In-Hand Harmony

The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #4: Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space

  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

There are two things that almost always happen when someone is asking their horse to load into a trailer.  The first is that the horse barges into the person’s space.  The second is that the person — without realizing it — is blocking the horse’s way into the trailer.  Being comfortable in, yet respectful of, another’s space is important.  But it’s complicated.

My daughter, Cara, thanking her mount after our ride at a dude ranch.

My daughter, Cara, thanking her mount after our ride at a dude ranch.

Love, Language And Leadership

We love our horses!  And we want to snuggle up with them.  But how is a horse supposed to know when it’s okay to enter your space and when it’s not?

Tobias was such a mouthy, busy, athletic, rebellious, exuberant and, if allowed, aggressive youngster that I made it a pretty big issue that he was not to enter within an arm’s length of my personal space without an invitation and a nice face.  I went so far on the “leadership/respect” side of things that recently, nine years into our relationship, I started re-training Tobias to cuddle up with me using treats!  But then Tobias started to get nippy and disrespectful and  I’ve decided, once again, to choose respect over affection.  (That doesn’t mean I don’t love him, or that he doesn’t, in his way, love about me — it’s just that he’s a horse and I’m a person.)   As Pat Parelli says, we need “love, language and leadership in equal doses.”  Sometimes balance can take time to find, and find again.

Most horse people, especially women, are heavy on the “love” end of the teeter-totter.  One of the reasons we get horses, dogs, cats — you name it — is because we enjoy the attention and affection they provide.  And when a person is too heavy on the love end, and light on the leadership end their horses step right into their person’s space expecting to be rubbed, scratched or given a treat.  These horses may also crowd people through gates, use them for a rubbing post, pin their ears during feeding, grab their food before its placed in a feeder, and are constantly fleecing the person’s pockets for treats.  I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this is rude, disrespectful behavior.  Oh, and here’s the kicker: if your horse behaves this way, it’s probably because you trained him to.

Awareness And Consistency

I’ve recently been working with a woman named Diane and her gelding, Cooper.  Diane has owned horses for over 20 years and has trail ridden, jumped and driven with her horses until her confidence was shaken, not to mention her body injured, in a bad wreck and then another accident.  Diane is intelligent as well as an articulate, effective verbal communicator.  Diane is also deeply in love with her horses.  They are the joy in her life.  When Diane first contacted me, she said, “I have a horse who has no manners at all, even though he is very sweet and loving.”

The first time I met Diane and she introduced me to Cooper, she had treats in her pocket. Each time Cooper fleeced her for a treat, she would do four things: pet him, move away, push at him, or, finally in frustration, look at him and smack him on the nose.  Except for the smack, Diane probably didn’t even realize she was doing any of these things as she was talking with me.

Looking at this from the horse’s point of view, these three different responses from Diane are all inconsistent with each other.  The treat in her pocket says, “Come to my pocket.”  Petting him for nudging her pocket means, “I like it when you nudge me.”  When Diane moves away, it tells Cooper that he is the leader.  When Diane pushes at Cooper, she is inviting him to play a dominance game.  Then, when Diane looks at him and smacks him, Cooper is thinking (since he is a bit of an unconfident horse) “Holy crap! My person just turned into a predator and hit me! What did I do?”  Now, if Cooper were a more confident horse, he might be thinking, “Oh, so this is our new dominance game! Let me give you a little nip while you’re not looking!”

Now, Diane is hardly the only person I have seen doing almost the exact same things, in that order. I see it every time, EVERY time I am with a group of horsepeople.  The problem is that due to their inconsistency and lack of awareness they have no idea that they are actually training this “bad behavior.”  If I were to say something to them as we’re all participating in some event or trail ride, not as their teacher, they’d likely tell me to mind my own business and that they are doing what their trainer taught them to do (the smack on the nose).

What makes Diane different is that, even though she is over 60 and has had horses for over 20 years, she is open to a different perspective and is willing to go through the awkwardness of making changes. Why would she put herself through this? Diane explained, “I want so badly to do right by Cooper — he deserves it.”

Let’s address each piece of this puzzle individually.  Remember, everything we do with our horse is training them to do something because they always know “what happens before what happens happens” (good ol’ Pat Parelli again).


Every time we give our horses a treat, we are training them to do something.  Whatever they did just before they received the treat is what they are taught to do.  I’ve used carrots for stretching exercises with Tobias so many times, that he will do a stretch to ask for a carrot.  For a while, I only gave him a carrot on the opposite side of his face from where I was standing — so then Tobias would look away from me when he asked for a carrot.  My horse is so treat-oriented (Linda Parelli’s description of a Left-brain Introvert, “What’s in it for me?”)  that when we’re playing at liberty he will offer a jump over a barrel or, when I’m riding, an energetic, floating trot — knowing that if he does something I think is cool, he gets a treat — as a reward for desired behavior.

So, if you give your horse a carrot after he sniffs your pocket, you are training your horse to fleece your pockets.

Jesse (our mare) asking an Easter guest for a carrot.

Jesse (our mare) asking an Easter guest for a carrot.

If you just want to give your horse a treat, the easiest thing to do is to throw one in his feed bucket with no contact between you and your horse.  That said, be sure that your horse has pleasant behavior and expression — and that he isn’t pinning his ears or charging toward you aggressively.  Even if you’re outside of his stall, whatever your horse is doing before he receives a treat, that is the behavior you are reinforcing.

The same is true for attention or affection — which is very much like giving a treat (to some horses). When you give your horse a pet, snuggle or words of affection or praise, you are encouraging behaviors (if your horse likes affection from you).

