Q: I consider myself a fairly competent horse owner, but I was recently in what seemed a helpless situation. After trail riding with friends, I was slow getting my things packed and wound up loading my horse on my own. It was a nightmare! He wouldn’t budge. Every time I pulled him toward the ramp, he planted his legs and threw up his head, then ran backwards.
I’ve owned Indy for just a few months, and this was the first time I’d trailered solo. (With another horse, he’s always loaded without hesitation.) After coaxing and cajoling to no effect, I had to call for help. In a situation such as this, is there anything I can do—without outside assistance—to get my horse into the trailer?
Rebecca Hanlon, Georgia
A: Rebecca, don’t be too hard on yourself. Loading a trailer-resistant horse can be challenging with the help of several people—much less alone. You were wise to seek assistance. In the future, I suggest you ask a friend to wait for you while you load in case you need assistance, but it’s also important that you can do it by yourself. Not only will this provide you with independence and assurance in the event of an emergency, it’ll also boost your confidence in your relationship with your horse.
In my experience, trailer loading can be more challenging for women than for men. We women often focus on our friendships with our horses, and as a result are sometimes less assertive with them than our male counterparts are. And while of course we want a meaningful relationship with our equine companions, we must maintain that much-needed authority over them. We are, after all, their leaders.
Here, I’m going to explain why your horse may be balking, then teach you how to safely load him by yourself, using patience and coaxing, or the added encouragement of a butt rope fashioned from a longe line. (This is why you should always keep a spare longe line stashed in your trailer.)
I developed these techniques specifically with women in mind, but they work just as well for men.
Now, keep in mind that what I’m about to teach you isn’t intended to be a long-term, thorough fix for a chronic trailer-resister. For that, you’ll need to set aside time to work through your horse’s fears or behavioral issues at a gradual pace. This is, however, a safe, effective, and relatively quick way to get a horse in a trailer when you’re by yourself and need to get moving.
Why Won’t He Load?
Walking into the confines of a trailer is unnatural (and often frightening) for any horse, given that he’s a prey animal whose natural instinct is to flee from any perceived danger. When you or a group of people “gang up” on him, trying to force him into what may seem to him like to a trap, the situation is only made worse.
You also mentioned you haven’t owned Indy for long, so another possible reason for his resistance could be an unsettling trailer experience in his past. Memories of an accident that caused him injury or fear could still be visceral to him.
And finally, you could be contributing to the problem. If your horse is naturally a timid loader and you’re aggressively pulling on his head with the lead in an attempt to get him into the trailer, you’re making things worse. The more you pull on him, the easier you’re making it for him to pull against you, and the more he’s going to refuse to budge.
Now that you understand why your horse may be declining his ride home, here’s how to safely get him in that trailer—without having to call for backup.
Help Him Focus
First, position your trailer so its back end is within 10 to 15 feet of a wall, fence, or other solid barrier. This blockade will prevent your horse from running backward to avoid the trailer. He can still wiggle side-to-side, but he won’t have a vast, open area behind him in which to flee.
Open all windows and escape doors, securing the escape doors if need be so they stay open. The more light, air, and “openness” you can provide, the more inviting the trailer will be to your horse.
Set or hang a flake or two of hay at your horse’s eye level in the front area of the trailer, so he’ll have something to occupy him as soon as he’s in. Next, lower your trailer’s ramp and/or open all back doors. (I personally prefer ramps to step-up trailers, as they reduce a horse’s chances of hitting and bruising a cannon bone on loading and unloading. If you have a rubber mat on the ramp, it can be slippery when wet; if need be, spread shavings on the ramp or use two house doormats to improve your horse’s “purchase.”)
Next, with your horse in a correctly fitted halter and a long lead, position him in back of the trailer, aligned straight with it. That way, he can see clearly where he’s going, which will give him greater confidence. If you try to pull him on board from an angle, he’ll be forced to step awkwardly onto the side of the ramp (which can be dangerous). Plus, he won’t be able to see where you’re leading him.
If he moves out of alignment, straighten him before proceeding. For example, if he drifts toward you, hold the halter and/or lead rope with your left hand and extend your right arm out, parallel with his side, to urge him to step over. If he doesn’t respond to your arm just “being there,” tap his side with your hand, slightly closer to his flank. (Be cautious, though, and never unexpectedly slap or hit him in the flank area. This spot is extremely sensitive, and even a mild tap could trigger a kick.) Be aware of his body language at all times to stay safe.
