Trailer Loading 101

Trailer-loading problems are among those most fraught with tension and potential for injury. If a horse balks at entering, the assumption is that he is “stubborn” or “wants his way.” These simple assumptions trigger all sorts of mental “baggage” in the handler — none of it positive or helpful for the task at hand. If the handler pushes on an anxious horse, the results may be explosive.

The solution’ Trailer loading is a complicated subject, with no one correct way. But a significant attitude change on the part of the handler, coupled with a basic principle of horsemanship and a hefty dose of time and patience, can turn a tough-loading horse into a trailer lamb. We suggest this slow but sure two-part method, based upon the useful principle of “approach and retreat” that even an inexperienced horse handler can try.

Part One: Changing Attitudes
The first part of this plan is to convince the horse that the trailer is a good place to be. Start with yourself. Your attitude determines the success or failure of this method. Examine your assumptions. “Stubborn” is an unfortunate label to give a horse. Instead, give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, even if he is “stubborn,” you won’t make him worse.

In truth, since he loads reluctantly, if at all, there is anxiety present. Signs of fear include increased respiration, a tense expression, tight, rigid lips, shaking, sweating more than expected, a braced stance, an elevated head carriage, multiple bowel movements, and more visible white showing around the eye than is normally present.

Begin by parking your trailer in a safe, enclosed place such as a ring or paddock. Leave the rig hitched; block the trailer securely so it can’t roll.

Rule Number One: Don’t push on a “brace”
You may have seen someone exceptionally skilled in horsemanship get the horse to move despite his fear and then direct him with timing and feel. But for the average handler and horse, pushing against this fear will only create more fear, as well as increasing the horse’s view that the trailer is a dangerous place. Your job is to change that view.

Rule Number Two: Help your horse view the trailer as a great place for him to be
Set the horse up to succeed, rather than to fail. How’ Creatively break the loading process down into baby steps the horse can easily master, then reward those efforts. No punishment is involved. For now, you only focus on the positive. By doing this, you’ll also develop an increase in trust, partnership, and an improved general attitude on the horse’s part. Remember, this is not a five-minute fix. It’s a workable plan.

The plan involves food at first to help the horse overcome his aversion to the trailer, then phases the food out. Be clear on the food. It’s not a bribe, it’s a reward; this method is more a primer on how to create an eager attitude. The method will work without food, but food is used because your horse will certainly want it. Food increases your chances of success. Later, you can substitute other rewards: soft words, rubs, release of pressure. Your creativity can extend this principle to everything you do with a horse.

Food can be a powerful motivator, especially at feeding time. Let your horse watch the others being fed their grain, then take his ration out to the trailer in a bucket (apple pieces or carrot coins also work). Let the horse approach the trailer as far as he is comfortable, then let him stop where he first shows anxiety. You now know where his “comfort zone” is. It may be 10 feet away or it may be right up to the door. It doesn’t matter. Set the grain down in the “danger zone” where you can reach it but he’s unlikely to. You don’t want him grabbing for treats. He must be respectful. Lead him away.

Now approach again, close to the previous spot, but stop before he hits the edge of his comfort zone. You want to stop the horse’s feet before he stops them on his own. Offer him one small bite as a reward.

Now lead him back to the neutral zone. This is critical. You’ve just rewarded a positive effort (approaching the trailer) and are further rewarding it by releasing the mental pressure. Meanwhile, the horse is thinking about that grain back there.

Approach again to the same spot as last time, then ask for one more step. Be casual and encouraging. Tugging or pulling will only increase the horse’s defensiveness, not help him overcome it.

Accept any effort that shows the horse is trying — lowering the head to sniff the ground or ramp, pawing the floor (don’t correct this; it’s a way the horse gains confidence), even shifting the weight forward slightly. You are looking for the slightest sign to reward. When you see it, feed another small bite, then take the pressure off by leading him away again.

Repeat until his meal is gone, then put him away until the next session. As long as you quit work when the horse is quiet and comfortable, it doesn’t matter how close he got. He’ll think it was a success.

Rule Number Three: Set the horse up to succeed
If the horse rushes backward or refuses to try, do not punish him. You may have asked for too much too soon (see Rule Number One). You will never go wrong by taking it slow and staying safe. The goal is to change the horse’s attitude by setting him up to succeed (overcome his fear) not to fail (increase his fear). You do this by rewarding the positive attempts and ignoring, for now, all attempts to retreat. In fact, you allow the retreat. You’re letting the horse take pressure off himself. Remember, if you choose to do this at feeding time, you have a powerful motivator — the horse’s hunger.

