better they will travel.
Another potential manners issue related to trailering is that many horses don’t know how to stand quietly when tied. Not only is this important in the trailer itself, but also if you have a breakdown and need to get the horses off the trailer, tying to the trailer may be your only option.
“The best way to safely tie your horses in the trailer is to use well designed trailer ties,” said Scheve. “They should be adjustable to give the horses enough length to stretch their necks but not enough to get entangled. They should also have a quick release snap on both ends so that you can quickly release your horse from the trailer tie ring or from the halter if needed. It’s unwise to use breakaway trailer ties or halter, because you don’t want your horse releasing himself on his own. It’s best and safer if you are the one determining how and when your horse should be released so that you have control, whether you’re training or even in an accident.”
Like trailering, standing tied to something stationary goes against a horse’s nature. Teaching a horse to tie is another process that should be taken slowly and patiently, especially with young or nervous horses.
Tips For Tying
- Never tie a horse to something solid and let him work it out himself. This is a good way to injure your horse or yourself and make his apprehension of being tied even worse.
- Don’t use inner tubes, bungee cords or similar materials. This just teaches a horse that it’s OK to pull back, and if the tie breaks, the material will rebound, flinging the hard snaps.
- Don’t use training halters, breakaway halters or chains.*
- NEVER tie a horse to a horse trailer that is not properly hitched to a truck.
- Never tie your horse to anything that could move or be removed. If he spooks, he could drag the object around and panic himself more.
- If your horse does start panicking and pulling, don’t try to stop him. Running in and attempting to calm him puts you at huge risk for injury. Wait until he quiets down or works it out on his own.
*There is some disagreement about whether a breakaway halter—one with a leather strap or loop—is safer than a plain nylon or leather halter. On the plus side, the halter will break before your horse injures himself. But the drawback is that your horse will then be loose without a halter. While horses can find a myriad of ways to injure themselves under any circumstances, it’s preferable to tie to something that can break, like bailing twine, so that if your horse breaks free, he’s still wearing a halter.
“If you have doubts about tying them up to the side of trailer, then you shouldn’t be loading them,” said Bower. “I would have all those issues addressed before even thinking about trailering.”
Common Trailering Problems
- Kicking – Kickers are not only potentially harmful to themselves, but to the integrity and life of your trailer. There are various different styles of hobbles and kick-chains that will encourage the horse to keep his feet on the ground. Other methods:
- Put the horse in the trailer while parked. When the horse kicks, bang something on the side of the trailer. Repeat every time he kicks, stopping when he stands quietly. Eventually, the horse will associate the loud noise with his kicking and, potentially, stop.
- While driving, keep your radio off and noise to a minimum. Every time you hear or feel a kick, hit your brakes. It doesn’t have to be a hard tap of your brakes, just enough that your horse feels it. Use caution with this method and make sure you’re in a safe situation on the road.
- Pawing – Horses generally paw out of anxiety or nervousness, so if your horse suddenly starts pawing in the trailer it warrants an investigation. If your horse is a habitual pawer, hobbles can be used to keep him steady. Pawing is a behavior that tends to get worse if not addressed immediately. You can use the same methods for kickers to try and fix the problem.
- Rearing – Rearing is a problem in trailers simply because it’s easy for a horse to hit his head on the roof, which is potentially damaging. One key thing to remember is that if your horse begins to pull back or try to rear, do not pull back. Pulling back only makes the horse pull harder, faster, and potentially more violently. If your horse is a rearer, make sure he wears a head bumper at all times when he is trailering. Rearing is a dangerous vice and should be addressed by a competent trainer.
- Biting/Cribbing/Chewing – Horses are often mouthy and being in an enclosed environment, like a trailer, can amplify that vice. The best way to control this is to keep your horse properly tied. If this does not prevent him from chewing on the trailer or mats, consider a muzzle.
Traveling With Friends
Since horses are herd animals, most of them will travel better with a friend or two, but it’s important to think about the arrangement of the animals in your rig.
“The geldings are easy to ship, and the mares follow behind,” said DJ Johnson of Johnson Horse Transportation. “The stallions [are a little more challenging]. You have to talk to their staff and make sure there are no mares around. Some of them you can’t put the wrong color horse beside them either. They’re so sensitive.”
Hauling mares and foals is a different matter entirely. While people ship mares and foals on a regular basis, extra precautions need to be taken to ensure their safety on the road.
“We use straw for mares and foals, especially for the newborns,” said Johnson. “You have more of a risk. You have to worry about the baby because he’s unruly and unbroken. You have to really pay attention and take your time. When we load the babies, we load them with a chute and more personnel are required. It’s risk management again; you need to take your time and make sure the foal follows the mare.”
If you’re traveling to a horse show and intend to work out of your trailer, bringing two horses may be helpful or an inconvenience. While most horses will stand quietly if they have a friend around, chaos can ensue if said friend leaves.
Keeping your horse well stocked with hay while his buddy is gone may help keep him quieter, but if you are working with two or more horses at a show your best bet is to bring a friend of your own to help keep an eye on things.
This is the seventh article in an ongoing series on Towing and Trailer Safety. Do you have any questions about trailering or anything you’d like to see in this series? Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org She would love to hear your thoughts and looks forward to your contributions!