Travelling – loading problems

The horse differs from other large domestic animals in that it may be transported many times in its lifetime. Successful transportation of horses requires awareness of the horses behavioural and physical needs.

A number of factors associated with transport can make it a stressful experience for a horse and these include:

  • Separation of the horse from familiar surroundings.
  • Isolation from familiar group-mates.
  • Disruption of normal feeding, drinking and resting patterns.
  • Confinement often for extended periods.
  • Restricted space that leads to restricted movement.
  • Exposure to traffic noise, smells and adverse temperature conditions.
  • Movement, braking and cornering of the vehicle leading to problems with balancing.
  • Poor driving.

Any of the above factors may lead to problems for a horse during transportation, and this in turn will lead to a horse being disinclined to load into a vehicle. It is often difficult to determine exactly what the cause of a horse’s refusal to load may have been; however owners should examine all of the above possibilities.

In order to encourage the horse to load it is essential that the transport environment and the experience the horse has, is properly considered from the ‘horse’s point of view’.

The interior of a trailer or lorry should:

  • Be light and bright inside, preferably with some form of natural light.
  • Be well (solidly) built to reduce vibration and swing.
  • Be roomy – horses need to be able to develop a ‘bracing’ posture with the fore and hind-legs apart.
  • Contain solid partitions that are half-height, ie not totally enclosing, with a rubber skirt underneath, this will allow the ‘bracing’ posture and ensure that horse does not lose balance. Partitions should be well padded.
  • Horses also need a lot of headroom and should have space in front of them so they can lower their head.
  • Have all furniture in a vehicle well padded – this includes a breast-bar at the correct height, ie at breast height, and a bum bar.
  • Have non-slip flooring.
  • Be as dust free as possible, with good ventilation.
  • Be driven by someone with skill and experience – horse boxes and trailers should travel slowly especially around corners and roundabouts.
  • The exception is on a motorway but be careful of sudden braking.
  • Have a ‘solid sounding’ ramp (covered with matting of some kind) with spaced footholds. Make sure the ramp angle is not steep and the step up from the ground is not too high.

Horses should:

  • Be in excellent health. If the horse shows any clinical signs of infection, or is injured, seek the advice of your veterinarian.
  • Be offered ‘familiar’ water, or have been previously trained to drink flavored water.
  • Be well ventilated and well hydrated throughout. Avoid over-wrapping the horse in blankets.
  • Be transported with a companion.

Horses should not:

  • Be transported for periods of more than 2 hours without a stop. They should be checked and offered water when the vehicle is not in motion.
  • Be tied too tightly – this restricts head movement and can lead to a dangerous and stressful experience.
  • Be transported for long periods without a rest, especially if expected to perform on arrival at the destination.

Despite ensuring the ideal travel environment and conditions for your horse it is sometimes the case that horses refuse to load into the transport vehicle.
The main reasons for this are:

  • Inexperience – horses are naturally fearful of dark, enclosed spaces and often find ramp-climbing difficult.
  • Fear due to an adverse experience.
  • Pain causing problems with loading and/or transport.
  • Lack of confidence in the handler – the handler does not possess the necessary knowledge to teach the horse to load.
  • Learned ‘misbehavior’ – if the horse learns that certain behavior is rewarded, eg refusal to load leads to being left at home with friends and food, it will continue to have that response to the vehicle.

Depending on the reason for the behavior, different methods can be tried:

  • Check that the ramp and the vehicle interior are safe, and ‘horse-friendly’ (as above).
  • Ask your veterinarian to check for any physical problems, especially a sore back, limb problems and pelvis. All of these parts of the body will be worked hard during transport, and any pain is therefore likely to be worsened.
  • If the horse is young and inexperienced, make a ‘pen’ or enclosure at the bottom of the ramp, or back the trailer or lorry to the door of the stable, and start the slow process of feeding the horse on the ramp, and eventually in the vehicle, before starting the engine and finally pulling away. This is progressive desensitization and may take a few weeks.
  • If the horse is fearful due to a previous experience, then it again needs to be convinced that the vehicle is a positive place to be. The horse needs to be desensitized and counter-conditioned, so that it learns a new response to an old stimulus. There should be no possibilities of escape from the ramp, and the ramp should be made as flat as possible with the minimum step up. Food and a companion can be used to make the lorry more attractive, and time taken to change the horse’s attitude to the vehicle. This could take months and requires a great deal of patience.
  • If the horse has learned to avoid loading due to inexperienced handling, then change the handler, change the routine and try the method above.
  • Various methods are currently advocated for aiding loading, e.g. practising the ‘Parelli games’, ‘joining-up’ with the horse, clicker-training, etc. all of these are useful aids for establishing a more confident relationship between horse and handler and for this reason may be useful to try.

Various ‘gadgets’ are on sale and in some cases these must be assessed carefully, since they may provoke a fear response that will further exacerbate the problem. Chemical restraint or sedation should only be used as a last resort, and if a horse has been sedated for loading it must not be transported until the sedative has worn off. It must be noted that the horse will be unlikely to load voluntarily the next time, since it will have little recollection of being loaded whilst sedated.
Useful equipment includes:

  • The ‘Easy-loader’ available through equine stores. This is a broad plastic strap that can be used to encourage the horse from behind, although watch out for kicking.
  • Hoods or blinkers can be used to encourage the horse forward, although different horses react differently to this method.
  • A lunge whip to encourage the horse forward BUT this should not touch the horse, nor should it be used as a weapon. This is certainly a useful negative reinforcer if used appropriately.
  • Food especially high incentive food such as mints, carrots, etc.
  • A companion or buddy horse in the vehicle.
  • Specialist halters may be useful if used appropriately.

NOTE: Hobbles, winches, electric prodders and any other form of device that works by causing extreme fear or pain are obviously inhumane and should be avoided.
If the problem persists it may be necessary to call on the services of an equine behavior specialist who can work with your vet to establish the cause and the best method for dealing with the problem.