Q: My 5-year-old Quarter Horse gelding, Shadow, has a good disposition and is very well-mannered. The problem is that about two years ago I forgot to unhook the trailer tie when I was unloading him from our two-horse trailer. Like the good horse he is, Shadow kept backing up and the tie pulled loose, popping him in the head. He still loads great, but when I unload him he flies backward—I know he is anticipating being hit. He is fine when we use a four-horse trailer or take the partition out of the two-horse trailer and lead him off. I cannot figure out how to break him of the fear that I created. Any suggestions? —Mark Hatcher; Ferrum, Virginia
A: Trailer unloading can be difficult in the best of times, but a bad experience can make a lasting impression on a horse. In the case you describe, there are two options. The first is the easiest: Continue using a trailer that has enough room to turn Shadow around and lead him out, or use a walk-through model. Because he does not panic when he is led out, it is obviously the most comfortable for him.
The second option is to retrain Shadow to back out slowly. For this type of training I usually start by standing to the side of the horse, putting a lot of pressure on his rear with my hand. As the butt chain is undone I use the command “back” as I continue to press on the horse as if I can slow him down.
When doing this exercise, you obviously have to be careful to stand out of the way, because if the horse backs up quickly you can be hurt. I repeat this every time I unload the horse and gradually he comes to trust that I will guide him backward—he learns to slowly feel for the ground, reassured by the pressure of my hand. I have always started young horses this way regardless of whether they want to bolt backward or are reluctant to move.
If you don’t feel as if you can find a safe spot to stand during this exercise, you can use a two-inch or wider long rope instead of your hand to put pressure on the horse’s rump. The rope can then be let out as the horse backs up. This technique is a little more difficult and has its own risks (entanglement of a hand or leg, for example).
Whichever technique you use, do your best to keep Shadow from banging his head on the trailer roof. If this occurs, it will add to his anticipated consequences of unloading.
Bonnie Beaver, DVM, DACVB
Texas A&M University
College Station, Texas