If he willingly moves into alignment, praise him with a pat and a verbal “good boy.” If he doesn’t respond, apply pressure by tapping his side with an in-hand whip.
If his back end is wandering away from you, move to his other side and repeat the above steps—you’ll be holding the halter and/or lead with your right hand, using your left arm to reposition his body.
Be patient. Once he’s straight, calmly position yourself so you’re standing on the ramp facing him. Maintain a relaxed-but-confident body posture as you stroke his forehand to reassure him.
Next, gently, but in an authoritative manner, encourage him to walk forward with a cluck, kiss, or another soft verbal cue as you slowly walk backward. As you urge him forward, do NOT pull on him with the lead rope, which will only instigate a tug-of-war. Instead, be patient and give him ample time to decide to walk in on his own. Allow him to look at or smell the ramp if he wants to. Once he appears at ease, keep him straight while asking him to walk up the ramp.
A caveat: Don’t turn your back on your horse while attempting to lead him into the trailer—as if you might if moseying around the barn with him trailing behind you on the lead rope. This is dangerous for you both, because you can’t observe his behavior and therefore won’t notice warning signs of a spook or a leap forward.
If, instead of stepping forward he tries to move backward, the barrier behind him will say “uh-uh.” Once he realizes that option is out, he may try to avoid the trailer by moving to the side of the ramp. Calmly straighten him again, and he’ll likely relent and decide to walk in. The less stress he senses from you, the more “OK” he’s going to feel about going in.
Remember, your goal is to get him in the trailer and get on the road, so don’t start a fight. Be calm but persistent, speaking to him with a quiet, even tone. Often boredom will work in your favor, eventually prompting him to drop his head, relax his back and neck muscles, and walk on in.
If you’ve given him lots of time, he still won’t budge, and you need to get going, it’s time to…
Move To Plan B
Using a flat, cotton longe line with hand holds and a snap (easier for women’s smaller hands), create a large loop at one end by pulling the snap end through the hand-hold. Then drape the loop gently over your horse’s hindquarters, so the end of it falls above his hocks, near his gaskins. The loop must be positioned in this vicinity for your horse to feel pressure from behind when you apply it (more on this in a moment). If it falls below his hocks, he might kick and get tangled in it; if it slips above the middle point of his rump, it’ll slip over his hip and be useless.
Next, run the snap end of the line through the bottom part of the noseband of his halter. Positioning yourself as before, exert a gradual but firm pull on the line, which will exert steady pressure on your horse’s hindquarters.
Once more, keep his head straight, be patient, and encourage him with your voice. As soon as he takes even the tiniest step forward, release the pressure instantly and praise him, then try again for another step.
Don’t worry too much if he appears sensitive to the line around his hind end. The “encouragement” at his back end will provide the little “extra” you need to coax him inside. (Horses usually won’t resist this pressure for very long.)
Once he’s in, give him a pat, make sure he can reach his hay, and secure the breast bar (if you have one), then slowly draw the longe line back through his halter and place it on the floor, away from where he might step on it. (If you got him in with the lead rope only, leave it attached to his halter but place it on the floor, away from his front feet, or in the manger.)
At this point, don’t tie him in the trailer. (If he were to decide to back out before you get the back of the trailer closed, being tied could cause a major panic.) Leave the front windows open, so he can see his surroundings and get fresh air. (If the escape doors are separate from the windows, you can close them.)
Stay with him for a moment, talking reassuringly, until you sense he’s ready to stand quietly without you, then calmly return to the back of your trailer. Secure the butt bar; gently lift the loop from your horse’s hindquarters, so it’s just resting on his back; then go to the front and retrieve the line. Now, you can tie him. (Make sure you don’t tie him too short or high, especially if you’re traveling a long distance. He should be able to hold his head and neck in a natural position.)
Then, heave a big sigh of relief and pat yourself on the back—you did it! Also make a mental note to provide additional trailer training with expert guidance, working at home when you have endless amounts of time to get the job done.
But for now, at least you know that in those sticky situations, you can load up on your own.