Horse Problems: Trailer Loading

Reign gets in with ease, but it was not always so.

This topic is one of the most difficult of all horse topics.
Horses are:
1. Claustrophobic. Afraid of small spaces.
2. Without good vision as light changes from sunlight to shadow.
3. Afraid of loud noises or different footing.
The first step is to gently introduce the horse to the trailer and all of its strange sensations so that they can find the sweet spot inside the trailer.

Four problems associated with loading.
1. small space
2. dark space
3. loud noise as feet enter
4. step up

If we can get rid of any one of these, so much the better.

There is a difference between a horse that is new to this procedure and one that is already giving you immense trouble loading. A really trailer-sour horse can present a myriad of problems depending on his unique set of objections and his previous success at objecting and getting away with it. The amount of danger he presents to his handler is also different with each horse. This article assumes you have a reasonably trained horse – not a wild mustang.

All of the methods below have worked for me on one horse or another. Some will work better than others for you. Some take more effort and manipulation of the surroundings. Some just take more training time. Self-loading using the line-lunging technique is by far the quickest and least dangerous method, but your horse must know how to lunge outside of the round pen on a lead. It’s worth the time to spend a couple of days line-lunging in and out of the round pen to use this technique.

Get Ready

Start with the trailer outfitted with grain so that when the job is accomplished, the horse finds a pleasant surprise. (It is better to reward inside the trailer AFTER the horse gets in than to “bribe” him to get him in. One is a good reinforcement for a job well done. The other will fail if the horse is not adequately enticed by today’s menu or is not hungry.)

Find the largest trailer you can use. If you have a choice between a closed-in trailer or a stock trailer, take a stock trailer. It is more open. If you use a closed-in trailer, open the front viewing window to get as much light as possible.

If you can first use a trailer with a walk-up ramp. Great. (The horse in the animation is using a large trailer with a padded walk-up. That keeps his footing quiet and firm, avoids the step-up, and has plenty of room inside, although it is dark). If you don’t have that luxury, a step-up will work. It is just more difficult. If it is a small two-horse, take out the middle separator if you can.

Do you have a place on the property where you can back up into a slight “ditch” in the ground that lowers the trailer wheels and leaves the back nearly on the ground? (we have dug one just for this purpose). You can start there. It eliminates the “step-up”.

Break the exercise down into small parts. Conquer each part separately in another environment.
small space
dark space
wooden floor
step up
Then combine two. Ultimately, combine them all.

Will your horse tolerate a “squeeze” between two objects? You can build stocks with four fence posts with 2×6’s on the sides and front so that he learns to walk into the confined space and then back out easily. When that is accomplished, lay a sheet of plywood on the floor of the stocks to simulate the sound of his feet on the ramp or floor of the trailer.

Frequently, once he goes into and out of the plywood-floor stocks routinely, this is enough to start with a trailer. If not, proceed with Simulated Trailer below.

Self-Loading: The best technique. Certainly the best for a dangerous horse

This procedure takes the philosophy that inside the trailer is more desirable than outside. Outside he must work. Inside he can rest. (This horse is standing in knee deep, luscious rye grass and is allowed to eat. How desirable does the trailer look compared to his surroundings?)

Park the trailer where there are fewer desirable distractions.

Your horse should already be good at line-lunging (lunging in hand). Take him to the rear of the trailer. Allow him to peer inside. Start lunging in a small circle that takes him right past the trailer entrance every circle-pass. Lunge until he is so bored he would do anything to stop. Stop at the trailer entrance and nowhere else. Wait until he is very relaxed: lowers his head, licks his lips, blows a sigh etc. (You must also stay relaxed to pass your low energy state to him.) Now lunge again. Repeat. Repeat.

He will start to look longingly at the inside of the trailer. Stop so that he can see inside. He may become interested. Try asking him to load by standing at his side (horse facing the trailer) while you point him into it in the same manner that you would ask him to lunge in that direction. If he does not take the hint, lunge again.

