Step Into My Trailer, Please

A truly well-trained horse steps in and out of the trailer on request, no matter what the circumstances. One exercise teaches the horse to enter and exit one polite foot at a time

When we think about “perfect ground manners,” stepping into a trailer on cue rates right up there with the horse opening his mouth to accept a bit. The last place that we want to have a fight is at the trailer, especially if there’s a pressing need for him to step inside.

When we taught the horse to accept a bit (Perfect Horse, February 2006), the key to overcoming a bridling problem was to forget about the problem and break the bridling process into several steps. We didn’t bring out the bit until we had the prerequisites of positioning and handling his head down pat.

That’s the same approach we’ll take with trailer loading. Think of trailer loading problems as primarily leading problems, and it will all make sense.

People often go to great lengths to try to determine why their horses won’t go into a trailer. It may be that the horse is afraid of a small space, or the trailer is dark inside, or that it smells funny, or perhaps he has had a bad experience. In reality, we won’t ever know.

Sometimes you can help a horse over his reluctance by using a bigger, more open trailer. But the bottom line is this: If a horse doesn’t walk into the trailer on cue, he hasn’t learned to load on cue. You’ll want to practice it enough so that he can do it even in the dark. So we’ll break down the process and focus on teaching, or re-teaching, him the individual pieces.

Trailer Loading Tips

  • Practice the cues away from the trailer.
  • Establish the horse’s comfort zone on approach to the trailer.
  • Aim the horse’s nose into the trailer.
  • Use the “go forward” cue to tell the back feet to move forward. They will tell the front feet to move.
  • Load one foot, pet the horse, then unload that one foot.

Get Ready
Basically, to load a horse into a trailer, you point his nose in the trailer and give him a signal to “go forward.” It works just like that when he’s been trained. But getting to that stage requires working on a few aspects.

The most obvious is the go forward signal, both teaching it and practicing enough so the horse obeys, even when he’d rather not. The second is closing off the other options, so he realizes that stepping forward into a trailer is what we want him to do. Here’s where having practiced the various bridlework cues that we’ve taught in previous lessons in this series will really pay off.

Pretend that you’re sitting in the back seat of a car for the first time ever. Someone motions to you to do something, but you don’t understand what they want. You try to turn around in your seat, but that isn’t right. They wave at you, so you wave back. They get more intense, so you bounce up and down in the seat. Finally, they point to a strap behind your shoulder.

They want you to buckle your seat belt. But if you have never seen a seat belt, the last thing you’d think was to take the strap across your body and click it into a little plastic box by your opposite hip. And who would know that you have to push a little red button to release the strap?

That’s how it is with horses. Even if they’ve been in a trailer before, they sometimes can’t imagine that you want them to step up into that metal box. And they can’t imagine how they’d ever get out.

To compound the problem, when a horse finally does step forward onto a trailer or ramp, what often happens? Someone whacks him from behind. So he assumes that stepping onto the ramp was a no-no. The horse struggles with someone being upset with him and doing something that seems foreign. Then he’s faulted for being stubborn.

We’re going to change that picture. We’re going to practice the cues we’ll need before we get to the trailer. Then we’ll approach the trailer in a way that tells the horse we’re not about to overwhelm him. We’ll ask him to take a step forward, and we’ll show him that the options other than stepping into the trailer won’t work for him.

Here’s an important point, though: You don’t have to get the horse into the trailer in one lesson. He won’t have gotten away with anything if you stop the lesson at any time. Don’t declare war on him. He’s your partner, and you want to work on the various pieces of the lesson until he loads and unloads calmly and on command.

We begin by putting a snaffle bridle on the horse. That’s because you will have much better control with the bridle than a halter. You might find it easiest to remove the reins and clip a lead rope to the left side of the bit.

We put boots on the horse’s legs to protect them should he scrape himself on the trailer or accidentally knock one leg with the other. You’ll also need a stiff, dressage-type whip about 36 inches long. This is to tap the horse to signal him to move forward.

Step Forward, Please
Even if your horse normally walks forward with your voice or body language cues, you should teach him a physical go forward cue to reinforce the other cues. It will also give you a way to reward the horse instantly when he makes the slightest move in the correct direction.

Longtime readers know that to teach the go forward cue, we stand facing the horse’s left shoulder. Our left hand holds the lead rope a few inches below the horse’s chin to prevent him from turning to the left or right. Using a dressage whip in our right hand, we tap the top of the horse’s left hip, continuing the taps until he takes a step forward. Stopping the taps at the right time is the most important part of what you’re doing.

After teaching the cue from both the left and the right, take the horse into various situations and practice it. You’ll want to “load” him into his stall, for instance, or into a wash rack or onto a tarp.

With practice, the horse will respond when you merely point to his hip. But if he doesn’t step forward within two seconds, begin tapping. The moment he steps forward, stop tapping. After a few steps, use the lead rope to ask the horse to stop. Pet him.

