On the Road Again

By Kimball Lewis

Horse owners from all disciplines are taking to the road with equids in tow in greater numbers than ever. In this two-part series, you will find first-hand tips and advice for a hassle free, safe road trip for both horse and rider. Part one covers safe, sensible loading basics and trailer safety. Part two (next issue) will take us on the road to some of the best and not so great horse motels in America and will offer some time-tested tips for long road trips.

Question: During which activity is the horse and/or rider exposed to the greatest risk? If you answered During the Ride, you would be stating what we would assume to be the obvious. However, statistics bare out that the horse and rider are also at a period of great exposure to stress and injury during the loading and transport process.

Like the automobile and airplane, horse trailer design has made gigantic steps forward in terms of both functionality and safety. Manufacturers have worked and reworked the most critical areas of potential risk inside and out of the trailer. Circle J, Charmac, Sundowner, Trails West and others have design engineers on staff who have taken every element of the loading and hauling process into consideration when designing trailers with safety as the primary concern. And while all of the science now being incorporated into trailer manufacturing has certainly minimized injuries during travel, the human factor is still the most important component in transport safety.

Looking back on childhood days, our horse trailers consisted of a "livestock rack" in the back of a pickup truck. When we needed to transport our horses it was almost always to head up to the mountains to move cattle. When not in use, the heavy rack was stored on top of two empty 50-gallon drums where it could readily be accessed when needed. We would back the pickup truck to the rack and roll it across the empty drums into the bed. Then, we would drive the truck to the nearest mound of dirt or irrigation ditch so that our horses could jump into the back of the truck without having to step up too high. The process was crude and risky in comparison to present-day modern trailers, but these were tried and true, rock solid ranch horses that went wherever they were asked. We treated our horses like kings because they were both our livelihood and our companions. They ate first; we ate afterward. No matter the length of the ride, no matter how tired, sore, thirsty or hungry we were, the horses were taken care of first. This sort of ranch policy fostered a strong bond between horse and rider. This coexistence and mutual trust is exactly why, when we asked our horses to jump into the bed of a truck, they did so without hesitation. We drove carefully and they quickly figured out for themselves how to ride in it. When treated with compassion, fairness, and trust, horses will generally trust us and do just about anything we ask of them.

There are no magic formulas, no mirrors and lights, no "Horse Whisperers" needed to work in total harmony with our horses. How is it then, that during the loading and trailering process, some people encounter total frustration? I cannot, in the limited space of this article, fully articulate the mechanics behind why certain horses load better than others. However, for the sake of brevity, I will give you an accurate condensed overview of this challenge.

Load Up!

A livestock rack, similar to what we used years ago.

Wouldn't it be nice if all that were required to load your horses were this simple two-word command? Yes, there are those who have developed a familiar existence with a favorite trail horse or working horse to the extent that all we need to do is point them in the right direction and they simply load up. But for the purposes of this article, I am referring to the majority of horse and rider teams that encounter difficulty at loading (or unloading in some cases). Let's face it; in order to embark on any road trip, the first hurdle, if you will, is loading your horse into the trailer. Why is this process so difficult for some and so effortless for others? First, remember the obvious: there are two dynamics at work, The Loader and The Loadee. This means it takes more than the cooperation of the horse and vice versa. Each of you is doing something that heightens the senses to the extent that both horse and rider can become tense or even agitated. You all know what I'm referring to. I don't care if you're the most experienced horseperson or horse handler in the world. There is at least a three or four-second period in which you tense up while you are leading or directing your naturally-apprehensive horse into the trailer. You know your horse is going against his instincts and could balk, and he detects this; he knows and feels your tension. It is no coincidence that the point of refusal or "the point of balking" occurs, more than 9 out of 10 times, when the horse has his front legs already in the rig.