When you least expect it, he will take a leap INTO the trailer (sometimes followed by a flying leap backward out of it again). Stay clear and let him come out. Then lunge again. Repeat until he is loading and staying.

This rarely takes more than one session before the horse voluntarily loads and stands in the trailer in preference to continuing to work on the outside.

Hands-on: Teaching the Load

Teaching the load in these progressive steps is a 2-6 day process. There are faster ways, but with a little patience this way usually works well with horses who have not been taught to line-lunge. It is important that he is wearing a rope halter, not a nylon halter. We MUST have the poll pressure that only a rope halter will impart. Some really panicky horses can also benefit from a head bumper to protect them if they rear up inside or at the edge of the frame.

Trailer Load Day 1, Step #1: Look Into the Trailer Stand looking at the trailer ramp. Face the horse squarely in front of the ramp and let him calm down just looking into the trailer. Sometimes I put a handful of grain on the ramp or floor where he can sniff and investigate, then eat the morsel off the ramp. Any time he tries to walk away, correct his position back to square and direct his attention to the interior. Do this several times, standing and looking for 60 seconds, 2 minutes, 5 minutes. No pressure unless he turns his body away. Then re-square.

Trailer Load Day 2, Step #2: Approach and Retreat After looking into the trailer for a couple of minutes, lead him away and come back toward the loading ramp squarely in a matter-of-fact way. Don’t look directly at him, just step onto the ramp yourself and assume he is coming with you the same way he leads everywhere else. Go as far as you can until he balks. When he balks, turn to face him, and give a sharp tug of the halter, releasing instantly. Now “request” gently that he move forward a step (don’t stare him down), releasing if you get even one step closer. Rest. Request again and tug again if he doesn’t move forward. If you are at a stand-off, come down off the ramp and force him to take a step to one side, then the other rather than a straight-on tug.

Repeat this approach and retreat pattern a few times until he is moving toward the ramp, and getting closer before he objects. If you get one foot on the ramp, stop and rest. If you get two feet, stop and rest. Don’t hold him there. Allow him to take a tentative step and then fly back if he must. Repeat until one or two feet stay on the ramp or he brings the 3rd and/or 4th foot up as well.

Remember to end the session on a successful note, no matter the small progress.

Trailer Load Day 3 or 4, Step #3: Enter Come toward the loading ramp squarely in a matter-of-fact way just like you did the last two days. Don’t look directly at him, just step onto the ramp yourself and assume he is coming with you. Soon, you will be shocked that he actually follows you in.

You are much closer to actually entering the trailer. First his head, then his forequarters, then a full load. He may go flying out in 1/2 a second each time. Let him fly back. Put his grain bucket inside the trailer a smidgen out of reach. Some horses are enticed and some are not. Some will make a little extra effort, take one bite and then fly out backward like they saw a ghost. It is important to let him fly.

Trailer Load Day 4 or 5, Step #4: Stand Inside (Now that he is entering, the grain should be inside the trailer at the front.)

At this point, you should have accomplished the load, but staying inside may still be a challenge. Enter, fly out. Enter, fly out. Soon he will tire of the flying out. Backing up in a panic is exhausting. He will start lingering longer inside, snorting or breathing deeply with an alert eye, but staying. If he likes the grain, he may take one bite, then two before he remembers to fly out. Talk calmly, reassuring and give a little bit of resistance on the rope when he thinks about going backward. If the resistance panics him, let him go. But by now he may back up a step or two and then move forward again at your request. The resistance may just bring him back into his thinking mode and encourage him to stay.

Some horses may want to turn around. This is a matter of opinion. I lean toward letting him turn around to face the door if I don’t see panic in his eyes or body. If watching what is going on outside seems to give him more confidence, give it a try.

Trailer Load Day 5 or 6, Step #5: Put his grain bucket at the front of the trailer, stand at the door, let him think about going in by himself. Some horses will actually self-load to get their grain. I usually turn loose of the rope, let him enter, then stand back in case he comes flying backward. Most do not. They go in calmly, eat a bite or two and then come back out more deliberately. Practice self-loading every day from now on.

