Before you start each trailer-loading session, outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. Switch to a gentler, flat halter for trailering.
Easy Trailer-Loading Fix
Have you ever had trouble loading your horse into the trailer — even when he’s loaded successfully in his past?
There’s a chance you may unknowingly be contributing to his trailering issues.
“It’s easy to train your horse to resist trailer loading,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “Chances are, you may not even realize how you’re contributing to his behavior. It can take years to train a horse to do the right thing, but only moments to ‘un-train’ him.”
Here, Goodnight will help you examine the innocent mistakes you might be making. Then she’ll show you how to squelch a behavior problem before it escalates. She’ll also give you three things to avoid.
Before You Begin
Wear sturdy boots and leather gloves, for safety. Outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. (Caveat: Switch to a gentler, flat halter for trailering.)
Find a quiet place with good footing. Consider backing up your trailer to the barn, close to the fence, so that your horse’s options are limited and the only way to go seems to be into the trailer.
In any case, avoid wide-open spaces that might encourage your horse to think about freedom instead of stepping forward onto the trailer.
Step 1. Perform Ground Work
Begin with ground work. How well your horse handles from the ground will impact how well you can handle him in a difficult trailer-loading situation.
If your horse suddenly decides he doesn’t want to get into the trailer, you need to know that you have fundamental handling skills intact. If he doesn’t normally have good ground manners (for instance, he pulls back, balks, drags you to the grass, and doesn’t stay in step with you), you need to work on instilling those manners before you work on trailer-loading.
Make sure your horse will stand still on command. A horse that will stand still on your authority has decided he must abide by rules of behavior. He’s respectful. If he won’t stand still, work on that skill first.
Step 2. Correct Unacceptable Behavior
When you approach the trailer, your
horse needs to know that you mean business. Point his nose straight ahead. Don’t allow him to look from side to side.
Does your horse look away from the path you choose? Do you allow him to look away without correcting him? Does he walk in front of you or look where he wants? These are all signs that your horse isn’t paying attention to you. He thinks he can look and go wherever he wants.
Address those small acts of disobedience away from the trailer — and before the looking-away behavior leads to a turn-and-bolt. Once he learns he can get away from you, it can’t be unlearned.
If your horse has learned to get away from you or turn his nose to the side to go where he wants, he may display these behaviors when trying to avoid something he doesn’t want to do, such as approaching the trailer.
If your horse displays the turn-and bolt behavior when you’re trailer-loading, examine your leading techniques and his behaviors when you’re working away from the trailer.
The first time your horse ripped the rope out of your hand and got away, it may have been an accident. But then he’s thinking, Wow, I got free. It’s a terrible thing for a horse to learn, because he’ll forever know that he can overpower you. You can dissuade the behavior and remind him not to do that, but he’ll always remember that it’s possible.
To fix this behavior, establish a solid relationship from the ground. He’ll remember that you’re in charge when you approach the trailer.
Keep your horse’s nose pointed at the trailer — no matter what.
Caveat: You may need to enlist the help of a knowledgeable horse friend or qualified trainer to work through the trailer-training process.
Step 3. Be Confident and Aware
Your horse will always turn away from what he doesn’t like and toward what he does like. Watch his ears to see what he’s “pointing” at. Horses are also keen on your determination and intention level, so pay attention to your own attitude and body language.
Here’s how to project confidence, read your horse’s intentions, and make corrections early on, so the behavior doesn’t escalate.
• Be confident. When you approach the trailer with your horse, there should be no doubt in his mind that he’s going in. Be a confident leader. Conduct yourself in a way that tells your horse you both are walking straight into the trailer.
• Catch the look-away. If your horse doesn’t want to load up, he’ll tense and look away long before he’s close to the trailer. Determine the exact moment when he sees the trailer and realizes that’s where he’s going. If you don’t notice that small glance away, he may look right and left to plan his evacuation route. Correct him the second he looks away, before he escalates his plan and balks, turns, or even bolts.
• Keep his nose straight. When you approach the trailer, keep your horse’s nose pointed
Stay out of your horse’s way as you load him. Don’t stand in front of him. A well-trained horse will wait until you walk forward and get out of the way to load up. However, a horse that doesn’t want to load
will take your placement as a reason not to move forward and to think of an alternate destination.
straight ahead. If he even tips his nose to the side, bump the rope to correct him. Out of the corner of your eye, watch his eyes to see whether he’s even thinking of moving back, not forward.
Step 4. Avoid Circling
If your horse is “experienced” in throwing tantrums before trailer-loading, he may learn that if he does turn his head, balk, or even wind up completely out of position, you’ll circle him and approach the trailer again.
Never circle your horse when trailer loading. It’s a fatal mistake. If you turn him around and allow him to face the direction he wanted to go, he’s gotten his own way for a few steps.
You’ve unknowingly trained your horse to throw a tantrum by allowing him to turn away. Horses are more in the moment than we are. In the moment, your horse wanted to turn away, and you allowed it.
Turning away reinforced the tantrum, so he’ll certainly do it again. If your horse throws a tantrum and get out of position, let him figure out how to straighten up and get his feet in line without circling. Then follow the guidelines in
Step 5. Stay Out of the Way
Keep your horse’s nose pointed at the trailer — no matter what.
Horses are trained not to invade your space, so avoid stepping up into the door of the trailer before asking your horse to step up. If he were to follow your request, he’d have to walk on top of you.
If you’re stepping up into a long slant load trailer, go in the door well ahead of your horse. Keep walking straight ahead, then step as close to the wall as possible to get out of his way. Show him there’s a path to move forward.
Step 6. Retrain Your Horse
If your horse has been known to balk at entering the trailer, approach, then ask him to stop before he enters. When he stops, praise him for listening and looking forward at the trailer. If he looks away, correct him to remind him he’ll be moving straight ahead. When he looks at the trailer, praise him.
When you stop, your horse will show you what he’s thinking about. You’ll have an opportunity to praise him for looking forward and looking at the trailer.
Stopping him also keeps your horse in a compliant mind-set — he’s being praised for moving and stopping on command. It keeps him interested in moving forward and discourages him from thinking about an escape.
For more trailering videos and tips from Julie Goodnight, visit tv.juliegoodnight.com. For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooksEtc.com.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.whole-picture.com) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.