Without a doubt, trailer-loading issues commonly try the patience of many horse owners. These are the scenarios: You’re ready to load up and head off with friends to enjoy a great trail ride on a beautiful day, but your horse balks. Or you’ve had a successful day competing at an open show in the arena across town, but now your horse refuses to get back in the trailer. Or the clinician you’ve been dying to work with is finally coming to your area, but you can’t get your horse to load despite weeks of trying.
We’ve all experienced loading woes at some point in our own horsekeeping lives. Trailer-loading problems are best addressed right when they happen, so your horse doesn’t develop the habit of refusing to load. With some help from these three expert trainers-Sue Truitt, Kathy Huggins, and Leslie Desmond-you can nip these problems in the bud.
Question: What are the two most common issues you see from the handler when someone is having problems loading their horse in a trailer?
Sue Truitt: A common issue is that the energy level of the handler elevates due to frustration, which in turn elevates the energy level of the horse.
Along with that, I see the handler using too much force. Often the handler puts himself in a dangerous position by using his bodily force to move the 1,000 pound animal (get real…not a good match) or hitting the horse, venting his frustration, hoping to teach the horse a lesson in submissiveness.
Kathy Huggins: The first is the handler trying to rush the horse into doing something he has never been taught to do. The horse may be afraid, willful, untrained, or absolutely terrified from a prior trailering experience. The handler will often try to overcome the horse’s objections with either force or coaxing, neither of which works very well. Whenever there are several people trying to “help,” it’s not a good sign.
Another issue is if the handler is trying to teach the horse to load using John Lyons’ method, that is, by guiding the nose toward the center of the trailer and getting the horse to step forward by tapping on his hip, sometimes the horse will put his front feet in the trailer and “get stuck.” At this point, the horse may think he’s only supposed to put his front feet in the trailer. So the next “mini lesson” is to teach him that he must go forward even though he is already part way in the trailer. He may back out instead, so the handler must move with the horse and keep tapping that hip persistently, until the horse takes one step forward. Immediately stop the tapping as a reward. If the person stops tapping and tries to pull the horse forward when the horse backs up, the horse gets confused and doesn’t recognize that the handler wants him to go forward into the trailer.
Leslie Desmond: The main issue I see is a lack of understanding of the horse’s point of view. The horse might wonder, “Why are you upset with me, and why is someone hitting me when I do not understand what I should do?”
Another situation occurs when, after a cautious horse has put a foot on the ramp, many people attempt to finish the job for him. This brings on a lot of anxiety for a willing horse. If he has the time to explore-and by this I mean to place or re-place his feet in and out, in and out, a few times in a few different ways (left front foot first, then the right, for example)-then he is on his own, moving toward your goal of gaining the sureness he needs to load himself safely into the trailer.
Question: What are the biggest dangers to horse and handler when loading in a trailer?
Sue: When the energy level of the handler and horse rises, a tense fight often follows. The horse’s quick moves and the handler’s lack of awareness of his position can cause either or both to get hurt. Pulling on the lead can result in the horse rearing or throwing his head, causing the horse to hit his head on the threshold.
Another big danger has to do with tying. It is of utmost importance that you do not tie the horse in the trailer before the butt bar is in place and the back end of the trailer is closed, and in turn, that the horse is untied before opening the back end of the trailer to unload.
Kathy: One danger is that the horse will crowd to the left and run over, knock down, or crush the handler against the driver’s side wall as he goes in the trailer. Of course, things can happen outside the trailer, too. At least outside, the handler has more room to step out of the way. Handlers also have to watch where their feet are as the horse can easily step on them as he dances around.
One of the biggest dangers to the horse that I’ve seen is when the handler tries to pull the horse forward into the trailer, which can cause the horse to rear. The horse can hit his head on the roof of the trailer and get a nasty cut or worse. One advantage of using John Lyons’ method is that the horse goes forward because of the tap on his hip, not a pull on the halter, eliminating these kinds of accidents.
Another danger is when the horse does finally get on the trailer, usually after use of force and while he is still afraid, then people quickly shut the door. The horse panics inside the trailer and ends up upside down and/or all cut up. It’s really okay for the horse to back out of the trailer. He’s not “getting away” with anything. He needs to know he won’t be trapped.
Leslie: I observe trouble more often with unloading than with loading. A horse that kicks could present a threat if he were pressured in from behind, and a horse that crowds a person in the front of the trailer is also a concern, but the situations that can unfold when a horse unloads himself by rushing out backward are really risky. Horses that rush out are usually the same animals that are hurried in, so the sense of “hurry up” is still with them when you drop the door and release the butt bar.
Question: What would you suggest a handler do if he/she can’t get a horse to reload for the homeward trip?
Sue: Ride him home (only kidding), but if you live close by, that may be an option in a pinch. But when you are getting ready to go home, you usually don’t have time to teach the horse to load properly. So you might need to use a motivator, such as grain, to get him to load. If you need to use a motivator, it is a sure sign that you need to schedule time later to “teach” the horse to load properly.
Sometimes a horse will load in a different type of trailer-such as a stock trailer-if one is available. But, again, any refusal to load is a sign that more work is needed.
