In this month's edition of How To Fix, we ask the experts for their solutions for horses that don't like being caught in the pasture. Any horse owner or farm worker has been through the cat-and-mouse game before, whether with a young horse or an adult, and it takes a lot of time and energy. Once you do finally catch the miscreant, though – can you break the cycle… and is there any medical basis for this behavior?
Dr. Katherine Houpt, professor emeritus of behavioral medicine at Cornell University's College of Veterinary Medicine:
You can use a clicker. I was watching Sharon Madre who has a Lusitania farm near Ocala and she was training horses to get on the trailer using a clicker. One foot on the trailer, and the horse gets the click and the reward, and then two feet in the trailer. She had these horses climbing into the trailer all by themselves within a pretty short period of time. The problem, of course, is people don't discover they have a problem until they're going to a horse show and time is of the essence. There's not too much you can do then, you just have to make it as unstressful as possible.
They don't like the hollow sound under their feet, which is one reason step-up trailers are much better than those with ramps. They often dislike the ramp more than the trailer. If they can just climb in themselves, they usually are pretty good at that. The other reason is they may get motion sickness or be bounced around too much in the trailer, depending on the kind. The bumper-pull ones aren't stable, and of course drivers differ. I'm sure if I drove my horses places, they would hate to get on trailers because I'm a jerky driver. If the horse has ever had any kind of accident in the trailer, he may be reluctant to get on. Livestock and step-up trailers seem to be much preferred.
I used to say you could park the trailer in the paddock with the horse's grain, and the horse has to get his food by getting onto the trailer. That works, but it's a nuisance and the horses soon figure out that if the trailer is in the paddock it's a good place, and if it's out of the paddock they're going someplace they may not want to go.
Obedience training your horse to walk when you say 'Walk' and stop when you say 'Stop' seems to be the best way to deal with that. Horses don't really like to move, so if every time the horse refuses to step toward the trailer, you make him trot around you six times and then you try again, that sometimes is successful just because horses are pretty lazy.
I'd always heard part of the problem with trailers was the way horses perceive light and shadow, and their eyes being a little different from ours. Is there anything to that?
Well they don't like to go into dark places. They don't like to go into dark caves, because there might be a bear in it. If it's more brightly-lit, you'll have a better chance of the horse being willing to get in. I think that's the other reason livestock trailers are preferred—they have open slats, so it's not so dark inside.
Dr. Bryan Waldridge, internal medicine specialist at Park Equine Hospital:
I think horses who have a history of loading and getting spooked for whatever reason and rearing up and hitting their head, I think those are worse. I think a lot of horses who don't load, that's in their history.
We had one two weeks ago that had a wasp's nest in the trailer. The horse normally loaded really well, and the owner brought him in[to the clinic] and got stung loading him to take him home. She said 'Now I guess I know why he didn't want to load before.'
My filly hated the middle ramp but she'd go up the back ramp on those commercial box goosenecks. I think some of them prefer the wider and less steep ramp.
Vision problems would do that too, maybe if the horse didn't have real good vision that would spook them a little bit. I've seen that a time or two. I've never really seen lameness bother them, except maybe on a step-up if they're sore and don't want to load.
What's the best solution? Sedation and patience?
Yes, a combination of the two. The detomidine gel works good for that kind of stuff. It takes just enough edge off them. that they're fairly aware and all but takes them down a notch or two with the minor apprehensive type stuff.
Luke Sullivan, broodmare manager, Mt. Brilliant Farm:
A lot of times with foals and even yearlings, my advice is to take it slow. We breed a lot of mares here on the farm and we have a lot of foals that may not leave the farm until they go to the yearling sales, so it's a new experience. It's just like trying to catch a tough mare — if you can stay as calm and cool and collected as possible and be patient. Sometimes I'll coax them on with a little feed.
Sometimes it just takes someone standing behind them and waving their hands and clucking a little bit. If you can read the horse, you can read their body language, you can kind of figure out what kind of mood they're in — if they're scared of it, or if they just don't want to do it. With a lot of yearlings that are very difficult to load because they just don't want to do it, you can usually link arms with a couple guys behind the horse. It's usually not the safest thing to do, but you can literally just push them on, especially with weanlings.
The slow and steady approach, for me, usually works best. If they've got a couple feet up the ramp and aren't being complete jerks about it, if you can take the time and go slow and steady that's the easiest approach to it. It's a whole lot easier than fighting with them. A lot of people get a broom or a rake and smack them in the butt. I've had horses that have never been on trailers before and it takes 10 minutes to get them on, and others that I spend hours with. It's just all about the horse, every horse is different.
You can tell usually right away if food's going to work because they'll edge forward towards it.
The mares obviously you can't push, no matter how many guys you have. Your best bet usually is to have someone behind clucking at them. We don't use a whip with our trailer, but we do carry a whip with the lash taken off and we've put a little red flag on the end of it. We usually use that to make some noise behind them. That often distracts them enough or motivates them enough to get on the trailer.
We also have pretty open, inviting trailers. We ship all our mares to the breeding shed in open box stalls, so we're not trying to put a big mare in a little two horse bumper pull where you have to close the ramp behind them. Most of our mares are pretty accustomed to it. It takes a long time to gain a horse's trust and it takes just a few seconds to lose it. I think most horses who don't want to load probably have a good reason for it, whether they're a young horse who's never been on a trailer or they've had a bad trailer experience.
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