trailer loading – the safer way
2017 was a year to remember especially if you lived in the interior of British Columbia.
Needless to say but I will anyway. An emergency is NOT the time to be learning how to load your horse.You are stressed, your horse is stressed and many people do not have a trailer and are using haulers or friends to move their horses. These people are usually trying to move as many horses for people as fast as they can and understandably cannot afford the time to “ASK” your horse to get in the trailer or to understand his/her personality, quirks or temperament. Time is of the essence in this case.
So imagine what that has done to the psychic of your horse. To begin with they are claustrophobic animals. They do not like tight enclosures and unknown noises. Add to this the pressure of getting into an unknown space with other strange horses.They sense you are tense and you are supposed to be the “Better Horse.” Remember Horse Games by Horse Rules. You have created a platform where even if your horse gets loaded he/she may develop unknown problems down the road such as ulcers, cribbing, nervous behavior, and fear at the sight of trailers. Trailer loading in the future could be a major problem.
I think you get the picture and this is a training tutorial on Trailer Loading, not a critique on why you should have taught your horse to load BEFORE you NEED to. Nor is it an article on the best type of trailer or the attributes of a ramp vs a step up. It is about trailer loading
So let’s start at the beginning.
Truck and appropriate size trailer
12 foot lead rope
22 foot rope or longer
I am assuming your trailer is in relatively good shape because I am not talking about how to service your trailer in this video
Begin by hooking it up (Do not begin teaching with the trailer not hooked to your truck – It may rock or even worse tilt when weight is added)
Drive your trailer to an enclosed pasture (in case your horse gets loose while you are teaching trailer loading)
Open the trailer door 90 degrees. This will create a natural barrier to one side of the trailer. You will be the barrier on the other side. Open any windows in the trailer to allow more light inside.
Before you even think of asking your horse to go into the trailer begin to ask him/her to lunge about 20-30 feet from the trailer. The distance you begin at will be determined by how fast your horse goes when he/she is between you and the trailer door. If your horse changes gait at that point to a trot from a walk or even worse a gallop from a walk you have started too close to the trailer. Horses CANNOT lie – Frame of Body IS Frame of Mind and good trainers can read this and make adjustments and so can you. If your horse changes gait as he/she passes the trailer or if he/she tucks his/her tail, or if the ears go back or if he/she bulges towards you while passing the trailer door read these signs. Your horse is talking to you. If adrenalin is pumping through your horse’s body NO learning can go on, only fight or flight instinct is running through his/her brain so begin further away from the trailer when you begin to lunge your horse. Initially it is all about “GO FORWARD” on command
Apply a little pressure with your horseman’s stick every time he/she is away from the trailer and remove all pressure as your horse approaches the trailer and as he/she passes the opening of the trailer. We are trying to make the spot in front of the trailer a place of comfort.
By a little pressure I do not mean get him to lope when he/she is away from the trailer – just ask for a faster walk. The goal is to get your horse to maintain a walk for 360 degrees and NOT speed up between you and the trailer. Continue to do this until you can get this walk consistently at whatever distance from the trailer you need to be.
Look at the frame of your horse.
Is he/she relaxed?
Is the head level or inverted
Is the tail tucked or loose
Are the ears attentive but not laid back
Can he/she maintain the inside bend on the circle with the head towards you and not pulling on the lead rope as he/she passes the tailer
Does your horse stay the same distance from you when passing the trailer or does he/she bulge into your space at that point?
If all the above are good you are ready to move on
When your horse finally walks past the trailer THEN you can move the lunging circle closer to the trailer meaning if when you started as he/she passed the trailer he/she was 10 feet from the opening move the circle closer to the trailer so when they pass they are 5 feet from the trailer.
Remember this is just a suggestion of distance and each horse will have a different starting point. As I said before and this is a critical part of the Trailer Loading lesson. If when you first started to lunge you horse sped up as he/she passed the trailer YOU STARTED TOO CLOSE and you need to back the circle away from the trailer. I like to tell my students that they should be saying to their horse “The LAST thing I want you to do is get in that trailer” at this point in the training. We are just lunging at the walk.
