We’ve all been there; we’re meeting our friends at the park or the show, we’ve got to be there fifteen minutes ago and this *!-* horse just won’t get in the trailer.
If you ever want to strike up a conversation at the barn or you just feel like listening to advice from several people at once, just start trying to load the horse that won’t load into your trailer. Guaranteed you’ll hear it all; “Just keep backing him up further and further each time he refuses to get in”, or “Put a butt rope around him and pull him in!”; how about “Let’s grip hands behind his rump and push him in!”, or ,”Put the lead rope through the front door and pull him in”. Sometimes these suggestions may actually get the horse into the trailer, but then again, most times they won’t, and using any of them could get either you or your horse seriously hurt. Horses that are being pushed or pulled where they really don’t want to go tend to resist by pulling back, rearing up, or just running through the handler. The horse risks cutting his legs or banging his head, either of which could require the services of the vet. You’ll then have to wait around for the vet to arrive, doctor your horse, and probably give him time off to heal. You’ve now wasted all this time and spent whatever on vet fees, and guess what”¦ your horse still doesn’t know how to load. He may even be more afraid now that the trailer has actually hurt him. The handler also risks getting struck if the horse rears, trampled if the horse tries to run through him or her, or pulled across the lawn (or highway) if the horse runs away from you. None of these scenarios are desirable.
As an alternative, let’s think about actually teaching our horse to load and, while we’re at it, to unload.
We’re going to assume here that your horse has been taught not to pull back when tied and to respect the pull of the lead rope. If your horse hasn’t been taught this lesson forget about the trailer for now and teach it. We’re also going to assume your horse trusts you enough to allow you to touch any part of his body. Again if he doesn’t, practice this first before even thinking about loading him in the trailer.
We’re now ready to start the trailer loading lesson. Take your horse to a safe, comfortable place in a corral or arena (level ground, good footing, fenced in area) wearing his halter and a 10′ to 12′ cotton lead rope attached to it. Bring a dressage whip with you. Stand on the left side of your horse along his neck holding the lead rope in your left hand right by the buckle (you can drape the rest around his neck). With your right hand, begin tapping with the dressage whip on the horse’s left side at the point of the hip. Encourage him to go forward by pushing your left hand (while holding the lead rope) in the direction you want him to go. As soon as he moves forward, stop pushing with your left hand and stop tapping with the whip. Let him go forward a few steps and then teach him to stop by taking all the slack out of the lead rope. As he gets better at recognizing what you want, start gradually moving your left hand further and further from the buckle until you can hold it roughly five feet away. Now try to transfer the “tapping” cue from the dressage whip to the other end of the lead rope ““ just twirl the end of the lead rope while looking and focusing on the point of the horse’s hip. Continue practicing until you can point your left hand in the direction you want him to go, twirl the end piece of the lead rope with your right hand at the hip, and he’ll move forward every time.
Now continue your preparation work. Using the same cues, ask him to walk forward over a ground pole, and then graduate to sending him over a tarp, then a small one foot jump. Practice asking him to go between you and a fence (start with a distance of 6 or 7 feet and work down to a 3 foot space between you and the fence). Try placing two barrels about 3 feet apart (again start at 6 or 7 feet and work down) and ask him to go through that space. When he’s comfortable with all this, we will be ready to finally approach the trailer. Open all the doors and windows and push the divider completely to one side.
With your left hand holding the buckle end of the lead, drape the other end over his neck and point his nose forward into the trailer. With your right hand start tapping on the point of the hip with your dressage whip. Reward any forward motion with a release of all cues and a generous rub. Soon he’ll put a foot or two into the trailer. When he does, pet him and let him stand there for a few seconds, but then ask him to back out (use a little pressure on the lead rope, but release it on each step backward). You’re working here on teaching the horse to back out slowly and calmly.
Now ask him to go in again with two or three feet or even all four; again let him stand quietly for a few seconds and then ask him to back out. Eventually, you can again transfer your hip cue from the whip to just the lead rope. Walk up to the back of the trailer, point his nose in and ask the hip to move forward. He should start to walk on and off more easily. Start moving the divider gradually toward the middle, put butt bars up and down, open and close windows and doors etc.
If you don’t feel safe or comfortable teaching this lesson yourself, get help from a professional. Once he’s comfortable with the trailer you can move on down the road with confidence.
©Two as One, LLC 8/07