- Understanding Your Horse
- Overcoming Fear & Building Confidence
- Being Comfortable & Competent With Your Tools
- Being Comfortable In and Respectful of Each Other’s Space
- Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
- Putting It All Together
Here we are! You’ve read through all The Art of Trailer Loading prior posts, you’ve practiced each Building Block For Success. Perhaps today is the Big Day!
Are You Ready?
If you and your horse are properly prepared, it may only take five to thirty minutes to load the first time. However, be prepared to take all day. If you need to be on the road in fifteen minutes for a show or a ride, you are setting both you and your horse up to fail. Be sure to do a few practice loads, and short rides, prior to any scheduled events. Be sure you are well-rested, have eaten something recently, you are calm, breathing deeply, and have a water bottle handy.
Let’s Go Hook Up The Trailer
We have a two-horse slant with a front tackroom, one large rear door and no ramp, so these directions will be appropriate to this type of trailer. There are a lot of great articles on properly choosing, attaching, towing, equipping and maintaining horse trailers. I’ll give you a good resource link at the end of the post and won’t go into a lot of detail here, but I will give you a brief checklist:
- Be sure your trailer provides a comfortable amount of space for your horse.
- Be sure your trailer is well-maintained, clean and safe.
- Be sure your hitch and vehicle are appropriate for your loaded trailer’s full weight.
- Have your trailer hooked up to your towing vehicle with the parking break set.
- Be sure your trailer’s and vehicle’s tires are in good condition and appropriately inflated.
- If you’re traveling for an hour or more, be sure to provide clean, absorbent bedding in your trailer stalls for your horse to feel comfortable urinating.
- If you have a hay bag in your trailer, be sure your horse can’t get its legs caught in it and put a fly mask on your horse to protect his eyes from blowing hay.
Before loading your horse into your trailer, be sure it is well-vented and there aren’t any hornets or nests inside (I know of a horse that was stung repeatedly, unbeknownst to the driver, while driving down the highway).
Be sure the footing outside your trailer is clear of obstacles, especially ice. (If your horse slips, he could not only injure himself but he could also lose respect for your leadership in asking him to do something unsafe.)
Check, check and check… Your trailer door, windows and dividers are open and inviting. There is nothing inside that is unsafe or could swing onto or startle your horse. Here we go!
Go Get Your Horse
Use an appropriate halter and lead rope for trailering. Trailering with a rope halter can be very uncomfortable, and potentially unsafe for your horse. As your horse works to keep his balance in a moving trailer, a rope halter would be constantly putting pressure on his sensitive head. It could also cut his face if you’re in an accident. In a fire, a nylon web halter could melt onto your horse’s face. I have a leather break-away halter for trailering. I also use a snap connecting the lead rope so that my horse doesn’t end up trapped in the trailer. I mentioned in an earlier article that I avoid hard tying my horse — I use a Blocker tie ring (see Resources page for equipment and tack) or simply tie onto a loop of bailing twine that will likely break if enough pressure is exerted.
Be sure to grab your stick and string and take it with you.
Check your horse for any injuries or lameness prior to going anywhere and be sure there aren’t any rocks in his hooves that he’ll be standing on. Move your horse around (see “Leadership and Knowing How to Direct Your Horse”) to make sure he’s moving well, loosen him up, and establish some communication and leadership.
Approach Your Trailer…
… but DO NOT attempt to go right in! Begin by flirting with the thought of getting into the trailer. This will help your horse warm up to the idea. Remember, horses are not direct line thinkers. Horses prefer to approach things diagonally or sideways since their eyes are on the sides of their heads and they want to be able to escape quickly. Work with your horse on his terms first.
You want to slowly make your idea become your horse’s idea so that he eventually says to you, “Listen. I think I know what this is about. Would you like me to walk into that trailer?”
And while I use the word “ask”, please remember to be as soft as possible yet as firm as necessary by using phases: hint, ask, tell, demand. As a reminder, these phases may look something like this (depending upon the circumstances and what is being asked):
Hint Depending upon our level of communication: I imagine my horse walking into the trailer, I just walk up to the trailer opening and/or look into the trailer, my index finger may point the way, or my leading arm goes lightly out in the direction I want my horse to go, as if I am the maitre d at a restaurant.
Ask I may raise my stick and string off the ground, tap the ground, swirl the string on the ground and/or make a smooching sound.
Tell I may tap the horse with my stick or string.
Demand I may either slap the horse rhythmically with the string or smack (what I refer to as a “tag”) the horse just once with the stick. I do not want to beat a horse — ever — so if I tag a horse, afterwards I stop, relax and wait. This is not a reward for poor behavior. It is an opportunity for the horse to think about what has happened. More than likely, he will not hesitate next time. Instead, he will make a big try. So, after a “demand” always rest and begin again with hinting. If your horse becomes the least bit worried about the stick and string after being tagged, be sure to rub him with whatever you smacked him with prior to beginning again with hinting.
Okay, using your phases, ask your horse to circle one way and then the other in front of the opening. Then go to the outside walls of the trailer and ask your horse to move forward and backwards between you and the wall. When your horse if comfortable and relaxed, and looking with curiosity and not fear into the trailer, ask him to approach the opening to the trailer with a straight body.