Kathy: Really, I can’t recall ever getting a call like this. When I teach someone’s horse to load, the owner gets to practice the cues and has the cues written down. (We humans forget things long before the horse does.) We work until the horse will load for the owner, anytime and anywhere.
The best solution if someone is caught in the situation where a horse won’t load to come home might be to call someone who is experienced in training a horse to load. That way, neither you nor the horse will be pressured to the point where the situation becomes more dangerous. Other than that, here are some temporary fixes that might prove helpful in such an instance.
• Take a break. Think it through in a quiet place away from the horse and other people. Resist the desperate urge to try anything anyone suggests.
• Keep things in perspective. It’s likely there won’t be a catastrophe if the horse doesn’t get on right now. Maybe you can ride or lead him somewhere safe for now until you can teach him to load.
• Give him time to think and reward even a small try on his part.
• Load a buddy horse first and see if your horse loads. If he does, leave the buddy in the trailer while you take your horse home. Unloading his buddy can cause your horse to panic in the trailer.
• Try another style of trailer, such as a stock trailer, or have a friend with a different trailer take him home. Again, be sure to teach him a cue to load before trailering him next time.
• Call a vet and mildly tranquilize the horse, just to get him home.
Leslie: Several adjustments can be made to encourage a timid horse to load up for the ride back. Sometimes it helps to load another horse first, and then the timid one feels more comfortable walking in alongside and standing next to a companion. People sometimes bring a pony along to a show for just this reason.
I also like to have a little something for them to eat waiting for them. A full and well-secured hay net, for example, or a handful of oats and a couple of carrots in a little pail. This should not be confused with bribing the horse up the ramp with a trail of grain or by waving handfuls of grass or hay at him.
Be ready to take whatever time it takes. Allow him to step up slowly, even if it takes 10 minutes for him to put one foot on the ramp. If he is not jerked or pulled forward after he decides-or dares-to put a foot on the ramp, or to step up into the confines of a narrow entrance to a straight-ahead or slant-load trailer, he will be much more inclined to put his other three feet on board in close succession.
Question: What are the two most successful tips for handlers to make trailer loading easier?
Sue: Spend whatever time it takes to teach the horse to trailer load confidently, and in a non-stress situation. It’s a step-by-step process. First, establish the basics of going forward and backing when asked. Work with the horse to build his confidence to load and unload in a willing and safe manner into the trailer, and without being led into the trailer. I find that each horse is different, and I set my plan accordingly. If you’re using one method and it seems the horse hits a wall (mentally), then try another approach.
After you have taught the horse to load properly, be consistent with how you’re loading him. I keep my energy down, do not bring out the crops, etc. (they are not needed now), keep a forward motion, and I use a consistent term of “load up.” I remember to praise the horse for doing what I asked.
Kathy: Teach your horse to load before you need him to, and practice more than you think you need to. Load many times in many different places, including the same circumstances you will have at a show, whether it’s with another horse in the trailer or alone, with chaos, etc.
I had been training horses for about 12 years before I heard about John Lyons and his methods. Since I learned John’s method, I haven’t needed to use any others. I’ve found it works on every horse and is far safer and more effective. It may take two to four hours more, depending on your consistency and the horse’s reasons for not wanting to load, but you can break up the training-it doesn’t have to be completed in a day. You can expect your horse to load reliably when you have loaded him calmly on the trailer about 50 to 100 times.
Second, when it’s time to load up to go somewhere, make a conscious decision that you have all the time in the world to load. The more pressed for time you are, the more important this is. The reason is that if you rush, you tend to be inconsistent, causing the horse to get tense. If you relax, breathe deeply and think carefully about your cues, the horse picks up on your consistency and loads consistently, as you have taught him.
Leslie: Advance preparation is perhaps the best way to make the job of loading up your horse go smoothly for all concerned. Practicing-without drilling-the basics of good horsemanship in your daily routines goes a long way toward preparing you and your horse to understand each other clearly when you’ve reached an impasse.
Ironically, the horses that I loaded into trailers of all types for clients were all lacking in one or more components of basic ground school education.
• Many horses get “stuck” and lock the front end up, taking shallow breaths, and seem unable to start moving easily.
• Others have the opposite trouble, and are no trouble at all to move, but it is a challenge to ask them to stop and stand quietly between requests to place their feet on the ramp and get in.
• The horse should be able to respond to a request to move his head and neck, shoulders, and/or hips to the left or right. Horses that have only been handled by right-handed people who station themselves at the left side of the body commonly get “stuck.”
• The ability to raise and lower the head and the base of the neck, and to lower the hips a bit for backing down a ramp or stepping off the end of the trailer, are two other features of a safe loader/unloader. When these basics are in place, a horse can back out slowly with his hips lowered while keeping the head low enough to clear the top of the trailer entrance. Smooth, safe, and simple!
So adequate preparation is the key. You simply cannot rehearse enough. As our three experts note, hundreds of repetitions in as many different settings as you can find is what it takes to make sure your horse is thoroughly compliant with all the steps to trailer loading. Above all else, remember that patience is a virtue in any trailer-loading situation!