In-Hand Harmony

The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #5 –Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse

  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

What is Leadership?

For some of us, being a leader doesn’t come easily, or naturally.  It certainly didn’t come naturally to me.  And before I even thought about pursuing becoming a leader, I had to go through the disappointment, hurt and humiliation of having my horse tell me I wasn’t one.  Then I had to learn what a leader is and then figure out how to become one.  What I’ve learned is that a leader is someone others either choose to follow, or are forced to follow.

There’s been quite a lot of buzz in training books and television shows on using dominance with dogs and horses to establish leadership.  In a herd of horses, the leader is the one who tells the others when, where and how to go.   Some horses are bullies who make the others go, and some do it with ease and grace.  I recently read Mark Rashid’s book,  Horses Never Lie: The Heart Of Passive Leadership, which presents the concept of “passive leadership” in much more detail than I will attempt to explain here and is an excellent resource.  In essence, passive leadership is when others choose to follow a leader out of respect and trust — not dominance.  I like that concept.

Choosing To Follow vs. Being Forced to Follow

In the introductory post, “The Art of Trailer Loading” I describe a scene where every person and rope is enlisted to make a horse get into the trailer.  And I suppose there is a time and place — like a fire — when making a horse get into a trailer might be useful, if you didn’t have the ability to do otherwise.

On the other hand, I’ve also seen a lot of horse people become ineffective because they didn’t want to be mean or aggressive.  They’ve made a choice not to direct their horse with more than an “ask” phase -–usually skipping the “hint” phase — and not increasing the phase from an “ask”.  When the horse realizes that this is all you’ve got, they’ll generally go for the grass.

Phases of Asking

Here I am asking Tobias to back up with a phase four. (2005)

Here I am asking Tobias to back up with a phase four “demand”. (2005)

If you want to be effective in establishing, and maintaining, a leadership role without using dominance or fear, you’ll need to use phases.

If you watch horses together, the ones competing for leadership positions will be sending signals to the horses around them: a look in their eye, a pinned ear, a nudge of the nose, a leg raising, a leg suggesting a kick, and if all that doesn’t get the job done you may see a swift kick or a bite.  Count them up … and then tell me how many phases you use with your horse.

I wish this photo showed more. This is the "release" following my "demand". (2005)

I wish this photo showed more. This is the “release” taken 2 minutes after my “demand”. (2005)

In a clinic I watched last weekend, the clinician described phases as “hint, ask, tell, demand.”

A bully won’t bother with subtleties.  Bullies don’t believe in giving someone the benefit of phases, because they’re not interested in teaching,  building confidence, partnership or softness.  All they want is for you to click your heals, salute and say, “Jawohl!”

Think about a child who grew up with parents who use phases and a child whose didn’t.  Which of these kids will likely grow up to be confident and trusting, and which will grow up to be defensive, fearful … and angry?  A horse who is asked to do things without the use of soft phases will become bracey and flinch every time something is asked of him.  Or, if he just can’t handle it, the horse will check out and leave his personality, heart and enthusiasm hidden away.


Then there is the parent who just nags. “Carolann, you need to clean your room.” “Carolann, I told you, you need to clean your room.” “Carolann, would you please clean your room?” Carolann will figure out that there are no consequences, no follow through and no need, really, to clean her room.  More than likely, mom will not only end up cleaning it for her, but mom will be resentful and angry about it.

This is just what happens with trailer loading.  If we don’t have enough phases to use, we become ineffective, frustrated and emotional or angry.

With our grandchildren, they’ve learned that when Gram (that’s me) asks them to do something, she means it.  Here’s an example:

  • “Carter, Campbell, I need you to stop arguing over who plays with that toy and work it out for yourselves.”
  • “Carter, Campbell, if you can’t work that out between you, I’m going to come in and take the toy away.”
  • “Carter, Campbell, don’t make me come in there.”
  • “Sorry you two.  But you’ve been warned.  Now that toy is mine.”

Count them up. That’s four phases.

Now, if I’ve already been through that same scenario recently, my first phase will be just a hint, “Are you two arguing over a toy?” But I will only skip through mid-level phases when I know they already understand the rules and what to expect.  That said, if the kids are playing really well together, I’ll come in and tell them how wonderful I think they are and how much I appreciate them playing well.  I may even bring them a treat.

By interrupting negative behavior and encouraging positive behavior, I can help build self-confidence and self-esteem along with respect for my leadership.  And by being able to increase my phases without getting angry, fear doesn’t have to enter into the equation.

And that’s hard!  Increasing phases to a “demand” without  (a) losing my patience, and (b) without getting angry takes a lot of practice and focus.  Sometimes, I mess up.

What if I’m tired or “upset-able”?  If I know that I’m not in a positive state of mind, I am much more likely to loose my patience and my cool.  In that case, I do my best to avoid being with the grandchildren or ask my husband to take over.  So when we already know that we’re not in the best frame of mind, it’s always best not to engage (if given the choice).

Directing Your Horse

As I mentioned briefly in “Being Comfortable in and Respectful of Each Other’s Space”, directing your horse is not the same as holding a horse’s halter and pushing or leading him somewhere.  What I’m talking about is asking a horse to move all or part of its body on its own where and how you have asked.  Horses herd each other using body language.  And to trailer load safely, with you out of harm’s way and your horse willingly participating, your horse needs to be able to walk into the trailer quietly and confidently, be comfortable staying there, and be able to exit the trailer in the same manner.