You've felt the frustration. Your friends are all standing around waiting for you to load your horse. There you are, standing with a horse half in and half out and then, as if the winds of evil whip ped through your trailer, he snorts - and with eyes fixed open wide, feet scrambling backward, he comes out with a thud in a cloud of dust. To compound your embarrassment and the horse's anxiety, several "cowboys" rush over to help. "Lemme git that sonofabitch into the trailer," yells one or more eager dudes. Why not? This is their chance to prove to you and everyone else standing around that they can do what the rest couldn't. This is ego time. Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar. And you, in your good-natured way, step back and let the rodeo begin. STOP! This is your horse, your trailer and your time. There is nobody who I will ever let get behind my horse with a whip , rope or flailing arms during the loading process. If it takes two minutes terrific. If it takes two hours, so be it. The loading of any horse should always be a quiet, stress-free time with little noise and distraction.

You are asking your horse to do something that goes against the very nature of the species. You are asking an animal, who has survived millennia based entirely on his instinct and ability to run, to place himself into a restricted enclosure. Why on God's Earth would he do it? Trust. Pure and simple. You need to reassure him and build his confidence and trust to the extent that he will do what goes against his most primal survival instinct. This is an art and you are the artist. So paint with the right brush.

You can get any animal to repeat any basic function through a system of reward and trust. Moreover, you can ease or mitigate the anxiety of the loading process through a few easy steps.

1. Surroundings: Make sure, especially during the first few loadings, that you are in a quiet area free of crowds and distractions. You know by now that your horse has monocular prey-animal vision rather than binocular predator vision and as such, he has his hands full concentrating on what he is getting into and out of. Don't give him any more to think about or worry about than necessary. If you're loading a new horse, or if you're loading a familiar horse into a new trailer, follow this to the letter. He needs his attention focused on his new surroundings. Not on waving cowboy hats, yelling crowds, other horses running past, etc.

2. The Trailer: Purchase a horse-friendly trailer with a light-colored, open design. Remember, in prehistoric times, horses avoided small, cramped or dimly lit spaces because that was where the predator was. This is a real concern in the wild, and an inherited concern that still exists in every horse. If you already own a trailer and it is cramped, dark colored, and dimly lit, don't despair. You can remove the partitions if it is a small, two-horse trailer. If the interior is dark, paint it white. This will allow your horse to see what is inside and he will not balk at loading as much. It is up to you to coax him into doing something he would prefer not to do, and once you have gently and patiently taught him how, load him - and simply take him around the block. Then unload and reward him. The next day, load him and take him two miles, and so on. It's all a matter of conditioned response. As he becomes more secure he will load more willingly. Now this next one might sound silly to some but it has worked for me many times: If there are droppings from other horses in the trailer, clean them out completely and wash the trailer. Then, take some of his manure and place it in the trailer. Notice when you go to load him, the very first thing he does is he lowers his head and smells the floor. This familiar scent puts him at ease.

3. The Floor: You would think this is a no brainer but I'm sorry to say it is not. Don't make your horse ride on a hard unprotected surface, even for short trips. The same way a guitar string transmits vibrations, so do the legs of your horse absorb and distribute shock. On short trips, this is uncomfortable. On long road trips, this can cause secondary ailments such as "road founder" and other forms of lameness. Place heavy-duty rubber no-slip mats on the floor. Cover the mat with shavings. The purpose of the shavings is to absorb the urine. This serves three purposes: It extends the life of your floor. It prevents your horse from slipping. It acts as a shock absorber, protecting his legs and giving him added comfort. If the ride is comfortable, he is less stressed and will load more readily every time. Another less pleasant note: There is nothing more tragic than to see a horse after his foot has slipped or broken through a rotten floor during transport. Inspect your floor just as if you were a pilot checking the leading edge of an aircraft wing prior to flight. It is that important.

4. The Walls: Ideally, the walls will have a thick padding. This will insulate your horse from the bumps and bruises associated with getting bumped around in the trailer. You should examine the interior for loose wires, protruding bolts, or any other object he can cut or puncture himself on. Believe me, if it's in the trailer, your horse will find it and cut himself on it. It may sound trivial, but these are the little, often-overlooked things that cause a horse minor or moderate discomfort and also cause him to associate the trailer with negative feelings. I'm not one of these touchy-feely earth-muffin types, but when it comes to my horses, I will not compromise their comfort and safety. It pays off in spades when I need them to do something for me.

