We have all come across a horse in our life, whether it be our own or a friend’s, who has his reservations about trailer loading, possibly major reservations. When you view the trailer as a horse does, it’s easy to understand why so many well behaved horses have problems trailer loading. Being confined in a small area like a trailer can be very scary for an animal whose main defense is flight. And to add to that, the inside of trailers are dark, ramps makes loud sounds under their hooves, and, God forbid, that scary step up into the unknown.
Fear can be the main reason your horse refuses to load in the trailer but an attitude problem may also come into play. A problem sprouted in fear can easily lead to defiant or stubborn behavior. The horse begins shying away from the trailer when asked to get inside, dragging the handler around, or bumping into the owner in effort to evade the scary contraption. It’s difficult for people not to soothe their horse when they know he is frightened, tending to go a little easier on the horse in this situation, but in all actuality they are rewarding the horse for unacceptable behavior. There must be a line; “I understand you are afraid, but you may not run over the top of me. Thank you.”
Here are few tips for trouble free trailer loading:
1. Don’t be in a hurry.
You may need to set aside a day to work solely on trailer loading, or you may need to get out to the barn an hour earlier so you have enough time not to be rushed when working with your horse to load. People want to lead the horse straight up to the trailer and demand he get on. Horses do not respond well when asked to directly approach something they find frightening, but that’s what people often do when they are ready to get the horse loaded and on the road. Instead, try walking your horse around the trailer. Let him investigate both sides. If he wants to sniff the trailer, paw the tires, then let him as long as he is not going to injure himself. That type of curious behavior is a good sign. He’s checking things out and beginning to realize it’s not so bad after all.
2. Teach your horse to follow your feel.
You cannot physically pull your horse on the trailer, so don’t even try! He weighs a ton and is a lot stronger than you, so you are severely outmatched. To avoid a game of tug of war you are destined to lose, teach your horse to step forward off the feel of the lead rope in your hand. Start away from the trailer. Stand by your horse's shoulder and hold the lead rope in your hand a few feet down from the snap with the tail of the lead rope, a dressage whip or other training stick in your other hand. With the hand closest to the horse’s head, raise your arm and guide the horse forward but don’t move your feet. If the horse ignores you, twirl the end of the rope at your horse’s hip or use your stick gently on his rump to encourage him to move forward. Make sure you are standing out of the way in case he were to kick out or try to push into you. When the horse responds in the correct manner, stop asking and reward him. With a bit of practice you can teach your horse to go off the feel of the rope in your hand. It’s a lot easier to guide the horse and then drive him from behind than it is to drag a horse somewhere; this is a very important thing to remember when trailer loading.
3. Approach and retreat.
Now that your horse has learned how to follow your suggestion when asked to move forward, you can ask him to go inside the trailer by positioning yourself to the side of the trailer and using the rope to guide him in the right direction. If he refuses to move forward you can encourage him from behind with the end of the rope or stick, but you must remember that you will be about as successful beating a horse onto a trailer as you are pulling one on. When the horse makes an effort to move closer to the trailer, reward him. Ask him to back away from the trailer and try again. With each attempt, the horse’s confidence will grow and he will get closer and closer to the trailer until eventually he lifts a hoof and sets it on the ramp or inside the trailer. It’s important that you do not let the horse climb the rest of the way in, which is often what happens as soon as they put one foot in and realize it’s not that terrible. You will want to back the horse off so he understands that backing is how to get off the trailer, and that it’s not scary. Some horses will get on and be too nervous to back off, so you should practice backing off before they ever get all the way in.
4. Make the trailer the resting place.
The magic phrase to train a horse to do just about anything is, “Make the right thing easy, and the wrong thing hard.” If your horse pulls and runs backwards away from the trailer, instead of getting in a fight, just start working him. Lunge him in a couple circles or make the backing your idea and keep him going. After a few minutes of hard work, ask the horse to approach the trailer, and let him stand and relax. After a few repetitions, your horse will figure out the best place to be is near and eventually on the trailer!
5. Practice makes perfect.
With a combination of the approach and retreat technique along with making the trailer the nice place to be, your horse will load willingly and quietly. Don’t quit there; just because he successfully loaded inside once, doesn’t mean it’s time to quit. Practice loading and unloading several times. Let him stand in the trailer and rest for a few minutes, allowing the lesson to sink in. Come back the next day and repeat the process and hopefully it won’t take near as long.
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