Your horse will begin to build confidence in passing the trailer opening (you will see this because he/she can walk by or even stop there). When horses overcome their fear curiosity kicks in.
When you are able to WALK your horse past the tailer while lunging and your horse can pass the trailer door or ramp within 2-3 feet without changing gait,showing any body signs of reluctance, or changes the circumference of the circle by moving towards you as he/she passes the trailer door/ramp you are ready for the next step.
Note: If your horse stops when passing your trailer opening do not drive him/her on for a while. Remember the whole idea of adding pressure when your horse is not near the trailer and removing ALL pressure when he/she is close is to create a comfort area or a “sweet spot” at the trailer.
The next step is the hardest for most people but if done calmly and when not rushed to do it this will make all the difference in how your horse will load in the future.
Let me just set you up for the best chance of success:
Is your trailer large enough for your horse. It is really not a pleasant task to try and load a warmblood into a quarter horse tailer
You should begin with a trailer that is wide enough that when your horse does go in he/she can turn around and come back out. We will be backing our horse out later but first let’s build confidence and then competence at going into the trailer.We will allow the horse to turn around (at first) but not allow him/her to run out – if possible.
Make sure your trailer did not just recently haul other animals such as goats, llamas etc
If you can remove the bar where the door closes if there is one.
Remove any partitions in the trailer. You want the trailer to look as much like a stock tailer as you can. Remember I said horses were claustrophobic so we want to give them as much space as possible.
And as I said before if you have windows open them
If you have a place for hay use it
If your trailer is a step up MAKE sure you have a rubber bumper where your horse steps out. Their back leg goes in under the trailer a little as they try to step down and they will hit the end of the trailer. If there is no bumper they will hit their cannon bone and this can cause big problems both with cuts and fear of backing out.
Once your horse can walk past the trailer opening without any sign of tension it is time to introduce him/her to the inside of the trailer.
Begin by lunging your horse past the trailer and then when you feel your horse is comfortable change your lunging circle to more of an oval than a circle. By that I mean when your horse is at the furthest point from the trailer and just at the point where his/her left eye (assuming you are lunging counter clockwise) can see the trailer opening use your core (belly button) to move your horse towards the opening. (Read my article on lunging)
Remember horses are rear wheel drive machine so do not do as most people do – pull your horse towards the trailer – drive him/her towards the trailer by positioning your body at your horse’s rump with your belly button aimed at his/her elbow and your horseman’s stick pointed towards the ground but out behind your horse – remember you want your horse to approach the trailer at a walk not change gaits because YOU positioned yourself incorrectly or demanded too strongly that your horse walk towards the trailer.
99.9% of horses will stop 4-6 feet from the trailer opening. At that point position yourself about 2-3 feet from the edge of the opening to the trailer
This is the important part with regard to your safety. You are now the barrier to the horse escaping to the left by going between you and the trailer AND 100% of the time YOU are the weak link. We also do not want to block the horse completely from escaping. If he/she runs between you and the trailer door it can be used as a learning opportunity to teach your horse that this was not the correct decision to make.Remember we are removing all pressure when he/she is doing the right thing and adding pressure for the wrong thing. we are saying what not to do rather than what to do. Your horse cannot go to the other side because the open door is acting as a barrier so you are the easiest escape route.
Keep your horse’s head POINTED towards the trailer.If he/she looks to the left (towards you) immediately lift your hand and block the head
Do not try to force your horse past the point where he/she has stopped at this point
Give your horse time to PROCESS the situation – You relax and breathe
Do not let your horse back up at this point. If this continues to happen you were not ready to ask your horse to move towards the trailer and should go back to walking past the trailer on the lunge
Remember I said open the trailer door 90 degrees. Therefore there is a boundary on that side. YOU are the boundary on the other side
Once you can keep your horse focused on looking into the trailer it is time for the next step.
