It’s important to understand the possible reasons why your horse is rushing off the trailer when being loaded or unloaded. It could be caused by:
- fear of being trapped/shut in
- fear of things being behind her
- nervousness/lack of confidence
- painful/negative associations with trailer
- not taught/allowed to solve problems (therefore reacts with fear – fight/flight behaviours)
How long it takes to re-train a horse to stand quietly while the trailer door is being closed (loading) or opened (unloading), depends on her prior experiences and how deeply embedded this response is. Being traumatized either by previous training or trailering experience can result in a strongly conditioned fear and an almost reflexive panic related to the trailer. The behaviour is strongly reinforced each time the horse rushes off the trailer, and the panic and the response that led to the escape the first time she rushed backward off the trailer becomes almost hard-wired.
Your aim is to change your horse’s perception of the trailer from a negative to a positive one so that she feels relaxed and safe throughout the entire loading, shipping and unloading process. It’s just as important for the handler to remain calm and relaxed, because frustration often causes people to become more physically harsh than they expect or intend.
For these reasons, it’s important to avoid causing discomfort or pain for your horse by using punishment or forceful methods. Using positive reinforcement methods helps alleviate your horse’s fear, helps her to learn other coping mechanisms and deepens her trust in you.
Positive reinforcement training methods may seem like more work, but they create long-term success. You use food rewards to reinforce subtle behaviours like taking a step forward or backward and standing quietly – the behaviours your horse needs to load and unload safely. This approach is not the same as using food as a lure. Instead, it lets your horse make the connection between the behaviour and the reward. This connection is a key part of the learning process.
Throughout the process pay close attention to your horse’s body language for signs of relaxation as well as low levels of anxiety (e.g. tense body, wide open eyes, snorting, flared nostrils, twitching ears, dancing, etc.).
Start working with your horse away from the trailer, teaching her each behaviour individually – step forward, step backward and stand.
Using a “marker” (such as a tongue cluck or the word “yes”) as soon as she does the requested behaviour (e.g. takes one step forward) and before giving the reward reinforces and strengthens the desired behaviour.
Once your horse responds consistently to the positive reinforcement, you can start working closer to the trailer.
To be successful with this training:
- take very small steps
- pay attention to how your horse is feeling.
- avoid putting her over threshold (her emotional comfort zone)
- use a long, loose lead to avoid putting tension on your horse’s head
Lead your horse toward the trailer watching for the instant her attention focuses on it. Stop before she shows signs of anxiety or tension. This stage is called “attention without tension.”
Stay in place and allow your horse to relax. Then ask her to take a single step before walking her in an arcing turn away from the trailer.
With this process, your horse is not pushed beyond her emotional comfort zone, she feels more in control, and she is rewarded for stepping forward or staying calm. It prevents your horse going into a highly anxious state that could compromise safety or her emotional well-being.
Gradually, you will be able to move closer to the trailer, stand on the ramp and then step inside. At each stage:
- allow her to relax and then ask her to calmly back up
- continue to look for “attention without tension”
- positively reinforce for each individual behaviour in the same manner
When your horse walks into the trailer, immediately and calmly ask her to back out. If she backs out of the trailer before the cue, simply regroup and start again.
As she remains calm, gradually add a very short duration “stand” (one to three seconds) before asking her to back out. Gradually increase the “stand” duration in subsequent sessions over several days.
Once she is consistently loading and standing relaxed on the trailer, introduce a helper to come to the back of the trailer. This change might trigger the fear response. Remember to let your horse unload if she needs to or to reinforce her if she stands quietly.
It’s very important to be calm, unhurried, and totally focused on what you’re doing during the training process. Avoid all distractions for you and your horse and limit the number of people nearby.
If you have a helper, discuss your training process with them beforehand to prevent miscommunication during the session.
Most importantly, honestly evaluate your skills to know if you can handle the specific trailer loading challenges. If you can’t maintain your own and your horse’s safety at all times or you don’t feel confident then it’s best to get help from a professional.