by Ali Gillard Chew BSc(Hons) MEqS DipCABC BHSIntSM
Most people who have horses will, at some point, experience problems with loading and travelling them – whether it’s being late for (or missing) the show because of problems loading, the horse that does Riverdance in the trailer as you’re going along or the horse that gets so excited when you get the shipping boots out that you can’t put them on. Many of these problems can be sorted out by spending some time on appropriate training and considering other factors.
If your horse has never travelled before, or has never travelled in the vehicle or type of vehicle you use, spend some time getting him used to the trailer / box and teach him that going into it is not a big deal. Clicker training is excellent for this. Once he will load without hesitation and is relaxed inside the box with doors shut, introduce actually moving the vehicle and build up journey times gradually.
If your horse has travelled before and has a problem with it, it may be a good idea to seek professional help, starting with your vet to see if your horse has any pain which may be aggravated by travelling. If this can be ruled out, further investigation is needed to try and work out why your horse doesn’t like or is scared of travelling.
Is it big enough for your horse? If a horse is squashed into a trailer or box which isn’t big enough for him, he won’t be able to balance himself – horses need to be able to spread their feet apart and raise and lower their head to keep their balance while the vehicle is moving. Also if a trailer is too small for the horse it’s carrying, it will not be balanced and will be potentially dangerous. Check also that the towing vehicle is big enough for the weight of the loaded trailer.
Some horses simply prefer one type of vehicle over another, for example they may travel happily in a lorry but have major issues with trailers – maybe the lorry feels more stable to them, or maybe they had a bad experience in a trailer.
There is considerable evidence from research that horses balance more easily and prefer to travel facing backwards. If you have a horse with a travelling problem or are looking at buying a new vehicle, perhaps this is something you could consider.
The way the vehicle is driven has a major impact on the comfort of the equine passengers. Accelerating, braking and cornering all put pressure on the horse’s balance – it takes time for the horse to adjust its balance as it feels the vehicle’s movements so accelerating, braking and cornering need to be smooth and gradual to give the horse that time – don’t forget, the horse can’t see where it’s going. And it always feels twice as fast in the trailer as it does in the car (try it in the field, but not with the horses on board, and not on the road, it’s illegal!).
If everything else is OK, you may just need to train your horse to load and travel happily. I much prefer to give a horse a good reason to want to go in the vehicle than to give him the ‘lesser of two evils’ choice, so I use clicker training rather than anything like pressure halters or even lunge lines.
The first step, which is often overlooked but is vital, is to get the horse’s attention on the vehicle – you often see a crowd of people all pushing and pulling a horse to try and get it in a trailer but the horse is usually staring into the distance and not even looking at the vehicle – it’s a very effective avoidance tactic – all the pushing and pulling in the world won’t get the horse in if he won’t even look at it. So reward the horse for focussing on the trailer and then gradually shape his behaviour into loading – ask him to get a bit closer each time before rewarding him, until he goes in. Make sure he is relaxed at each stage before moving on to the next and the horse’s confidence (and yours!) will build until you have a horse that will load itself. Training needs to extend to travelling too – start with short journeys, keep the horse relaxed and build up to longer ones.
It is often helpful to have an equine friend accompany the horse to build up confidence – but only if the friend is a confident, relaxed traveller otherwise you could make it worse. The horse’s friend should be just that too – another horse he knows and is comfortable with – shutting a horse in a confined space with another horse he doesn’t know can be very stressful and not conducive to keeping him relaxed.
The overexcitable horse
The horse that gets overexcited when travelling needs a programme of desensitisation and counter conditioning very similar to that described above. This horse may load easily if the excitement is because he knows he’s going to a party, but apparent excitement may alternatively signal fear (it’s the same process in the nervous system). The excited horse needs to be trained to stay relaxed, and this can be achieved in the same way as described for dogs last month – make sure plenty of journeys that have a boring outcome are included (eg go for a drive and come straight home) and periodically do all the preparations but don’t go anywhere. Combine this desensitisation with counter conditioning as described above to train the horse to be relaxed.
As we’ve seen, there are many factors to think about if a horse is a difficult traveller. Many of the problems can be resolved by taking time to carefully train the horse – why not spend the time training your horse rather than arguing with him? It can be much less stressful and save time later!
Not all the issues can be solved through training – I’m sure at least some horses are claustrophobic and maybe some suffer motion sickness. And some horses just get the hang of balancing better than others (some horses lean up the wall instead of balancing). It’s a lot to ask of a horse, to get in a relatively dark box which jiggles and rattles and swings them about, with strange noises and scary shadows, and when they get out they’re magically somewhere else – but good training goes a long way.
If you have any concerns regarding the behaviour of any of your animals, would like one-to-one help training them or would like to learn more about animal or specifically equine behaviour, please contact Ali on 07799 608125 or firstname.lastname@example.org