Training

A Year of Firsts: The First Trailer Ride

Josh Nichol explains how to introduce young or inexperienced horses to trailering.

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By: Chantal Marleau |

At some point, your horse is going to leave home and travel. It may be to a clinic, out for a trail ride, to a new home or for a check-up, but eventually you and your equine partner will likely be hitting the road. In many cases, that may be easier said than done.

Trailering comes with its fair share of challenges: noise, dust and a complete inability for your horse to gauge his surroundings. In this article, trainer and clinician Josh Nichol invites you to view trailering as simply another progression in your training and will explain what you can do to stay one step ahead of your horse’s natural worries.

Off to a Good Start

If you are working with a young horse, you have the rare opportunity to teach him that only good comes from time spent in a trailer. If you are retraining a horse with trailering issues, your positive and confident leadership will be indispensable.

“Many people get emotional about trailering and expect it to be a tremendous challenge,” began Nichol. “Asking your horse to step into the trailer, relax while inside and eventually step out again is simply a series of more advanced questions. If you have practiced being an effective leader, then you should already be well on your way to turning trailering into a non-issue.”

Leadership

The key is to break trailering down into the same logical steps as you would any other new skill. “It all comes down to recognizing your horse’s needs and meeting them,” said Nichol. “This means ensuring all aspects of space, mind and pressure are taken care of. Once your horse is comfortable in all three areas, trailering is simply the natural progression to crossing a tarp or a puddle.”

Space

When it comes to trailer training, the most important question is: who is leading the space? “Your horse must consistently yield to your personal bubble as you approach the trailer’s entrance otherwise he is leading. If that’s the case, you are likely in for a discussion when you reach that door, if you reach it at all.”

Space and Line Exercise

Nichol recommends a simple “space and line” exercise to build awareness of your leadership. Draw a line leading to the centre of your trailer’s entrance and imagine that it divides the inside as well. Your goal will be to remain on the left side of the line while every part of your horse’s body stays on the right.

As you begin walking towards the trailer, hold a flag in one hand the other continually asks for softness through the lead rope. Consistently ask your horse to yield out of your space whenever you feel him press into your side of the line. “Use your flag to back-up your presentation and clearly maintain every inch of your personal space,” said Nichol. “What makes loading a more difficult exercise is that within the confines of a trailer, a horse can crowd you quite quickly. If it is the shoulder that you feel dropping onto your side of the line, then ask your horse to immediately yield that part of his body. The same goes for his nose, hooves and hindquarters.”

Once this becomes easy, it is the mind you will want to address.

Mind

“Horses have a tremendous ability to isolate their minds from their bodies,” said Nichol. “Think of a horse that is separated from his herd by a fence. His mind will rejoin his buddies, but his body will pace, paw, rear and perhaps jump in order to reconnect with the mind. This is often why a horse will panic in the trailer – only the body has boarded, not the mind.”

The best way to judge whether or not your horse is ready to load into the trailer is to first ask yourself where his mental focus is.

When you reach the entrance, is your horse looking in? Unless he is, there is no point in asking for a step inside. “Engage your horse’s mind by drawing upon the skills you have already developed in your groundwork,” noted Nichol. “Gently shake your flag to draw back his mental focus. The moment your horse thinks about focusing inside the trailer, quiet your flag and praise him. Work at this until your horse is able to lengthen the time his mind remains inside.

“With heightened pressures such as the trailer, it is more important than ever to progressively build upon small successes rather than over face a horse and risk instilling bad habits.”

Once this becomes easy, ask your horse to take a step inside. Intend for your horse to begin loading. Present that intention by pointing the lead rope inside the trailer and ask him forward, using a gentle shake of your flag to support the request if you must. Lower the lead rope and quiet your flag the moment your horse thinks about moving forward.

“Timing is crucial,” stressed Nichol. “Reward even the slightest try. Should your horse experiment with other options such as backing up or stepping sideways, maintain your pressure and insist that he remain on his side of the line until he begins to understand that the only correct answer is to step forward.

“Again, success comes with slow and steady work. Once your horse is willing to take a single step into the trailer, ask him to soften, offer praise and have him back out. The next step will be to ask your horse to step on with both front feet and later, to fully load.

“It is also important to provide your horse with the opportunity to develop his own bearings; allow him to sniff the inside of the trailer and note that horses often need to paw the floor as they test the area they are about to step on. There is no question that a trailer is far from a horse’s natural environment and as leaders, we need to understand and respect that.

Refusals

“I’m sometimes asked about having a horse rest inside the trailer while he works hard outside of it,” added Nichol. “For me, this approach is a last resort.

“If a horse gets to the edge of the trailer, plants his feet and simply refuses to try, that is the only time I would step away and have him trot some circles near the trailer. After a few minutes, I would ask him in again.

“Most horses will soon associate the trailer with rest. Once a horse has developed this positive mindset, praise every attempt he makes to softly step towards the inside of the trailer. Most importantly, never deny a horse the opportunity to think through a question and make sure it is not a lack of leadership that is causing the refusal.”

Pressure

On a scale of one to 10 for producing anxiety, a first trailer ride will likely score quite high. “I cannot stress this enough, the best way to succeed is to approach trailering in baby steps and to practice often,” reiterated Nichol.

“It would be unfair to ask your young horse to load onto a trailer for the first time, close the door and drive away. Just as you introduced trail riding by venturing progressively further from your horse’s familiar riding area, you will achieve the best results by taking your time while familiarizing your horse with trailering.”

Still, despite the best training plan, common difficulties will arise. The following is an overview of the most common issues you might encounter and recommendations on how to turn them into positive training experiences.

Nervousness and Sweating

You’ve taken your time and allowed your horse to spend progressively longer periods of time on a well-ventilated trailer. You’ve ventured out on short hauls and back to home base and though you’ve kept stress levels down to a minimum, your horse steps off wet from nervous sweating. “This is common in sensitive horses and can often be remedied by allowing them to travel with a seasoned traveling companion,” said Nichol. “Horses learn a great deal by following each other’s example and this method works extremely well.

“That said, nervousness is often the product of limited exposure in other areas of a horse’s life. The more varied experience a horse gains, the better his coping mechanisms. Eventually, symptoms of internal nervousness should disappear altogether.”

Claustrophobia

All horses are happiest in open areas. They were born to run, not hide. A horse that is prone to panic when squeezed into a trailer requires more time to become comfortable with his surroundings.

“Slowly allow a horse to turn around and look out,” said Nichol. “Allow him to step off and then back in again. If you can help your horse to understand that he is not being trapped, his confidence will eventually develop.

“Roomier trailers can also be helpful at first and many horses benefit from being allowed to stretch their heads out the window. Of course, windows should always be closed before traveling.”

Kicking

“Extreme behaviours such as kicking usually have nothing to do with the trailer,” said Nichol. “This type of behaviour usually comes from a lack of leadership: a horse that was allowed to load while braced or was forced in while his mind was elsewhere, for example. The reasons are many, but the answer is to return to groundwork and start over.”

Rushing Out

“Horses who want to hurry out of a trailer often benefit from being turned around and allowed to step out facing forward,” said Nichol. “If this is not a concern, then backing out is the preferred option because it teaches a horse to wait. I do teach both methods to all of my horses because one should always be well prepared for all eventualities.”

Final Thoughts

“Trailering is simply an extension of your leadership,” said Nichol. “It provides an ideal opportunity to test just how much trust your horse places in you.

“Incorporate this as a regular part of your training routine and don’t be afraid to introduce your horse to the idea of traveling. After all, as you further your trust in one another, there really are no roads the two of you cannot travel.”