You’ve done everything you can think of to prepare your horse for a long haul in the trailer. You’ve wrapped your horse’s legs, stuffed the horse hay bags full, bedded the horse trailer, and brought along water from home. You’ve conducted a preflight check on tires, latches, hinges, and hangers. All’s well as you head off for that distant show, trail ride, or clinic. Several hours into the journey, however, your horse suddenly starts scrambling in the trailer. You can feel the tug and sway of the horse trailer in your tow vehicle. When you slow down and roll down your window, you can hear hoofs thrashing against metal. It’s a sickening sound.
What should you do? Turn around and go home? Pull into a roadside rest and take the horse out of the trailer, wondering whether you’ll be able to get him to load up again? Or do you just keep on trucking and hope the situation gets better?
Beth Ervin chose the last option, but it’s not one she would recommend. She was four hours into a 17-hour ride from her home in California to Parachute, Colorado, to attend a John Lyons riding clinic. Suddenly, one of the two horses she had in her trailer started to scramble. It was a surprise since the gelding, a horse she had borrowed to use at the clinic, had ridden in trailers before without problems-but never on a ride this long. He had been fine until they reached Las Vegas. Then the commotion began.
Beth didn’t know if the horse was getting scared or had become bored, but she decided to just keep driving, hoping he would settle down. He didn’t. He continued to scramble all the way to Colorado.
By the time she arrived in Parachute, the center divider in her two-horse tag-along was a shambles, as was the left-hand inner wall of the trailer. Both were scored with hoof marks, and the metal in the divider had worn thin and detached from the frame. It was sharp as a razor.
Surprisingly and fortunately, neither Beth’s mare Sassy, nor Lynx, the 22-year-old borrowed gelding, had so much as a scratch. She breathed a quiet “thank you” to herself for wrapping the horses’ legs well. Gaping at the mangled mess that had been the full-length divider, she worried how she would ever be able to trailer the two horses back home to California in one piece-and without the center divider.
Cause and Cure
Once the horses were rested, she enlisted John Lyons’ help to try to determine what had caused the horse’s meltdown and to see what she could do to remedy the situation.
John asked the still-rattled Beth to load Lynx back into the trailer. He instructed her to pull into the large riding arena and drive slowly around in large circles. John wanted to observe just what was happening when the gelding started to scramble. His goal was to figure out if Lynx was losing his balance, becoming frightened, or simply throwing a fit. John told Beth to gently tap the brakes each time the gelding started to scramble.
Lynx did not appear to be frightened, but John did notice that he seemed to be having trouble finding his footing. John suggested that the center divider be removed. Without the divider, there would be nothing for Lynx to lean against. Removing the partition also provided him with more room to spread his legs, which would improve his balance.
John then tied the gelding’s head even with the chest bar and with more slack than might be considered “normal” for a horse during transport. Lynx had enough rope to move his nose back past the front edge of the manger. This gave him enough leeway to back up and touch the rear doors with his rump or to swing his rump over into a corner, if he wanted. Without his head tied short in the manger, he could also turn his head enough to be able to see all around inside the trailer.
After being driven in circles a little more, Lynx realized he could stand up in his now double-wide trailer with its improved view. However, since Beth had two horses to transport home, the gelding was going to have to be able to share the space with her mare.
Next John fashioned a “center divider” by tying a rope down the middle of the trailer in place of the partition, creating a defined space for Lynx. He put the gelding on the left side of the rope to simulate being in a single stall. Beth drove around again-stopping, starting, turning left, turning right, and even doing figure eights. The horse rode straight, tall, and, best of all, still no scrambling.
Lynx was fine throughout the clinic and loaded back on the trailer easily for the ride home. He was apparently suffering no physical, mental, or emotional scars from his long fight with the trailer.
A Question of Balance
According to John, the problem with a horse that scrambles in the trailer can’t always be chalked up to claustrophobia. Sometimes when a horse can’t see around his own body inside the trailer and can’t move in a tight trailer stall, he loses his balance. It’s like trying to walk in a fun-house where everything seems distorted. In trying to get back on his feet, a horse like this can lose track of which surface is the floor and which is the wall. He may, in effect, be trying to regain his footing on the wall instead of the floor. This problem, John says, is easier to fix than claustrophobia.
With many scramblers, the center divider can be the culprit. Center dividers that go all the way to the floor can keep larger horses from spreading their legs wide enough to keep their balance. Once the horse loses his balance, a chain reaction sets in. He scrambles up the wall trying to find his footing, which only further upsets his balance. Replacing a full center divider with one that comes halfway down often helps.
- Scrambling may be a problem of balance, not claustrophobia.
- A horse may need extra floor space to rpead his legs.
- Partial stall dividers or no dividers may be the key to a quiet ride.
- Provide enough slack in the tie rope so the horse can move his hed to see around him inside the trailer.
- Lightly tap the brakes to encourage a horse to stand up.
- Start, stop, and turn slowly to help your horse adjust to trailer motion.
A horse that scrambles can injure a horse riding next to it. So after getting the horse confident enough to ride quietly in the trailer alone, John advises providing plenty of trial runs before putting another horse in with him. Unfortunately Beth didn’t have that option. She had no choice but to load both horses three days later for the long drive back home.
John suggested that Beth use the rope divider and the tap-the-brakes trick on the way back home to California to encourage Lynx to stand up and keep his footing.
“The first five miles out, I stressed and said my Hail Marys,” Beth said. “But the ride home went perfect. I think after I tapped the brakes in the arena at John Lyons’ place, Lynx learned that scrambling was not going to get him anywhere. In fact, he ate and drank a lot more on the trip back to California than he had on the way out to Colorado.”
The horse that scrambled his way to Colorado rode quietly all the way back to California. But he may have gotten the last word. At the first watering stop, Beth discovered he had untied both his own tie rope and the rope center divider.