5. Loading: OK. I'm not going to pull any punches on this one. This is the element of the road trip prone to the most misunderstanding, and in some instances, outright physical abuse. We scratched the surface of this issue earlier on. Egos! There is no shortage of them in the horse world, or any other sport for that matter. Have you ever stood at a boat dock at the end of the day and watched someone sit and yell at his wife because she wasn't backing the trailer just right? Even though he totally missed the trailer because he's a bad boat docker, or worse yet, in the middle of his second twelve pack. The first thing he does is he yells at the person backing the trailer. Why? Because of peer pressure and embarrassment. This is all part of human nature, whether we are aware of it or not. We don't want other people to perceive us as inept or unable to handle a situation and so when we falter, embarrassment fuels tempers and compounds an otherwise minor incident. So it is that many a horse loading has gone from a minor irritation to an injured horse or rider. I cannot emphasize enough the need for quiet hands and quiet voices during the loading and unloading of your horses. It's OK to let someone who is equally quiet and competent help you. But never, ever let the loud, rowdy show-off assist you in loading your horse. He or she will expose your horse to injury and even worse, ruin your horse for future trailer loading. There is no excuse for rough handling. I've heard all of the old excuses about how we need to dominate the creature and show them who's boss. Excuse the pun but that is horse crap. Striking a horse with a board, whip , etc. only teaches them that you are the enemy/predator. Many years ago, on a ranch I was overseeing, I was watching someone float a horse's teeth. The horse jerked away and the guy took the rasp and whacked the horse upside the head. He looked at me and boasted, "That'll teach the S.O.B. some manners!" I said, "That'll get you a ride off the ranch and to the airport."

Horses, more than many species, save the elephant, have superb memories. Our forefathers thought they were "dumb beasts" when in fact, they are remarkably intelligent, thinking, feeling, and adapting animals. Yet time after time after time, I have come across a group of "cowboys" yelling, waving hands and ropes, or even outright whip ping a horse. You may, eventually, by use of brute force and enough people, get a horse into the trailer. But what then? If you were a horse would you associate this kind of event as a good experience? Of course not. I say this with all the earnest encouragement I can muster: Keep your cool during the loading and unloading process.

Again, start off slow. Make short trips. In fact, in the beginning, simply load your horse, reward him, unload him and put him away. After a time, even the most reluctant horse will come around to your own personality and gentle nature. The caveman mentality will never work. The old tip about placing a trailer in the pasture where your horse eats is fine. Let them get familiar with it. Don't just drive up on the day when the ride is scheduled with a new trailer and expect them to jump into a foreign enclosure. Sure, some horses will jump right in, but they are still nervous. Make it easy for everyone.

6. The foal or yearling: Last but not least, remember the young horse. I remember a fellow, who had attended one of my seminars, calling me one day. He happened to live in a nearby town. He needed to take a 6-month-old to the vet and couldn't get him into the trailer. Turns out he had never even had a halter on the little fellow. What ensued was a wrestling, kicking match in the yard with this guy trying to muscle the horse into the trailer. After he got a couple of glancing kicks he decided to give up. Don't wait until the day you need to load a baby, or any other horse for that matter, to do so. Take foals as early as 6 weeks and spend time haltering and handling them. DON'T leave the halter on. Get them familiar with the trailer from the beginning, even if it's simply to load and unload them a few times for practice. Load mom if she's available and then load the baby. He needs to know it's a safe place. Start early and never, ever wait until loading day. When I got to the above fellow's house, he was bruised and battered and so was his horse. Both were worse off for the experience. It took two separate visits at three hours per visit for me to put the little guy at ease and undo the train wreck.

