Loading is probably one of the most common problems people have with their horses and I am often called out to help. Some horses don’t mind loading into trailers but don’t like lorries, and others load fine into lorries but don’t like trailers. More commonly though, if there is a problem with loading then it won’t matter what the transport is, the horse or pony simply cannot be persuaded to climb the ramp into the metal box.
Whilst this article is not intended to give instruction on how to overcome the problem of loading, it is intended to help owners and handlers understand why the problem occurs and what it all means from the horse’s point of view.
Lets start by looking at what we are actually asking the horse to do. First we are asking him to step onto a somewhat unstable surface. Ramps will give to the weight of the horse, flexing slightly as well as affecting the suspension of the vehicle, which will move too. Once up the ramp he is asked to step into an enclosed space which is often quite dark and is well up off the ground. Again, the lorry or trailer will move to a degree as the suspension and tyres give under the weight and movement of the horse. Once inside the trailer or lorry we either shut a partition or put up a bar behind the horse so he is trapped and cannot move. We then put the ramp up, closing the horse in further. The engine is started and the box starts to move. We know where we are taking the horse and what will happen when we get there. We also know that we will probably be bringing the horse home - or will we? Maybe the horse is being moved to a new location away from the friends he has made and the surroundings he has grown familiar with. The fact is that whilst we know what is about to happen, the horse doesn’t!
In the wild, years of learning has taught horses not to venture near caves or enclosed spaces for two main reasons - for one, the horse’s ability to run is impeded as direction of flight is limited, and for two, it is usually predators that choose to inhabit such places so it simply isn’t wise to venture even close to these areas, let alone into them. So asking a horse to walk up a ramp and into an enclosed space that is then going to move to a new location and the horse has no idea what is going to happen once there, is a big deal.
Some horses become used to traveling in lorries and trailers to go to competitions or out for a ride, and don’t have any problems at all going in and out. Other horses never really become used to it or maybe aren’t traveled very often so it’s quite a big occasion for them. Other times the lorry or trailer may have an association with unpleasant / traumatic experiences such as going to the vet or moving home, or maybe even an accident or a challenging traveling companion.
Although in some cases the horse does not want to load because he is worried about being in the enclosed space, I actually find that the biggest and most common problem for the horse is confidence on the ramp. In my experience they seem to worry more about being able to negotiate the ramp to get out of the lorry rather than worrying about being in the lorry itself. It is very easy to misread the horse in this situation as he may be persuaded to go up the ramp into the lorry but then spin around very quickly and want to come straight back out again and this appears to be the horse being worried about being in the lorry itself. However, in about 8 out of 10 cases this is usually worked out by building the horse’s confidence on the ramp. If they know they can get out safely and easily by negotiating the ramp with confidence then they are happier to stay for longer and longer inside the lorry.
Restricting a horse in any way, whether it is by holding tightly onto a short lead rope, putting it into a restricted space or holding too hard onto the mouth when riding, will cause the horse’s flight instinct to become heightened. If the horse knows he could get away if necessary - either by negotiating a ramp safely, being able to move his feet on the end of a lead rope in times of uncertainty etc, then he is far more likely to be able to cope with a difficult or worrying situation. As soon as the horse feels that he may not be able to get away if he needed to, he becomes focused solely on that fact and tries harder and harder to get away or move his feet.
There are always cases where the horse is genuinely worried about being inside the box or trailer itself. These horses have usually had a worrying or undesirable experience whilst traveling or associate the traveling with a traumatic event in their lives - such as regular trips to the vet for an injury or illness, leaving the first home, moving home / owner, etc. In these cases it is still important to ensure that the horse feels confident about the ramp first but each case then needs handling appropriately to the nature of the cause and the horse himself. Every horse, just like every human, is different and has his own personality (or horsenality if you like) and, as such, different strategies are needed for different horses in the different situations. One thing is for sure though, violence is not the way. Horses must be handled sensitively with an understanding of what may be going through their mind in order to be able to build confidence. It is very quick and easy to destroy confidence and trust but much harder to rebuild it.
It is our responsibility to understand the horse and why he behaves the way he does. He cannot understand predator psychology but we have the ability to understand prey animal psychology and make the necessary changes within ourselves to help the horse integrate into the human way of life.