Escape Options
When the horse gets to the trailer, and sometimes on the way to the trailer, the horse will do something other than stepping forward. We’re going to try to close off those options before we get to the trailer, where it’s more dangerous than out in the open. The most common options are:

  • Backing up
  • Raising his head, or perhaps rearing
  • Pulling away to the right
  • Swinging his hindquarters toward you
  • Pushing forward, crowding between you and the trailer

Option: Backing up.
Solution: Go with the horse, and continue using the go forward cue as the horse backs up. Don’t try to pull him forward. The moment he stops backing and leans forward as if he’s thinking of taking a forward step, stop tapping.

Option: Raising his head, or rearing.
Solution: Teach the horse the “head down” cue, so that you can ask the horse to drop his head. Though our goal is to have the horse drop his head, we do the “hips over” first in order to teach the horse the connection between rein pressure and the release of rein pressure.

The thumbnail version of the lesson is to put a snaffle bridle on the horse and ask him to walk forward. Pull the left rein toward his left hip until he takes a big step to his right with his left hind foot. (We call that the “hips over” movement, or “disengaging the hips.”) Immediately release the rein and pet the horse.

Ask the horse to move forward and again pick up the rein. When the horse turns his nose toward us, anticipating that we’re going to ask for the hips over movement, he’ll also drop his head slightly. Release the rein.

With practice he’ll learn that he can relieve tension on the rein by “giving” or “yielding” to that pressure. From then on, when the horse raises his head and pulls against the lead, he’ll feel the tension and release himself from it by dropping his head.

Rearing is extremely dangerous. If the horse rears as you’re leading him toward the trailer, don’t try to load him into the trailer until you’ve gotten good control with the head down cue.

Option: Pulling away to the right.
Solution: Horses frequently think they can avoid going forward or into the handler by pulling away. You’ll want to eliminate that sideways movement because after a few steps, the horse is likely to actually get away from you. Instead, move quickly toward his left hip, and pull the rein to ask for a hips over. Immediately ask him to go forward. Practice teaching the horse to “give to pressure,” drop his head on cue, and go forward.

Option: Swinging his hindquarters toward you.
Solution: If the horse aims his hindquarters toward you, pull the rein firmly toward his hip to get him to step to his right. Then tap his hip to tell him to go forward. Watch that you don’t get kicked.

The horse may also kick at the whip. Be sure you’re not tapping randomly or aggravating him with a million little taps. Tap firmly to signal the horse, and stop tapping the instant you sense that he’s about to step forward.

If the horse kicks out once or twice in frustration, just ignore it and concentrate on what you want him to do. Don’t allow his kicking to become your focus. If the horse tries to kick at you, move his hips away from you.

Option: Pushing forward, crowding into you.
Solution: This is dangerous out in the open, but will be even more so when you are at the trailer. Use the hips over to slow his forward movement. Control the horse’s nose, asking him to drop his head or to move his shoulder over.

Be sure you have very good control before bringing him to the trailer. Practice asking him to go forward, and then use the left rein to move his shoulders away from you. (Pull the rein toward his left shoulder. Release the rein when the shoulder seems to melt away from you and the horse’s step is slightly to the right rather than straight ahead or toward you.) When you ask him to stop, ask him to drop his head so he doesn’t throw his head up or charge into your space.

On Approach
Hook the trailer to your truck and drive to a level spot where you have plenty of area to work, such as inside an arena or pasture. Close the front and side doors, and open the roof vents to allow for air movement. Remove any feed because that will be a distraction from your cues.

Open the back doors, and stabilize the divider. If you have a slant-load trailer, clip the partition open so it doesn’t move around. With the trailer ready and preliminary training done, you’re ready to approach the trailer.

Begin away from the trailer and ask your horse to go forward toward the trailer. Pet him the moment that he steps forward.

As you approach the trailer, there will be a spot where he stops, perhaps 20 or 30 feet from the trailer. Allow him to stop, and pet him there. That’s the outside edge of his comfort zone right now. He’s done everything right, and by allowing him to stand, you’re telling him that he’s safe there. If things get too stressful up at the trailer, this is the place you’ll come to practice your cues.

When you feel that you have a 90% chance of success, ask him to walk forward. He’ll likely go a few steps and stop again. That’s okay. His comfort zone has stretched, and that’s a good thing. Again let him stand there and relax.

When you feel that you have a 90% chance of having him walk forward, ask him to step forward again. Use that process all the way up to the trailer.

Along the way, the horse may show the beginning signs of one of the evasions discussed earlier. Don’t get mad at him. Use one of the solutions to show him that isn’t the option you want, and continue with the lesson. Just take each movement, one at a time. If he makes a small move, for instance, to pull away to the right, realize that he’s likely to make a larger move of the same type at the trailer.

