You’re not alone in encountering issues with trailer loading.
Have you ever found yourself dealing with a horse after a competition, late in the afternoon when everyone is tired and keen to get home, but the horse just refuses to board the trailer? It’s frustrating, and you’ve probably been asked many times if you need a helping hand or a loading rope. You’re not alone in this experience: studies show that many other horse owners have faced the same issue. Trailer loading can make horses anxious and nervous, and there’s a need for more knowledge about how we can avoid these problems and load horses better.
Even if your horse willingly enters the trailer, it can be very stressful for them each time they have to be transported. Professor Gemma Pearson, a vet in Edinburgh, has recently conducted a survey among horse owners to see how common the issue of loading was, what circumstances surrounded it, and how it affects the relationship between horses and humans. The survey suggests that trailer loading is the most stressful part of transporting horses. Far too often, injuries occur to the horses themselves or the people loading them, she believes.
If we pay attention to what stresses horses and take precautions so that the horse’s discomfort is minimised, it can help the horse to board the trailer in a good way, Gemma Pearson told the conference held for The International Society for Equitation Science in Hartpury, UK.
WHO HAS ISSUES WITH LOADING?
Gemma Pearson and her colleagues distributed a questionnaire on social media.
They received 1040 responses, from women aged 36-55 years, the vast majority of whom had over 20 years of experience with horses. The horses were of various breeds, and the majority were geldings between 11 and 15 years old. The most common activity was forest riding, but activities within dressage and jumping were also part of the responses. Most of the horses were transported in a standard horse trailer, about once a month and the journey took less than an hour.
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WHAT DID THE HORSE’S BEHAVIOUR SIGNAL?
70% of the responses reported that the horse boarded the trailer without obstacles. However, it was also reported that out of these, 40% reported that the horse sometimes swayed its hindquarters to the side, or dug its feet into the ground and refused to proceed. Even though the horse owners didn’t think there were problems with loading, 98% of the horses showed signs of negative stress behaviour during loading. This could take the form of head shaking, scratching the ground or defecating. This behaviour signals that the horse wasn’t comfortable with the situation, and Gemma Pearson emphasises the importance of taking these signs seriously. It’s crucial not to normalise these signs as being the usual behaviour when the horse is being loaded, she explains. Only two percent of all responses reported no negative stress behaviour.
HOW HAS OUR VIEW OF THE HORSE CHANGED?
Out of the 30% of responses which reported that the horses had trouble boarding the trailer, the most common problem was the horse stopping at the ramp and refusing to move forward. When asked why the horse had problems getting into the trailer, the answer was that the horse might have had a negative experience. Fear and pain were also high on the list of possible causes. Gemma Pearson sees this as a sign of a change in our view of the horse. If the same questions had been asked 10 years ago, answers such as the horse being naughty, stubborn or dominant would have been at the top of the list, she believes.
PUNISHMENT OR REWARD?
Those owners who had issues with loading worked with different solutions, Gemma Pearson shares. The majority sought help from an experienced friend or colleague. Some used a different type of halter, new headgear, or a form of physical barrier to encourage the horse to enter the trailer. Others used loading ropes or food to lure the horse, and they gave the horse treats when it had been loaded. It was, however, positive that food and rewards were much more prevalent than punishment.
WHAT FEELINGS DID THE OWNERS HAVE ABOUT THE LOADING?
When owners were asked about what it was like for them to have problems loading the horse, 76% replied that it made them feel embarrassed and inadequate. According to Gemma Pearson, feelings of frustration, guilt, disappointment, worry, and anger were also some of the words describing the feeling of the horse not wanting to go into the trailer. Some answered that “the problem makes me reflect on what I can do better,” and Gemma Pearson saw that as a positive sign. Many felt a form of social pressure, especially when asked if they would like a loading rope or a helping hand. Maybe it was not always intended to help. “You’re doing it all wrong” or “You shouldn’t let the horse dominate” were perceived as instructive, rather than help to get the horse loaded. 23% of the owners and 6% of the horses were injured during loading, and most of the injuries occurred if there were loading ropes or whips involved in the loading.
TRAILER LOADING PROBLEMS AFFECT THE HORSE’S VALUE.
42% answered that it would affect their decision if they were to buy a horse that had difficulty entering the trailer and 58% believed it would affect the horse’s value.
WHAT ARE THE UNDERLYING CAUSES OF THE DIFFICULTIES?
Problems with loading the horse were reported in one out of three horses, and it is associated with a wide range of different strategies and equipment. Trailer loading was already a problem 20 years ago, and we still have many problems, according to researchers. This study only covers a small percentage of the horse industry, but a picture is emerging that there is a need to find the underlying causes of loading problems. It is also important to investigate how we can disseminate this knowledge to the people who deal with horses on a daily basis. Difficulties with trailer loading can negatively affect the relationship between horses and humans, and further research is needed to minimize problems, concludes Gemma Pearson.