Often trailer loading is an exercise that happens when we need to get somewhere soon: a trip to the vet, meeting friends at the trailhead or hauling to a show. Sometimes it goes great but sometimes it doesn’t. Difficulties can lead us and our horses to associate trailer loading with a negative experience.
Let’s change that.
Trailer loading can be a positive experience for people and horses. When we approach trailer loading like we do any other maneuver we train a horse for, we open the door to success. We’re aware that training or retraining a horse takes time. We don’t expect proficiency on the first go, and start practicing well in advance of when the maneuver is required.
Athletic maneuvers 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 to stepping calmly into the trailer.
Sometimes, though, these elements are overlooked or simply not considered. Perhaps the only time your horse sees the trailer is when you’re in a rush. Some horses may also associate the trailer with previous negative experiences. Your horse may balk, back out quickly, rear, kick, pull back, run into you or kick the walls of your trailer. Keep in mind that your horse is only responding that way because in his mind, his life is being threatened. He isn’t misbehaving, he’s communicating. He’s scared or expects an unpleasant experience.
Not every horse will view the trailer the same way. Some horses have no fear or negativity associated with the trailer. They may have previous training or were introduced to the trailer as curious colts. 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 therefore makes sense that their self-preservation instinct is going to kick. However, as leaders we have the ability to help them.
From a human perspective, getting in a trailer is a simple, one step maneuver. You just step up and walk in. No big deal. Thus the expectation might be formed that all horses should load easily all the time. But this isn’t the case, particularly for a mature horse that has never been loaded before, or one that has unpleasant memories associated with the trailer.
Let’s offer a fresh take and view trailer loading as a combination of elements. Training then becomes both an organized demonstration of exercises we have accomplished, and also an indication of specific elements we need to work on. How a horse responds when asked to get in a trailer exposes those specific elements. We work on those details away from the trailer. When we’ve improved, we practice the trailer again and assess the result of our work. It’s a positive training style that has no negative for the horse.
All of the exercises presented here presume your knowledge of the leadership elements of Mind, Space and Pressure. This is a separate topic that’s well documented in my Leadership video series available on my website. Check it out! – Josh Nichol
Let’s take a look at some exercises we can work on to support trailer loading. Platforms, doors, stalls and shelters 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 trailer, what struggles he might have and particularly, what you need to work on.
In order for a horse to go in a trailer, relax and maneuver calmly, they must be able to:
- Yield calmly to your space and energy at the head, shoulder and hip;
- Step up onto and down off of a platform, pausing between the front and hind feet;
- Back down off a platform, pausing between the front and hind feet;
- Turn around calmly in a small space;
- Calmly walk forwards and back up through a door;
- Stop and stand calmly for a period of time;
- Move forward calmly as a function of your energy;
- Stand calmly in a confined dimly lit space;
- Walk onto, stand and walk off of a variety of different surfaces such as a mat or a tarp;
- Relax when pressure is applied.
Note: It is important that when we’re using a flag or a stick, that we use that to support a positive change in your horse. We don’t use those tools to chase him – we use them to cause your horse to change his focus to you. This creates a connection that will allow you to ask your horse to try.
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.
I’ve found that the obstacle course is an excellent venue to develop leadership, communication and athleticism in our horses. The trailer is simply another obstacle and when we approach it that way, we achieve success. – Scott Phillips
When we’re ready to test our exercises at the trailer, let’s first make a few commitments to our 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.
Sometimes asking our horse to get in a trailer can tempt us to become frustrated. Subsequently, we might resort to certain actions to get the job done that might not be in the best interest of your relationship with your horse. Let’s look at a few of them and offer some alternative suggestions.
Pulling hard on the lead rope.
If we pull on the lead rope with 10lbs of pressure and our horse is not moving, it’s because he is pulling with 10lbs of pressure too –but opposite the direction we want him to go. He’s already having trouble moving forward and we’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.
Suggestion: We teach our 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 we can then ask him to go forward. Initially that might only be one step closer to the trailer. If you sense him becoming nervous, then stop. Get him relaxed before trying another step.
Excessive pressure to force your horse forward.
Sometimes we do need a slight amount of pressure to have our horse follow our forward presentation. We apply this when we’re clearly asking forward and he’s really thinking about taking a step; just enough to tip the scales, so to speak. But we 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.
Suggestion: Away from the trailer, practice having your horse following you. 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.
Chasing 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 behavior) and getting in a trailer with you (herd behavior) are unrelated and do not support each other. Horses form associations and having him associate the trailer with the negative experience of being chased is undesirable.
Suggestion: Referencing the 10 steps above, observe what the issue really is and where the weak spots are. 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.
Getting stuck in a rut.
One thing that can happen is we try the same thing over and over again, hoping for a different result. Be cognizant of falling into this trap. Horses learn by repetition. If you’ve tried the same thing and your horse has responded the same way several times, then stop. 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 a guaranteed event many times in a 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 endeavors.