In-Hand Harmony

The Art of Trailer Loading: Introduction

Building Blocks for Success

Are you confident you can load your horse safely...and gracefully?

Are you confident you can load your horse safely…and gracefully?

You’ve seen it done over and over. No big deal. Put a halter and lead line on your horse, open the trailer door, your horse walks on, you throw the loose end of the lead line over his back and close the door. Simple, right?

But then there’s the other scenario in which one person is pulling the horse on the lead line, another is standing behind the horse with a manure fork, another is perched outside the window of the trailer reaching in with a treat, someone else is looking around for a long line to tie to the trailer and loop behind the horse’s backside, another person stands on the sidelines clicking their tongue and clapping their hands, while three other people simply stand on the sidelines and watch with their arms crossed as they talk amongst themselves. The horse, feeling all that pressure, feels a need to go someplace which generally turns into rearing and results in the horse either banging his head against the inside ceiling of the trailer or going up and over onto his back on the pavement with a hind leg sliding underneath the trailer to get scraped, twisted, or broken.

Some trainers, like Clinton Anderson, believe in making a horse run around in circles unless he’s standing and resting in the trailer. But there are some horses who have trouble letting go of that adrenalin and can become explosive, fearful, or just plain pissed off. Yes, I understand making the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard. But I also want to preserve a relationship with my horse based upon good communication and trust.

Traveling with horses can be hard work. Illustration copyright 2009 Grace vonDrasek Judy

Traveling with horses can be hard work. Illustration copyright 2009 Grace vonDrasek Judy

Trailer loading is no simple feat for a horse. If we think of things from the horse’s perspective, or point of view as Mark Rashid suggests, there are many different obstacles involved for a horse to get into a trailer. If you throw all these obstacles at a horse all at once for the first time, your chances of success are low. Oh, you might get the horse in the trailer, but the horse will not be comfortable, may in fact get injured, and any trust that existed between the two of you will have been lost and could take twice as long to earn back.

There are lots of articles, books and videos on the subject of trailer loading, some with great advice and tips. And if you ask another horseperson, they’ll probably be more than happy to tell you the Right Way to do most anything. What’s important is finding what works best for you – and for your horse.

In this post, I’ve attempted to break down my approach to trailer loading into building blocks for a horse and human to trailer load safely, confidently and gracefully. In subsequent posts, I’ll expand on these building blocks with more details and strategies for simulations.

Each Building Block will also come into play when riding, whether it’s on the trail or in a dressage arena. You’ll find that good groundwork is a great foundation for you and your horse to have a better partnership — and have more fun together.

Once you’ve checked off each building block, in order, you can then begin to recombine them slowly and incrementally. Depending upon where you and your horse are and how well you both learn, this could be done in one day or it could take you several months. As Pat Parelli would say, “Take the time it takes, so it takes less time.”

The Art of Trailer Loading: Building Blocks for Success

  1. Understanding Your Horse
  2. Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence
  3. Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools
  4. Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space
  5. Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
  6. Putting It All Together

Pat Parelli refers to many of the strategies or maneuvers in these building blocks as “The Seven Games”. His process of separating, isolating and then recombining works well for any type of problem solving. You’ll find that I quote the Parellis a lot. Oh, I know, I know – the big marketing machine, or the man who seems to belittle human beings with his sarcasm. Say what you want, Pat Parelli has accomplished a lot with horses. Even more importantly to me is that Linda Parelli, with the help of Dr. Stephanie Burns, has done an excellent job at making Pat’s knowledge, experience and strategies accessible and understandable for the rest of us.

Ribbon Candy

Ribbon Candy

Then there is Buck Brannaman who uses a ribbon candy pattern to accomplish many tasks both on the ground and in the saddle using rein aids, the end of the lead rope, a flag, his boot, or the help of the horse he’s riding. Brannaman’s strategy is to provide the horse with support by directing the horse’s feet in a calm, consistent, yet very particular pattern – and to pet your horse, a lot! The pattern looks something like this: yield the hind to the left, bring the shoulder over on the right, step through and change direction by repeating on the other side. I’ve watched attendees practice this pattern in a clinic for the better part of a day…or two! If you think about it, this candy-ribbon pattern incorporates several of Parelli’s “Seven Games”.

Anyway, all of these strategies, maneuvers or tools can come into play when you ask a horse to load into a trailer. The goal of all these strategies is to engage the horse’s mind, body and trust. Maybe you won’t need every one of them every time, but at one time or another, I’d be willing to bet you will use each one. If you don’t have all of the building blocks practiced and working well beforehand, you won’t have them ready and waiting when you need them at a moment’s notice. And the fewer tools you have, the more likely you are to become ineffective and frustrated.

You might be thinking, “Wow, that seems like a lot to read, learn and do just to get a horse into a trailer.” John Lyons devotes nearly 20 pages at the end of his book, Lyons On Horses just to trailer loading, after he’s provided over 200 pages in preparation. Pat and Linda Parelli have devoted hours and hours of video footage just to trailer loading. You’ll just have to decide if trailer loading is important enough to you to invest “the time it takes ” to do it gracefully and stress free. Another of my favorite Parelli-isms: “Prior and proper preparation prevent pee-poor performance.”

Be creative! Have fun! Be an interesting leader for your horse!

Next week:
#1: Understanding Your Horse

One thought on “The Art of Trailer Loading: Introduction

  1. Pingback: Building Block #5 –Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse | In-Hand Harmony

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