Trailer loading is an exercise that once all the other fundamentals are in place should be relatively easy. In this series of articles on handling young horses we have covered touching and catching. This teaches your horse to be comfortable handled. He has learned to lead and should be willing to follow a soft feel. He has learned to tie which will help him deal with being restrained. He can have his feet handled which enable him to deal with his ability to run being taken away from him. He needs to be comfortable with all of these things before he will feel safe to climb into a horse trailer. He has also learned that our personal space should be respected which is the aspect of trailer loading that is necessary to ensure our own safety.
Horse trailers are scary places for many horses, especially young green horses. Being in a horse trailer effectively disables the horses’ natural instinct for survival. This is why all the previous lessons are so important. If your horse does not trust you enough to let you remove his built in survival mechanisms he simply will not get in. Trying to bribe him with hay or grain is not going to get you consistent results, although having hay in the trailer as a reward after the horse has decided to get in is fine.
When ready to start loading I will ask the horse to lead past me a few times to re establish a space boundary. This will also remind him that when I tap him on the ribs with my flag he should walk forward past me.
When he will do this I will then repeat the same exercise as I stand inside the open trailer door. If the trailer has a ramp the exercise will need to start at the ramp, and in a straight haul stand on the opposite side of where you plan to load the horse.
It is important to give him lots of time to think about what you want. Any and every attempt to move closer to the trailer must be rewarded. After he has moved a step closer pet him and walk out of the trailer leading him away and then back to the same position. By taking him away from the trailer it re enforces that he did what you asked of him. Each time he approaches and is taken away he will realize that the trailer is not a scary place and he will get a little closer each time. I want to increase his comfort zone one step at a time. If he is curious give him time to analyze the trailer. Some horses will paw at the floor he may want to smell it and have a good look around. If he is curious he is less likely to be afraid. Ask him to put one foot in. Do not pull on him but push him in with the flag on his ribs. If he pulls back to escape go back with him but push him forward harder with the flag on his ribs until he stops backing up. Then approach and ask again.
There will be a lot of approach and retreat. When he will put one foot in he will be more comfortable putting two feet in. Each time remove him and start over. Once he will stand with both front feet in I like to have him stand there for a minute before asking him to back out. I initially have them back out because getting out can be just as scary as getting in especially if you have a step up trailer. Asking for one foot at a time will teach him to get in and get out at the same time.
Getting three feet in will be the most difficult but it is also the most important. The horse needs to learn to get in slowly and deliberately. Horses will often jump in and put both back feet in at once. This can be dangerous for the handler if not prepared and it can scare the horse. When he jumps in the trailer will sway and he may feel that he need to escape.
I do not like a horse to turn around in the trailer until he will get in all the way and back out quietly. When I do let him turn around I will let him face the door and then turn him back around to face the front and have him back out. I do this because I do not ever want him to think about bolting out the door. When he is ready to walk out forward I will have him unload just as he loaded, one foot at a time slowly and deliberately. I also think it is important for a horse to learn to balance himself in a trailer. I like to pick up his feet when he is standing inside. I also like to push him until he will move his feet over. This help his get comfortable moving and correcting himself which he will need to do once the trailer starts moving.
Once he will get in stand quietly and back out it is time to increase the difficulty. Now I will not get in with him. I will stand just outside the trailer and have him load in the same way, one foot at a time. I might load and unload a horse twenty or more times throughout the process. Each time will make the next time easier. If he starts to back out before he gets all the way in just tap him with your flag until he goes back in. When he does go back in ask him to come out before he tries again.
It is important to know the difference between a horse that will get in the trailer and a horse that loads well. A horse that will just get in is inconsistent and will always need coaxing. A horse that loads well will only need directed into the trailer and he will take care of the loading by himself.
© 2004 Will Clinging