Ready to Load
Walk the horse up to the trailer or the ramp, and point his nose into the trailer. Your left hand will keep the nose pointed into the trailer, but don’t use it to try to pull the horse into the trailer. The horse’s back end will tell his front end to step forward.

Allow the horse to stand with his nose facing into the trailer and pet him, just as you did when he was 30 feet from the trailer. You want the horse’s head at a relaxed level, somewhere about the height of his withers. If it’s higher than that, chances are that he’s thinking backward, rather than about going forward. Ask him to drop his head and pet him.

When you feel there’s a 90% chance the horse will step forward when you ask him, use the go forward cue. All you want is one step, and chances are that it will be a forward step with one hind foot.

After one step (or two steps if he volunteers the second one), ask the horse to stop. Pet him and allow him to stand.

After a few moments, pick up the lead rope and pull it lightly toward the horse’s chest to ask him to step back. Release the rope the moment he leans back and pet him when he makes the step.

When you think he’s ready, ask him to step forward. Again, you want just one step. Do not allow the horse to walk into the trailer.

The horse may not take a step toward the trailer. He may drop his head or perhaps paw the trailer. That’s fine. Give him time to check the trailer out. Some horses paw the ramp or floorboard several times before they even think of stepping on it. Those are good, forward thoughts, and you’ll want to reward them.

If instead of stepping forward the horse tries to back up, go with him. Continue tapping his hip or, if need be, ask him to do a hips over so that he doesn’t back out of your control. Begin from where he stopped, asking him to approach the trailer again.

If he tries to push between you and the trailer and you can’t easily prevent that from happening, step back to let him pass. Don’t risk getting stepped on or having the horse hurt himself on the trailer.

Using the cues and timing you have taught him, you’ll eventually end up at the trailer door again, with the horse’s nose facing into the trailer. That’s good. Pet him there and begin again.

Have the horse step one foot onto the trailer, leave it there, and step it off on cue at least 25 times. When he can do that in a relaxed way, leaving his foot on the trailer until you ask him to step off, then you’re ready for the second front foot.

Ask him to step the first foot onto the trailer, and then ask him to go forward again. When he has two front feet on the trailer, pet him, allow him to stand, and then ask him to back off the trailer.

Do that at least 25 times. You may have to do it 200 times, varying the amount of time the horse stands in the trailer, until he’ll wait for your signal to back off. You are teaching the horse to be patient in the trailer and to back off calmly, so don’t rush through this step.

Three Feet On
When you feel that the horse is ready, ask him to step his two front feet into the trailer, then ask him to go forward again. Stop tapping the moment that a hind foot moves forward. It may take lots of little steps before the horse is ready to put a third foot in the trailer.

Control each step and do not allow the horse to step fully into the trailer. It’s important to go through this three-feet-on step because this is the time that the horse learns how to step down as he’s backing off.

Ask the horse to step forward until he raises one hind foot and rests it on the trailer floor. If he tries to back off, raise your whip and ask him to step forward again. Allow him to stand for just a moment and ask him to back. When he seems confident about this step, you can allow him to bring all four feet into the trailer. Don’t let him rush forward to the front.

Stepping down is the scariest part for the horse because he doesn’t know where the ground is. Allow him to take his time. He may try to step down and then step up again. Just pet him and guide him. Ask him to back off the trailer a moment before he tries it on his own. That way he’ll learn to wait for your signal.

Finishing Touches
Now it’s a matter of practice to get the horse comfortable getting in and out of the trailer, waiting patiently in there, and becoming familiar with all the trailer noises. Practice loading and unloading. Sometimes ask for one foot, sometimes for three or four. Mix it up so the horse learns to be confident with your signals.

Do not tie the horse in the trailer. Begin to move around, swinging the doors, opening the windows, dropping the butt bar against the wall, and so forth. If the horse comes rushing out, don’t make a big deal about it. Instead, immediately ask him to step into the trailer again. Then raise the lead rope to ask him to come out before he tries it on his own.

After he’s comfortable getting into the trailer, staying there, and coming out on cue, then it’s time to think about closing him in. Prior to then, you should have made plenty of noise, rocked the trailer side to side, and opened and closed the doors frequently, though without fastening them closed.

Once the doors are closed, you can tie the horse’s head, though only if he’s been taught to give to pressure. As a little test, ask yourself if there’s any chance he might pull back if he were tied outside of the trailer and got startled. If the answer is yes, don’t tie him inside the trailer. If you do tie him, remember to untie him before you open the back doors.

When the horse has been in and out of the trailer about 200 times and is standing quietly inside the trailer with the doors closed, you’re ready for his first ride. Fire up the truck and ease forward about 20 feet. Stop the truck and turn it off. You’ve just finished your first haul.

Assuming the horse is standing quietly, leave him alone for a minute or two before untying him and then opening the back doors. Pet him and tell him what a great future awaits down the road-and pat yourself on the back for a job well done.

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