Remember the tips from Building Block #5: position yourself so that you are outside of your trailer’s door opening; and give your horse plenty of slack on the lead rope so you don’t inadvertently stop him just as he’s approaching.
If he cannot approach the opening to the trailer straight on, go back to the beginning exercises on the side of the trailer, or further away from the opening.
CAUTION: If your horse rears or barges into your space, protect yourself and stay safe! If you feel the least bit unsafe at any time, contact a professional for help. If you do not have the skill or experience to move through this unsafe pattern and you continue to work ineffectively, releasing on your horse’s braces, you will be rewarding your horse and actually training your horse to rear and barge into you.
If your horse walks up to the trailer and paws it — that’s a good thing! It is a Try! Put your body into neutral, and wait to see what he does next. Parelli says, “First the nose, then the neck and maybe the feet.” The last thing you want to do is discourage any Try. Watch carefully for each one, even if it is just a softening of muscles, a shifting of weight or an exhale, lick and chew.
If your horse walks up to the trailer opening with a straight body, rest there and Reward The Try. Then blow his mind by asking him to back up two to four steps.
If you do not acknowledge each try, your horse will not realize that he has done something right and will try something else the next time. And if you get greedy, you may put too much pressure on your horse and he will become explosive — in which case you’ll have to start all over again. After each correct try, rest and reward before asking for more. Remember, it is the “release that teaches.”
But remember, if your horse refuses to increase his progress with you hinting or asking with your phases, then you must increase your phase to a “tell” or “demand”.
After resting and rewarding, then ask your horse forward again — but do not let him put more than the two front legs (and, of course, the attached body!) into the trailer. Rest and reward the effort. Then ask him to back out again. You don’t want your horse to jump completely into the trailer and be unable to back out.
Once your horse is comfortable approaching, entering with two feet and then backing out, ask your horse to put all four feet in the trailer. It’s okay if he needs to exit right away, but do not allow your horse to turn around — not even his nose or eye. You don’t want your horse to even think about turning around, so don’t let him look backwards or at you. If your horse tries to turn around, take up the slack on your lead rope so he doesn’t turn away and use the handle end of your stick to direct his head towards the inside far end of the trailer.
Pay attention. If you or your horse begins to get tense, if either of you are holding your breath or your muscles are shaking, back your horse calmly out of the trailer before he decides to on his own. Remember, “move closer, stay longer” to incrementally increase your comfort zones. If you’re both comfortable and calm, continue on.
When your horse backs out of the trailer, do not allow him to leave or turn. He may rest facing the trailer opening.
However, if your horse is obviously trying really hard, be sure to give him a break now and then so you don’t ask for too much too soon, putting too much pressure on your horse and causing him to explode or get high on adrenalin. If you find that you are holding your breath, take a break. Both you and your horse need to stay calm and relaxed. Occasionally, you may want to move away from the trailer opening and allow your horse to move on a circle in both directions, or other focused movement, until he relaxes, blows, licks and chews. But do not allow your horse to graze or otherwise evade your direction or take over the agenda. You must maintain a leadership position.
Also, feel free to end on any positive note of progress and go for more another day. And if you need to end on a negative note because you become tired, frustrated or frightened, just go back to directing your horse with something you are both comfortable with and good at before quitting for the day.
Once your horse is able to enter the trailer and stand calmly, when he begins to back up again, ask him to stay forward by tapping his hind end with your stick and string. If your horse is able to stay calmly, enter the trailer with him and pet him all over. Then ask him to back up one step, then forward one step. Then rest and pet. Ask your horse to move over toward the side wall. Then rest and pet.
Securing Your Horse
At this point, if you have a divider, move it back and forth so that it makes whatever noise it wants. Stop and pet your horse. Be sure to stay clear of the divider so that if your horse decides to exit you don’t get squashed. When you’re both ready, take the divider and touch your horse’s side with it, then take it away. Repeat a few times with a sense of rhythm. When your horse is comfortable with this, close the divider and latch it. Once the divider is latched, you can put the lead rope through the tie ring. Leave enough slack for your horse to lower his head to his chest and be able to blow, but not so that he can get a front leg caught — about an arm’s length depending upon the height of your horse and the tie ring.
You don’t want to tie your horse before closing the divider, and you do not want to open the divider without untying your horse first. You also do not want to enter the trailer and attempt to pull your horse into the trailer if he tries to leave. If your horse decides to exit and feels tension on the lead line, he may rear and hit his head or possibly even flip over backwards.
Go For A Short Drive
Once your horse is comfortable entering, standing and being confined, go for a short drive. When you return home, praise your horse, pet him and take ten minutes to hand graze him on the best grass you have.
Feeling Like Winners!
After a few successful trailering trips, your horse will simply “walk on” into the trailer, you’ll throw the belly of the lead line over his withers, he’ll move over to the side wall, you’ll latch the divider, close the door, walk around the side window to reach in and loop the lead line through the tie ring. As you get into your truck and take off, both you and your horse will not only be feeling like winners — you’ll be confident, trusting partners.
And there you have it: The Art of Trailer Loading. Happy trails!
- I don’t know anything about their trailers, but EquiSpirit has some great articles on their website: Important Information on Traveling With Horses: http://www.equispirit.com/info/articles.htm
- The Art Of Trailer Loading: Building Block #5 –Leadership & Knowing How To Direct Your Horse
- The Trainer’s Horse Refuses To Load