Rule Number Four: Patience and planning
Obviously, start this project well in advance of when a horse needs to ride in the trailer. This factor takes the pressure off and increases your patience. Also, do not try this when you have a time deadline. You will only communicate your impatience to the horse. Take as long as the horse needs. Don’t let an artificial timetable set your progress back.

What if your horse hits a plateau and won’t advance’ It’s simple: do nothing. No treat. Let him “work” for his reward. At some point every horse will check his handler out on this, hoping you will just give in for no effort on his part. Stay calm and patient, encourage him by rattling the bucket, but be willing to accept the fact that you may be putting the horse away with a meal only half-eaten. Horses “dwell” on their experiences, and the next time usually shows a change in attitude. (However, remember your goal of setting the horse up to succeed.)

Repeat this process until the horse willingly “hunts up” the trailer. You can then start rewarding for one foot on the ramp or floor, two feet, etc. Back the horse out after each attempt, returning to the neutral zone. This teaches the horse to unload, takes the pressure off and is a further reward.

Be consistent and repetitive. Give him as much time as he needs. Remember, you substitute patience for force. In Part One, you are not trying to load the horse. Rather, you’re trying to change his mind about it. When he walks eagerly toward the trailer, you’ve accomplished the first goal.

Part Two: Loading
Ever see a fly move a horse’ It does so by being annoying, not dangerous. You can use this simple principle to load your horse at your request. You are going to build on the lack of fear you encouraged in Part One.

The success of Part Two depends on your level of skill, patience and timing. Can you absolutely keep your temper under wraps’ Keep frustration at bay’ Take a clear, honest look, and if you feel you will worsen the horse’s fear, seek patient, professional help. At the very least, your work from Part One will give the pro (and your horse) a maj or head start.

For this part, we’re going to start away from the trailer into a ring or paddock. You will use a long whip or flag or the tail of a rope, and by gently and repeatedly tapping on your horse’s rump, you ask him to come forward. You want to be encouraging, not create anger, more fear or a kick. Stay safe. The moment the horse leans forward or moves a foot, stop the tapping and rub his neck. Give the horse a moment to digest what just happened.

Think of it as a leading cue. Take the slack out of the lead rope and ask your horse to take a step forward normally (don’t pull). When he does, rub him. If he doesn’t, begin the soft tapping. Think of the fly, and don’t yield to the temptation to increase the strength of your taps. If you find yourself getting frustrated, quit for the day. Harsher taps will only create more of a brace.

If it took an hour and all you got was a step, you could quit right there, rub and praise your horse and put him away for the day. The next day, it’ll take a lot less time. The nice thing is you can quit anywhere, anytime you are making progress. You don’t have to “win.”

Next, practice “loading” him in and out of a gate or doorway. Here he has to lead up to you, then past you. Finally, add the trailer. Take him to the edge of his comfort zone, stop, rub, then tap to ask for one more step. Keep tapping lightly until you get some attempt, even a lean or a downward sniff — that shows he’s thinking about it. Stop tapping and rub. Lead him away — remember, this is critical — and repeat as in Part One.

Don’t be in a hurry to load him. It’s more important that he think about loading. And keep his nose pointed toward the trailer, not away from or toward you. Let him just touch that first foot in, then remove it immediately if he wants (if he doesn’t remove it, give him a while to stand there, then ask him to back out). Every time he tries, you stop the tapping and take him back away from the trailer. Remember, you are undoing former fearful experiences with patience and a fair, clear program. If there is still fear, you may have pushed too hard. Back up to a place where he was successful.

Eventually you can lead your horse to the edge, toss the rope over his neck and expect him to enter. Once he does, don’t tie him or shut him in for a good while. Instead, go in and rattle things carefully, exposing him to the sounds and activity of hauling. Let him see you crossing behind him or moving the butt bar. If he needs to back out, let him; you can’t hold him in anyway. Instead, just re-load him, right as he comes out. You are pleasantly and persistently annoying.

You want the horse to be content in his formerly fearful environment before closing him in. It’s fine to have a hay bag hanging up front. Be certain to close the rear before tying the horse — not too short as to restrict his balance or comfort, nor so long he gets the rope over his neck.

Bear in mind that with plenty of room to spread his feet, many shipping problems disappear. Avoid trailers with a center divider that is solid to the floor, which limits the area he can move his feet into. Although being sure the horse is comfortable once he’s in the trailer will finish the job, the biggest success factor in teaching your horse to load is the patient attitude of his handler.

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