That step is to ask your horse to go closer to the trailer.
One of three things usually happens
A) The horse moves foreward.
B) The horse backs up
C) The horse runs between you and the trailer.
If B or C happens you have not spent enough time getting your horse to go forward nor has your horse been given enough time to build courage to go between the trailer and the handler without changing gait or without changing frame of body
You cannot put a time frame on training trailer loading
Note: It is incorrect to believe that once you start your trailer loading lesson you MUST get your horse into the trailer. As long as you stop on a positive note you can continue the next day. In fact I know many horses that really benefit and build courage when they have a longer processing time
If you do get A above and your horse moves forward it is important for you to relax, breathe, release all pressure and let your horse look inside the trailer.
Then ask for another TRY by taking your horseman’s stick out behind your horse(pointed towards the ground) and move it towards his/her butt.
This is important – Too many people add pressure by holding the stick too high and pointing it at the side of the horse and not behind. This pressure asks the horse to move his hip away from you and as you know horses work on a diagonal so if the hip moves away the head is coming towards you. – Not what we want!
If your horse looks into the trailer or paws at the trailer as I said take the pressure off by taking the horseman’s stick away. Wait 20-30 seconds and then ask for more forward to actually put a foot on the ramp or up into the trailer
Reward any effort by removing any pressure, relaxing your body and praising the effort.
The nice thing about horse training is you get lots of “DO OVERS” so if at some point your horse cannot take any more pressure and as a trainer you can read the body language make it your idea to abort the mission and take your horse away and begin the whole process again.
When you do get your horse to enter the trailer by using the method described above you then have become a person who Plays Horse Games by Horse Rules. You drove your horse into the trailer.You did not lead by the head which is a predator move nor did you put yourself in a dangerous position by entering the trailer ahead of your horse where you can become trapped very quickly.
As a further tool in training your horse to load if you cannot get him/her to stay focused at looking into the trailer but rather he/she is looking from side to side for an escape route attach your 22 foot rope to the halter and run it inside the trailer and out the front door or window and the back along the side of the trailer to the handler.
So now the tail of the 22 foot rope is in the left hand of the handler and the horseman’s stick is in the right hand.
REMEMBER – The rope is NOT to pull the horse into the trailer but to maintain a straight head. You drive the rear of the horse forward as mentioned earlier.
Every time your horse moves forward you MUST release the pressure on the halter (as long as his/her head remains straight ahead)
As your horse moves forward pick up the slack in the 22 foot rope
When your horse enters the trailer go around to the window, reconnect the 12 foot lead rope and remove the 22 foot rope. Place the tail of the 12 foot rope on the back of your horse.
It is preferable at this point to have a friend standing at the trailer door to stop your horse from rushing out before you get back there. Your horse will most likely have turned around before you get to the back of the trailer so all you have to do is grab the lead rope and lead him/her out at a walk. Try to stop your horse once and a while to ensure he/she relaxes, listens to you and does not rush out.
(If your horse had not turned around step up into the trailer while praising your horse and take hold of the lead rope. Ask your horse to turn by applying pressure to the butt and then lead him/her out as described above.
Repeat the whole exercise 3-5 times and then 2-3 times a day for a week.
Then you can begin to teach backing and tying. We will teach this in a future lesson. For now get your horse and yourself comfortable with loading and unloading as described above. Begin to keep your horse in the trailer for longer lengths of time and when he/she can stand relaxed you can close the trailer doors. Stay close to the trailer and continue to reassure him/her.
TRAILER LOADING QUIZ
This horse is SPEAKING volumes.
We have to learn to understand AND listen to what he/she is saying
Set yourself up for success by lunging your horse away from the trailer AND slowly moving him/her closer to the trailer only when you can keep the horse bent towards you and he/she does not change gaits when passing the trailer or bulges his/her hip towards you