People often practice trailer loading shortly before they need to go somewhere – a trip to the vet, meeting friends at the trailhead or hauling to a show. Sometimes, it goes great, but sometimes it doesn’t. Your horse may balk, back out quickly, rear, kick, pull back, run into you or kick the walls of your trailer. Difficulties such as these can lead to negative associations for you and your horse in the future.
Not every horse will view loading the same way. Some horses have no fear or negativity associated with the trailer. It’s important to understand that although every horse is unique, their thoughts revolve around a self-preservation instinct. The trailer is a dimly-lit, confined space with no room to flee – the antithesis of the herd and pasture. It makes sense, therefore, that their self-preservation instinct may kick in and they will try to communicate their fear and desire to escape an uncomfortable situation. As leaders, however, we have the ability to help them.
Trailer loading can be a positive experience. When approached like any other manoeuvre you train your horse for, you open the door to success. Training or retraining a horse takes time. You can’t expect proficiency on the first go, and you must start practicing well in advance of when the manoeuvre you’re training is required.
Breaking it Down
Athletic manoeuvres such as a spin or half-pass involve smaller elements that are worked on individually and then brought together. Trailer loading is very similar; it is a combination of a variety of individual elements. The key to successful loading for years to come is to practice those elements that, when combined, result in a horse that steps calmly into a trailer.
Training then becomes both an organized demonstration of exercises you have accomplished and an indication of specific elements you need to work on. How a horse responds when asked to get in a trailer exposes these elements.
You must work on these details away from the trailer. When you’ve improved, you can return to the trailer to practice again and assess the result of your work. It’s a positive approach that has no negatives for your horse.
The following exercises will help support trailer loading. They utilize items such as platforms, doors, stalls and shelters, which are perfect training tools, accessible to everyone. These exercises can be worked on for a few minutes every time you catch your horse. By doing so, you’ll have a good idea whether your horse will succeed at the loading, which struggles he may have and, particularly, what you need to work on.
In order for your horse to go in a trailer, relax and manoeuvre calmly, he must be able to:
1. Yield calmly to your space and energy at the head, shoulder and hip
2. Step up onto and down off of a platform, pausing between the front and hind feet
3. Back down off a platform, pausing between the front and hind feet
4. Turn around calmly in a small space
5. Calmly walk forward and back up through a door
6. Stop and stand calmly for a period of time
7. Move forward calmly as a function of your energy/direction
8. Stand calmly in a confined dimly lit space
9. Walk onto, stand and walk off of a variety of different surfaces such as a mat or a tarp
10. Relax and lower head when pressure is applied to the lead rope
When you and your horse gain proficiency at individual elements, slowly start combining them. By focusing on these individual elements, the horse will come to believe that you are the key to his success – through repetitive positive experiences, he learns that you are capable of eliminating his fears.
When you’re ready to test your exercises at the trailer, first make a few commitments to your horse:
- I will remain calm, positive and energetic
- I will use the lead rope as a tool to ask my horse to relax, not attempt to pull him into the trailer with it
- I will be open to what my horse is feeling and do my best to deal with his anxieties
- I will observe which of the 10 steps above we need to work on, and practice before reattempting a trailer load
A Better Way
Sometimes, asking your horse to get in a trailer can lead to frustration. Subsequently, you might resort to certain actions to get the job done that might not be in the best interest of your relationship with your horse. The following are some alternative suggestions to help you move past your frustration and achieve your goal calmly:
Don’t: Pull hard on the lead rope
If you pull on the lead rope with 10lbs of pressure and your horse is not moving, it’s because he is pulling with 10lbs of pressure too – but opposite the direction you want him to go. He’s already having trouble moving forward and you’ve just made it 10lbs more difficult. Pulling on the lead rope can also train your horse to brace against your hand at other times – including when you pick up a rein. Repeated often enough, pulling can teach your horse to rear.
Do: Teach your horse that a light feel in the lead rope is a request to release – to turn off those muscles that prevent his forward movement. Once he is relaxed, you can ask him to go forward. Initially, that might only be one step closer to the trailer. If you sense him becoming nervous, ask him to relax before trying another step.
Once loaded, if your horse starts to back out of the trailer, resist the urge to pull him forward. Instead, back out with him and start again.
Don’t: Use excessive pressure to force your horse forward
Sometimes you do need a slight amount of pressure to get your horse to follow your forward motion. You should apply this pressure when you’re clearly asking forward and he’s really thinking about taking a step; just enough to tip the scales, so to speak. Don’t apply pressure to scare or chase him. He’s already having difficulty, and scaring him more isn’t going to help him at all. It will cause him to expect that when he’s scared you will force him into his fear.
Do: Practice having your horse follow you away from the trailer. Simple liberty exercises are perfect. Your horse learns to follow your energy in whatever direction you use it. To get in the trailer, he might just need to learn he can move forward with you. Practice having your horse walking, trotting, turning, stopping and backing beside you. When he is adept at mirroring your movements, you’re off to a great start.
Don’t: Chase him in a tight circle on the lead rope if he doesn’t get in
Sometimes, away from the trailer, we need to show our horses how to move forward calmly with us. This is different, however, than chasing him as a method of fear-based punishment. The problem is that the two exercises – being chased (predator behaviour) and getting in a trailer with you (herd behaviour) are unrelated and do not support each other. Horses form associations, and having him associate the trailer with the distressing experience of being chased is undesirable.
Do: Observe what the issue really is and where the weak spots are, by referencing the 10 elements mentioned earlier. Then, head away from the trailer and practice. When you’ve improved, try the trailer again, only as a test to see if the work you did was successful.
Don’t: Get stuck in a rut
You may find yourself stuck in a pattern where you try the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result (for example, every time you walk up to the trailer, your horse ducks off to the left). Be cognizant of falling into this trap; horses learn by repetition.
Do: Stop if you’ve tried the same thing and your horse has responded the same way several times. Take a break to reset. Practice a different exercise that supports what you were trying to do. Then revisit the trailer with your new idea.
Trailer loading is pretty much a guaranteed event in your horse’s life. Your time investment in training him will pay back over and over. Your horse will associate you with positive experiences and will be more willing to try new things. Positive spin-offs result from this approach. You’re teaching your horse how to handle pressure and manage his fears. You’re teaching him how to transition calmly and yield laterally. You’re showing him how to place his feet and navigate obstacles. Most importantly, you’re improving your ability to communicate and be a leader, skills that will positively affect all of your future endeavours.