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G.F. (Andy) Anderson, DVM, who operates Equine Veterinary Associates in Broken Arrow, Okla., presented an effective technique of loading problem horses into trailers. With the use of a video and humorously delivered anecdotes, he explained to the listeners the necessary steps to take so that a horse does not learn how “not” to load.
Some very simple tools are required, Anderson said. They include a halter and soft lead rope—sometimes a chain shank should be available—a horse trailer in good repair, a a lunge whip or pole six to seven feet in length with a plastic bag taped to the end, and, “most importantly, a positive, patient attitude.”
The goal, he said, is to en-courage the horse to make positive choices to load, and to discourage any attempts to escape or evade loading. The plastic bag, he explained, is used to aggravate or annoy the horse until he reaches a point where he seeks the haven of the trailer to get away from the annoyance. The bag is not used to strike, whip, or beat a horse, merely to cause a slight unpleasantness (sound and touch) that the horse would rather avoid. However, he cautioned that the aggravation should be STOPPED the moment the horse demonstrates even the slightest indication that it wants to load.
Some of these signs are lowering of the head toward the trailer floor and pointing the ears forward. Anderson told his listeners it is at this point that many horse owners make a classic error. If the horse lowers his head to sniff at the trailer, they immediately jerk it up in an attempt to pull the horse into the trailer.
“I never pull on a horse or push on him,” Anderson said, “because I don't want him ever to find out that he can out-pull and out-push me.”
Patience is required with this approach because a horse normally will exhaust all of its evasive options before entering the trailer. One option might to be run backward. When that happens, Anderson advised, make the horse back up much farther and faster than he intended until the horse realizes that the “running backward option” is not one to be repeated. If the horse turns sideways to the trailer, don't lead him away; rather, aggravate him with the lunge whip and plastic bag until he is once again properly aligned.
Anderson also said he seldom uses his voice except to say “good boy” if the horse makes a positive move. He also doesn't jerk, yank, or put pressure on the lead rope except to point the horse's head in the right direction gently.
Once the horse steps into the trailer, he said, allow him to stand there as long as or little as he wants. If he wants to back out, don't resist. Nor should the rear door be immediately closed or the butt bar slammed into place when the horse does load.
“If you do that,” he said, “you have confirmed the horse's worst fears about being inside that trailer.”
At this point, back him out quietly and lead him away from the trailer, then reload him using the same procedure. Don't be disappointed if the second loading lesson is more difficult than the first. After he loads and stands quietly the second time, quit for the day and you will rarely have future problems.
It is highly important, Anderson said, to reward positive behavior by petting and praising the horse. Negative behavior is answered with annoyance and aggravation.
Some horses will learn to load, then won't back out of a trailer. First, Anderson said, one must look at unloading from the horse's perspective. In most cases, the horse can't see behind himself and is being asked to step out into “space.” The horse doesn't know if he is going to step down into space for one foot or a hundred feet.
Anderson's solution at this point is, if possible, to allow the horse to turn around and walk out. After doing this repeatedly, he said, most horses will no longer resist backing out. However, if they do, he recommended teaching them to drive and back in long lines in a training pen. The lines can then be used to encourage the horse to back from a trailer.
Anderson concluded with these words: “I have loaded hundreds of horses without a single injury to horses or people. This method may require more time the first few times a horse is loaded, but it will save a lot of time over a lifetime. Many hard-to-load horses can be retrained in less than an hour, but some require longer. Most remain trouble-free afterward, so the experience is a wise investment."