(Reduce the grain reward to only every 3rd time. See Intermittent Reinforcement) You can also try putting alfalfa in the manger. Most horses love it and are loath to leave that treat.

Trailer Load Day 6, Step #6: Close the door This starts by having someone walking behind the trailer repeatedly until the look and sound of movement behind becomes routine. Then half shutting the door being careful not to get knocked down if he comes shooting out. Some horses do best facing the door, others are fine standing with their face to the front of the trailer. (more to come)

Build-a-Trailer: Teaching the Load by Simulation

Simulated Trailer If you don’t feel ready for the trailer load yet, begin the job of building a simulated trailer from the stocks’ skeleton. Start by adding plywood to the front. Then on the sides higher than his head. (Add plywood to one side at a time). At this point, he is walking into and backing out of a clip-clop-sound, claustrophobic space with no top. (Later, this structure can have any number of uses on the ranch.)

When this is easy, try the trailer again.

If you can’t accomplish a trailer load in three or four days, proceed further with the stocks. Desensitize to a tarp See the pony on this page.
If your horse can walk over, be covered by and walk under a tarp you are half way there.

Put the tarp over the stocks. You can figure out how this simulates a trailer. Now take any part of this contraption to the trailer and start there. Put the plywood board down behind the trailer. Drape the tarp nearby. See how far you get. If you can’t get there, see Suggestion #2 and add line-lunging.

Progressive Exercises

Suggestion #1.
Small space – Dark Space: I start with taking my horse into any space that is darker and smaller than the outdoors. Do you have a shed or small barn? Walk the horse in, stand in the darkened room until he is quiet, and then back the horse out. (Always back out if that is the way you want him to exit your trailer.) Repeat.

Noise: Practice walking over a piece of plywood. You can lay some plywood down in the pasture and walk over it until the hoof noise is no problem. Move the plywood closer to a small area. If you have a catch pen or stocks, put the plywood in there (as directed above).

Suggestion #2.
If you have a round pen, put the horse in it for 3-4 days. Back the trailer up to it and feed the horse in the trailer – moving the feed progressively forward so that he must first enter with his front feet to reach it and then stretch until he is actually entering with all four.

Some Afterthoughts

Tip #1:
Be particularly vigilant to notice when he is in a calm state of mind. Reward that state of mind with some rest.

Tip #2:
You may find it easier if you bring a calm, easy-loading horse with you to the loading area – a pasture-mate with the right attitude. Take the loading horse in and out of the trailer with ease. Sometimes your horse will load WITH the other horse already loaded.

Tip #3:
If the horse is particularly high strung or extremely anxious at the sight of the trailer, do some line-lunging work further away from it (find his comfort spot and move closer by a few feet) until you get the horse into a relaxed state of mind at that distance. Move closer to the trailer in baby steps. Wait until he is in a relaxed state again before you make the move closer each time.

Tip #4:
Be careful going into into the trailer as the horse goes in. In a large trailer, it may be necessary. However, it can be a dangerous place to be if he panics. That is one of the advantages of the line-lunging technique of loading. He self-loads without your body between him and the walls.

Tip #5:
It is better to have grain at the front of the trailer as a REWARD when he has accomplished the load than it is to use it as a BRIBE to entice him up the ramp and into the space. It rarely works as an enticement.

Clicker training? This is a good exercise for clicker training, shaping his load from approach – to touch – to step – to load.

Now we Unload.

This 9-day old baby is learning to load from the get-go. His Mom is being taken for a Foal-Heat Breeding, and he is learning from her how to load into the trailer.

The Best Trailer Loading in the World

Below is the best trailer-loading video in the world. Our horses should all be so good. Don’t be fooled. These horse have not been beat by the whip. No horse comes TO an instrument of torture. They have been rewarded by the sound of the whip – perhaps as in “clicker” training with the whip instead of the clicker? Russell Higgins is a Parelli instructor.

Horse training and equestrian activities in general can be dangerous. While we try to present relevant and valuable content, under no circumstances does or its members or contributors take any responsibility for the well-being of any horse or person using a method outlined here.

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