Trailering scares me. You put your horse in a metal box then drive, sometimes at highway speeds, and hope that everyone around you is driving as carefully as you are.
And what about your horse? Most of the time, they ride quietly, happily along, munching on hay, completely unconcerned. Until they don’t.
My friend Suzanne wrote recently that her mare panicked in her trailer (Trapped). The sound of a horse thrashing around in your trailer is terrifying. Several years ago, my own horse fell in the trailer coming home from a hunt. I heard him scramble, briefly, and when I got home, I discovered that he had gone under the central divider and was standing, shaking on the right hand side (Trailering Safely: A Near Miss). Remarkably, he was fine. Even more remarkably, he deigned to get on the trailer again. The first time I loaded him I just let him stand on the trailer and after that took him for some very short rides. He looked a bit apprehensive the first time he got on, but he got over it quickly.
However, a bad experience on a trailer can have a lasting effect. There’s a horse at my barn, Curly, who had a long, successful career and rode on trailers without any issues. Then, one day she started to get anxious. She shakes when she gets on the trailer. She leans heavily to the side and sometimes seems like she’s about to fall. One time when I was trailering her with Freedom my husband was driving behind us and she dipped so low that we thought she was going down. I was so worried about her that I left her at a local barn so I could trailer her back alone later. I worried that if she went down they would both get hurt.
The only explanation that her owner can think of is that one time when she was trailering tacked, the saddle slipped, ending up under her belly and scaring her. Now it seems she anticipates the worst.
So, how do you get a horse over their trailering anxiety? I spoke to our vet about it earlier this year because it would be nice to be able to take her places again without causing so much stress (to her and to the driver).
Here’s what she recommended:
- Start by just loading your horse. Don’t go anywhere, just let the horse stand on the trailer with some nice hay and lots of praise.
- Use Ace if necessary. You don’t need much, but even a little can help the horse stay relaxed. Obviously, you cannot use Ace when competing, but it can be a good tool for getting them to learn to stay calm on a trailer. And yes, horses can learn even when they’ve been given Ace.
- Once the horse stands quietly, then go for a short drive. We started by just driving around the property, so only five minutes or so.
- Load your horse frequently, keep the experience short, and end on a positive note.
- Try trailering with a friend. Some horses do better with another horse; for other horses it doesn’t matter or makes the experience worse.
- Try loading your horse on different sides. In Curly’s case, she rides much better on the left than on the right, partially because she likes to lean to the left.
- Try a different kind of trailer. Some horses prefer a stock trailer or a slant load to a front load.
- Remove the center divider, if possible, and give the horse more room. It may be a balance issue and the horse may feel more comfortable if they can move around more.
- Consider using standing wraps and bell boots if you wrap, rather than shipping boots. Sometimes boots can come undone or the horse can get tangled in them.
We made some progress with Curly this past year. She loads fine onto the trailer now and will stand without getting nervous. Although I gave her a small amount of Ace the first time, I found she was fine without it after that. She’s very food motivated, so having a hay net to herself is a good incentive. I’ve done some short drives with her, stopping to let her rest and regain her composure. Next spring we’ll take her for some longer trips.
Have any of you had horses that suffered from trailer anxiety? What did you find was helpful to get them more comfortable?