Defining And Defending Your Personal Space

Not too different from the human world, in the world of equines the horse who makes the other horse move out of his way takes the more dominant, leadership role.  So each time our horse moves into our space and we move away, we are telling our horse that he is the leader.  Simple as that.  So, if your horse moves into your space, it’s important to respond appropriately.

If your horse enters your space politely, asking for attention, we can stand our ground, not move our feet, and give him a rub or a scratch.

However, if your horse enters into your space politely, but he moves so close that you feel like moving back a step, then you need to stand your ground, not move your feet, and very gently communicate to your horse, in a very non-threatening way, that “This is my space.”  We can communicate this by not looking at our horse and then casually moving our arms in a way that clearly defines the space that is ours.  If your hand or arm comes into contact with your horse, then you are not striking or hitting at him — he has merely run into your arm, or was in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The difference is important, especially to your horse.  Then when your horse steps out of your space, thinking that’s not a great place to be, you can reward him with a “Good boy”, a rub or simply by leaving him alone.

If we turn and look at our horse and hit or poke him, in the nose or elsewhere, this is taking a confrontational stance.  This either turns things into a game with your horse, inviting him to play, or it can escalate into a challenge where your horse may feel threatened and need to fight back, or your horse may become shy and fearful — depending upon his “horsenality”.  I don’t know about you, but neither of these situations is one I want to promote with my horse.

“The man who strikes first admits that his ideas have given out.”

— Chinese Proverb

However, if a horse barges into my space with energy (either with enthusiasm or aggression) without an invitation, this is one of the few times when I pretty much let all hell break loose — but without getting angry, emotional or confrontational. (NOTE: If your horse is prone to rearing and/or striking or exhibits any other aggressive behavior, this strategy could be dangerous for you to use.  Or, if you use this strategy and then stop what you are doing when your horse rears, you will be teaching your horse to rear. Please consult with a professional to change this type of undesirable response and replace it with a more positive one.)  If a horse enters my space with energy without my invitation, I make myself really big, blocking the horse with whatever I have and back the horse up several steps with a lot of energy — and then I immediately drop my energy and turn away until the horse drops his head, sighs, licks and chews, and then I pet him, forget about it and get on with whatever it was we were doing.  Being able to shift from being strong and assertive to passive and uninterested is really hard for a lot of people.  It certainly was for me at first.  As with making most changes, it can take a bit of time and practice.

The scene described above is something that frequently comes into play when trailer loading.  The horse will be exploring his options and make the choice to come into the person’s space. It’s important to let the horse know, with an appropriate response, that this is not acceptable.  If you can be clear, consistent and unemotional, your horse will quickly learn the definitions of your space and choose, out of respect, to stay out of it unless invited.

One of the other things I mentioned at the beginning of this section is that oftentimes a person — without realizing it — is blocking their horse’s way into the trailer.  This same issue came up when Diane would lead Cooper through the gate of his stall or even through their large barn door.  Diane, like so many others, had been taught to hold Cooper’s lead line just below his halter and lead him beside or behind her.  Cooper responded by getting nervous and claustrophobic — and then racing through.  Each time Diane attempted to slow him down by doing the exercise again, the more the situation escalated as Cooper’s adrenalin built along with Diane’s frustration.

A couple winters ago, I was heading over to a local indoor arena for an obstacle course and offered to pick up a friend and her large Shire/QH black mare, Bella.  My friend was in the habit of leading her horse, rather than sending her horse, into the trailer and when my friend walked into the second slot on my two-horse slant trailer, Bella simply refused.  Now, my friend had a very good relationship with Bella and I could see that Bella really wanted to do what was being asked of her-—there simply wasn’t enough room for both of them to fit.  After numerous attempts, I asked if I could give it a try and sent Bella in rather than leading her.  Bella walked right in, stood quietly, we shut the door and were on our way.  I truly believe that Bella was afraid she would hurt her owner if she went into the trailer with her.

Whenever going through a narrow, claustrophobic area, I like to send the horse first.  That way, if he decides to race through I’m out of harms way and won’t get knocked over.  I also give the horse a lot of lead line, because if I hold him too close then I am adding to his claustrophobia.  And if I am asking a horse to go through a doorway yet don’t give him enough slack in his lead line, the line goes taught just as he’s going through and tells him to stop what he’s doing and go in whatever direction the tension leads him.  Very confusing from a horse’s point of view!  We’ll talk more about “Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse” in the next segment.


  • John Lyons‘ online article, “Does My Horse Respect Me?”  Here is an excerpt: “You may see behaviors such as the horse crowding the handler’s space, the horse will push ahead of the handler when led or dive for grass at any opportunity.  The horse may “walk or run through the shoulder”, not going the direction that is asked when ridden.  Some do not recognize or correct aggressive behaviors at feeding time, such as ear pinning and/or tail swishing.  If your horse is at all pushy and you find yourself reacting to what he does, instead of him responding to what you ask, you may find yourself feeling like a ‘doormat’.”
  • Pat and Linda Parelli’s online article, “Is My Horse Spoiled?”  Here is an excerpt from Linda, “When people treat their horse like a big dog, they are using a lot of love and friendly techniques, but when the horse starts calling the shots and crowding their space, they don’t know what to do.”
Coming up next:
The Art of Trailer Loading – continued
Building Block #5 –Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse

6 thoughts on “The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #4: Being Comfortable In, And Respectful Of, Each Other’s Space

  1. Cath Post author

    I’d like to add that Diane — and Cooper — are excellent, model students and are making positive changes after just two sessions. Diane listens, repeats what she’s heard, writes it down to remember — and practices. Cooper seems calmer and grateful for her improved leadership and communication — and Diane is smiling! Well done, Diane!

  2. Pingback: Building Block #3: Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools | In-Hand Harmony

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

  4. Pingback: Building Block #2: Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence | In-Hand Harmony

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