Reader: I want to teach my horse to load into a trailer. He was delivered to me by a professional when I purchased him and I have never tried to load him. My friend told me to just coax him in with food but that doesn’t seem like real training.How do I get started?
Charles: There are four components of trailering a horse: loading, unloading, standing and riding quietly. Those elements involve preparation and schooling. Trailering has several aspects that make most horses nervous. First, we are asking them to go into a small, confined, sometimes dark space. This is counter-intuitive to their natural flight instinct. Second, we are asking them to “cross” an object either by asking them to step up into a trailer or to walk up a ramp.
Again, the footing issue in both of these naturally makes most horses nervous. Third, we ask them to stand and ride in a small, enclosed (often loud) area while they are being moved somewhere over which they have no control. Finally, after they have been asked to remain upright and steady in a moving container, we then ask them to back out into the unknown. Trailering really does ask a horse to go against its natural instincts in a lot of ways.
So, where to start? We start with the go-forward cue. This cue is the critical foundation stone for so many different exercises, and this is especially true for trailer-loading. Please do not start working on asking your horse to load until you have a rock solid go-forward cue developed, at the hips using the same spot every time. Depending on how trained your horse is, this can mean going back to the round pen, but more commonly, going back to line work. The change of direction exercise is a great place to start. And, by the way, do not do these exercises near the trailer in the beginning. Do not even think of adding the trailer into the training program until the go-forward cue is 100 percent. Once you can ask your horse to go forward with good energy, consistently, stop its feet and change direction, then you have completed the first exercise for trailer loading.
Before we go on to the next phase, a word about treats being used to lure a horse into a trailer. I have heard it said, “my horse will go anywhere for food.” This is really not a true statement. When food is used as a lure, instead of proper training using a go-forward cue, a horse will probably load about 50 percent of the time. If, for any reason, the horse’s emotions are high, food will likely not be sufficient to get the horse into the trailer. For a horse that is spooked, in pain and needing to go to the vet, or just having a bad day, food may very well be of no consequence. The real beauty of the change-of-direction exercise is that once it is well established, where your horse truly understands the cues, you will be able to use this as a fundamental tool to calm him down and get his attention any time and place you have that need. Whether for trail riding, shows or anything new or spooky, this will become a reliable way to calm your horse and center his mind back on you.
Once the go-forward cue is solid, the next phase in trailer-loading is to add the crossing of objects into the exercise. A tarp, poles or anything you have handy may be used. Start the change-of-direction exercise asking the horse to go over the object as well. Make sure the horse is completely comfortable crossing the object, stopping, reversing and also standing on the object. Once your horse is consistently performing this exercise, you can start incorporating the trailer into the picture.
Getting Comfortable in the Trailer
The next step is an important test of your skills in the evaluation of your horse. You need to determine where your horse is comfortable around the trailer. Some horses get nervous with a trailer 100 feet away, some at five feet or not at all. You need to start doing the change-of-direction exercise, preferably with the objects, with the trailer in sight, at a point where your horse is comfortable. Really take the time to watch your horse’s body language and let him tell you where he is truly relaxed and confident. Our goal is to school the horse for a lifetime of happy trailering. Take it slow and do it right.
When your horse is solid at 100 feet from the trailer, you can move to 90 feet. Again, let your horse tell you where it is comfortable. Stop the lesson only when you have seen that your horse has made significant progress. Depending on how fearful of the trailer your horse is, the timing and distance will vary. The goal is to progress right up until you are doing the change-of-direction line work right next to the back of the open trailer. Once you are doing that consistently and your horse is relaxed, you can start asking the horse to enter the trailer.
No matter what type of trailer you have, make sure it looks as open and inviting as possible. Ensure any dividers are out of the way and windows are open. As you begin your line work, position yourself such that as you ask your horse to go forward, he will need to go into the trailer to do so. If he only steps toward the trailer, reward him by releasing the pressure. Let him relax a moment and then ask again. Your goal is that he makes progress, even baby steps. One foot up, reward him. One foot up again, reward him again. Maybe the third time or so, ask him to stand there for a couple of seconds before rewarding him. Just keep asking for him to go forward a little more, incrementally. Let him know he is doing well by releasing (letting him back down) as soon as he gives you a little more. If your horse gets antsy, go back to the line work just outside the trailer again for a few minutes, and then return to asking him for those few steps into the trailer. If his forward cue has been established and you have been releasing the pressure at the right time to reward him, you should see him progress to both feet in, and then four feet in. Once he is solid with that, you can start to ask him to stand in the trailer for longer periods of time.
If your horse goes into the trailer and then turns himself around to walk back out, you can now make the next exercise teaching him how to back out of the trailer. First you need to teach your horse to back up on the ground. If he does that well, you can teach him to back out of the trailer. We do this the same way as going in. Reward for little steps, releasing the pressure as he makes incremental tries. You are going to repeat having him go in and back out several times so that he is as comfortable backing out as going in. One thing to keep in mind as you are doing all these steps is that you are also trying to teach your horse that the trailer is a good place to be. One way to do this is to make sure that in general, the horse gets rewarded for standing quietly in the trailer. Ask the horse to work outside the trailer, and then once he is in the trailer, let him just hang out (once he is okay standing there). Not asking a horse to move is a reward in itself. The horse will come to know that the trailer means he gets to rest.
Whether you have a problem loader, a sometimes won’t load, or even a horse that walks right into the trailer, by taking the time to do the exercises with your horse as I have outlined, you are ensuring that your horse will load easily under any circumstances. Having a horse that reliably loads under any condition is one of the best investments in training time that you can make. It will open up a whole world of activities you can do with your horse.
Remember It’s Never, Ever the Horses’ Fault