Problems with Horse Trailer Loading / Unloading
A trip to any show or large animal hospital will quickly reveal this problem, the horse that does not want to load onto the trailer. Some owners/trainers will try to sweet talk the horse on while others will offer food bribes. There will also be those who try to strong arm the horse on, slapping his rump, waving or even hitting him with a broom. Neither strategy really addresses the problem.
At worst, the horse that won’t load is potentially dangerous to all those about him as well as himself, at best his intransigence leads to frustration and wastes time. If an emergency arises, such as a fire or natural disaster, a horse that won’t load instantly and unquestioningly into any kind of trailer will inevitably be left behind. While going into an enclosed space is contrary to generations of instinctive behavior, which has taught a prey species not to enter an area from which there is no obvious route of escape and in the dark corners of which might lurk potential predators, almost any horse can be taught to load swiftly and efficiently given a little time and patience in the training.
Solving Trailer Loading Problems
In general horses that don’t load well, also are not well mannered when led in hand. Before you start worrying about the trailer make sure your horse leads politely without forging ahead, lagging behind, barging into you, spooking, stopping to graze or check out other horses or points of interest. He needs to go forward so his shoulder is beside yours; he walks when you walk, turns when you turn and stops when you stop. He will also back-up on command.
There are many methods you can use to improve your horse’s groundwork. Horse clicker training is an enjoyable way to improve your horse’s responsiveness both on the ground and in the saddle.
It may be useful to carry a dressage whip when working in hand. This is not to beat the horse, but to add stress to your commands. If he doesn’t come forward when asked you can tap on the point of his croup until he steps forward on command, stop tapping as soon as he lifts his foot, but resume if he stops before you tell him to. If he forges ahead closing the whip across his chest in a fluid motion should make him reconsider.
If your horse’s manners are very bad, having two handlers, one on either side, each with a lead rope, can help channel him and produce the desired behavior.
Ultimately though, whatever method you have used until now, your horse will follow wherever you lead, at this point you can begin to add distractions. These can include walking between ground poles, stepping onto tarpaulins, and finally entering enclosed spaces. These can include open frames, chutes, or even stalls. Make sure he will proceed willingly even with distractions such as people milling about, dogs running around, bags flapping etc. Remember you will want him to load calmly no matter what excitement is going on around him, especially at show sites.
You are now ready to bring your horse towards the trailer. The actual type of trailer is not very important, ultimately you will expect him to enter any kind, but if you can move the central divider of a two horse initially, or have a choice between a bright, airy open trailer versus a small dark one, the former will make early lessons easier for most horses. If he has had past fights loading expect him to become tense and agitated when he sees it. Resist the urge to pet and reassure him. This will only convince him that his fears are justified. Instead talk to him in a matter-of-fact voice, and work on some of your earlier handling exercises. For example you could practise walking in a 10-meter circle. Reward (click and treat or praise) his compliance. As he relaxes you can gradually work towards the trailer. Some horses may be able to approach the trailer very rapidly but then balk at the entrance, others will need to gradually approach and overcome their fears. Go at a pace that is comfortable for your horse. Always end a training session at a place where your horse can be successful, even if it’s only a few feet closer to the trailer than where you started.
Once the horse will approach the trailer, walk him around it, let him sniff it and explore it. (You can reward this interest, but try and keep relaxed yourself. Talking about the weather or some other mundane topic, singing or humming may help to keep you both relaxed. Once the horse is comfortable with the outside of the trailer take him back to the entrance – be it a ramp or a step up. Further encourage his curiosity, let him stretch his neck inside and explore. He may even take a step up. Calmly reward him is he does. If he doesn’t give him the cue you have been working on to go forward. If he won’t, resume the hip tapping to get his feet moving. Reward him and/or stop tapping as soon as one foot goes on. At this point some horses may happily load themselves. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, except you may then have a problem with unloading him. It may be simpler after getting one foot on if you tell him to stop, and then ask him to back up. Once he is happily loading and unloading one foot, you can proceed to load and unload two, then three and finally all four. For the step up he will now be in the trailer, if there’s a ramp you can walk him forward and back on this until he is in the trailer. Do not immediately rush to tie him and close the rump bar. Practise standing quietly, then unload and repeat several times before adding these steps, then talk to him quietly while the ramp or back of the trailer is closed.
Once he is loading happily you will want to try and practise with as many different styles of trailer as you can find – show sites may be a good place for this, it might even evolve into a game. You should also try and load him when it is dark out, in rain and high winds or other unpleasant types of weather, just in case there comes a time when he will need loading fast in far from ideal circumstances.
By Linda Aronson, DVM, MA