Having a plan is essential to effective leadership.  Before attempting to load your horse into a trailer, it’s important that you can already do what Pat Parelli calls “The Seven Games” without your horse getting worried or rushing — we’re looking for softness and confidence.  If there is any bracing or rushing in any of these activities, you’ll want to break it down into even smaller increments to fill the gap in communication or trust before continuing.  Your horse will know when he has it right because you will use pressure to “ask” and a release to say “thank you”.

  1. Friendly Game (being able to touch your horse all over with your hand, rope, stick and string without your horse being uncomfortable).
  2. Porcupine Game (being able to move your horse using pressure from your hand or stick)
  3. Driving Game (being able to move your horse forward, backwards or sideways using driving motion with your hands or stick/string)
  4. Yo Yo Game (asking your horse to move backwards and forwards with your body language, lead rope, hands etc.)
  5. Circle Game (sending your horse in a circle)
  6. Sideways Game (asking your horse to move sideways)
  7. Squeeze Game (asking your horse to move between two stationery things, like through a gate or between or over barrels)


Even if a person knows how to send their horse on a circle, sometimes things don’t work out as well when they want when they attempt to send their horse into a trailer.  Sometimes the person forgets what they know about sending and allowing.  Instead of allowing the rope to slide through their hands as their horse moves forward, they maintain a hold on the lead rope about a foot or two from the throatlatch and continue asking their horse to enter the trailer while at the same time holding the horse back.  The horse gets mixed signals, makes a couple of tries and then in frustration rears, freezes or looks for something more interesting to do, like graze.  A horse can get so frustrated with being set up to fail that he decides he is done trying and will refuse to participate.


So, once you can do all of these things smoothly, without your horse getting bracey or rushing, then you can get more provocative and specific.

Ask your horse to go out on a circle and then stop and back up…on the circle, and without looking at you.  Why?  Because when you ask your horse to go into a trailer, you don’t want him to rush in all at once.  And once they are in the trailer, they will need to learn how to back out.  It’s a good idea to teach this one step at a time, before they are all the way in, get panicked and turn around.  And when your horse does step in, he’ll likely turn his head to look back at you -– and you’ll want to be able to tell him you would like him to stay in.  Remember, where their ears or eyes are is where their mind is … and their body is soon to follow.

Stepping into a trailer is a different surface than dirt.  It might move a little and it makes a different sound.  The horse may not trust that it is safe.  So ask your horse to walk over a tarp first, then a sturdy plank of wood.  Then put that next to a wall.  Then put a barrel on the other side.  Ask your horse to walk through each first, then to stop on that surface, and then back up.  Build on your horse’s experiences and build confidence.

If you do all of these steps first — and it might take a day, a week or months -– by the time you ask your horse to load into a trailer it will be a non-event.  Your horse will walk right in.

Take The Time It Takes So It Takes Less Time(!)

Believe it or not, ALL of these activities can come into play when trailer loading.  You don’t want to skip any of these and then realize you don’t have a way to direct your horse in each situation that can come up.  In other words, you don’t want to bring out the trailer just to see if your horse won’t load.  Then you’ll really have to back track.

Asking a naturally claustrophobic creature accustomed to living in the wide open to voluntarily walk into a tin can barely larger than they are is asking a LOT!  Creating incremental simulations to help your horse overcome his fear of small places, trust your leadership and build confidence is essential.

Oh, I know, I know. You’re thinking, “For crying out loud! Can’t I just walk my horse into the trailer and be DONE with it!” Those people you see at the trailhead who open the door and throw the lead line over their horse’s back have invested a lot of time (or money in training) to have that in place.  Those folks who are at the trailhead hours after the others have gone… have not.  Pat Parelli put it very simply, “Take the time it takes so it takes less time.”

Understanding Leads To Confidence

One of the things that clinician mentioned is, “understanding leads to confidence.”  Brent provided an analogy that if we’ve been in a job for quite a while, we know what needs to be done and how to do it — we’re pretty confident.  But if we’ve just changed careers, and it’s our first day on the job in a new place with new people, we may not really know what needs to be done or how to do it and we don’t necessarily feel very confident.

If you are consistent with your positioning, your phases, pressure and release -– without getting emotional — your horse will learn to trust and respect you, gain confidence, see you as a leader and do his best to do what you ask of him.



  • Acknowledging the “Try” from my earlier blog post under “Training”
  • Mark Rashid’s book, Horses Never Lie: The Heart Of Passive Leadership
  • Parelli “Level 1” home study DVD program (the Parellis have created at least two generation of training materials since that one, so you may have to look for it at your local library, on eBay or Amazon, or try one of the newer ones)
  • Some of the quotes came from Brent Winston’s clinic.  He had a way of putting some words and ideas together that I liked.
Coming up next:
The Art of Trailer Loading – continued
Building Block #6 –Putting It All Together

4 thoughts on “The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #5 –Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse

  1. Diane

    Great blog, Cath! I like how you incorporated some of Brent’s philosophy into it, too. I think I usually only use 2 of his 4 phases: hint, ask, tell, demand – so I’m going to try to think about them first before I need any of my horses to do anything. I’m also not very good at directing or allowing; I seem to interfere with my horses more than I intend to. Think I’ll order that Mark Rashid book “Horses Never Lie” to see if I can learn more about how to be an effective (passive) leader. His book “Whole Heart, Whole Horse” was excellent!

  2. Pingback: Building Block #6: Putting It All Together | In-Hand Harmony

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