Horses Have Common Sense

I recall once we were evacuating a large group of horses in a very short period of time during an approaching wild fire. This was in Durango in July of '94 at the Black Ridge fire. We had roped several head of cattle and loaded them, then proceeded to load horses. Naturally, the horses were feeding off of the excitement and urgency of the situation. Most of the cowboys I had recruited for the job were seasoned hands with confident, quiet natures. Yet in the distance, I saw a man with a whip frantically trying to scare his horse into a trailer. Too late! This was a no win, no load situation. We had to send him and his horse for the Animas River and have them wait it out at the water. They were lucky as the wind shifted in the nick of time. On another occasion, Dr. Karleen Stangy, then a large animal vet with the Durango Animal Hospital , and I went into the San Juan wilderness after an early October blizzard to evacuate snowbound horses, stranded from several hunting parties. After placing a device known as an Anderson Sling on the horses and putting them through the ultimate scare of lifting them out we were still able to load them into the trailer within less than a minute. I use this extreme example to demonstrate that any horse can be loaded without fuss or fanfare so long as the handler uses quiet, firm, confident body language and emanates good intentions.

To Tie or Not to Tie

This is a matter of diverse opinion. I'll try to make it black and white. It depends on the horse and the size of the trailer. Example: If I have one horse in a four-horse stock trailer, I certainly don't want him wandering around. This causes an unsafe shift in weight in an already unstable load. You want your horse in the front of the trailer, especially if your truck is not at least a 3/4 ton. Stability in weight and load is critical. If he is a horse that is prone to dancing around, then tie him up. If you own a two-horse trailer with partitions, I would recommend tying because you never want a horse to lower his head and get it cast under a divider. On the other hand, some horses don't tie well and actually do better left to their own movement. So long as you have them restricted to a small area and the divider goes all the way to the floor where they cannot get their head stuck, I am fine letting them have their head. Hopefully, you know your horse well enough to know what is best for him. Remember, the key safety element is keeping the load stable and not allowing the horse so much room that he can run around in the trailer.

Added Safety

Here are a few tips for the excitable horse: Some horses are prone to rearing up or throwing their head up during the loading or unloading process. Injuries to the poll or top of the horse's head can occur in these instances. You can go to most tack and supply stores and purchase a device that acts as a "bumper" to protect the top of your horse's head while you teach him to load and unload safely and calmly. Leg wraps and boots are another feature which minimize the scrapes that can occur in the learning process and while trailering multiple horses, or even one horse shifting his legs around.

I also like to wipe my horses down with a good fly spray prior to loading. I see people load horses all the time without using fly repellent, but think about it - the horse can't protect himself from flies while in the trailer. He has limited space, where he can only minimally use his tail, or not at all if it is wrapped; he cannot rub his face against his leg; it is difficult to head-shake or body-shake; and stomping is risky. His agitation will be heightened by flies biting or pestering him during the ride. Remember that the idea is to make his journey as stress free as possible. Little things like flies are a big part of this, so use a safe and effective fly repellent.

On a similar note, inspect the trailer before use for wasp nests, snakes, or other troublesome inhabitants.

We've covered the mundane yet important aspects of the trailer, loading, and getting ready for traveling. Join us next month as we load the horses and embark on a four-thousand-mile road trip where we will stop at some of the best and worst horse motels and boarding facilities in the country. We'll take you inside the Los Companos of Santa Fe to the Fort Worth stockyards, from the Horse Motel in Gillette Wyoming to Kaysville Utah , and on to Nevada , Oregon , California and Idaho . We'll share the ups and downs as well as little secrets on how to make your road trip fun and safe.

Copyright Kimball Lewis; not for reprint without permission.

Kimball Lewis and Donner

About the author:

Kimball Lewis is an Idaho Cowboy, writer and public speaker. Lewis travels throughout the US combining his wit, humor and knowledge to deliver motivational and inspiring addresses sprinkled with cowboy poetry to audiences of all sizes. Kimball lives on the Snake River at his home in Eastern Idaho , The Lewis Lookout Ranch. You can email questions or requests for speaking appearances to equestrian2020@aol.com. Visit http://cascadeteam.addr.com for more information.