It’s not uncommon for women to arrive at one of my courses with their husband driving the horse trailer, unloading the horse for them, then returning after the clinic to load up and drive back home.
This is in no way a criticism, but rather an invitation for anyone – men and women alike – to gain more knowledge and experience in this area of horsemanship. The benefit is not being dependent on anyone else for the well being of you and your horse.
Take the role of leadership
Horses are prey animals, so it’s easy to see why they would naturally want to avoid entering a small, noisy space that moves. This resistance is based on their instinct to survive. There is only one approach I know of that redirects a horse’s attention from this survival mentality and allows him to consider and respond to my request to enter the trailer – establishing my position as leader. That’s because another strong equine survival instinct is to follow the leader of the herd – into moving water, over obstacles, through canyons, and yes, even into a horse trailer.
Can a horse be forced to go into a trailer? Absolutely, and we’ve all seen it! We also know the feeling of being forced to do something we’d rather not, and responding with resentful compliance while looking for ways to avoid the situation in the future. Sounds just like a horse, doesn’t it?
Instead, I like the “Tom Sawyer” approach that applies psychology-based communication to actually change the horse’s mind about going into the trailer. By using this method, your horse’s response improves every time you load.
Use clear communication
One quality of an effective leader is great communication. We all know it’s much easier to get your point across when we’re using the same language. What does that mean for a horse?
By observing how horses communicate with each other, the answers naturally emerge. The lead horse uses body language to say “move it” to another horse. This suggestion is given very subtly from a long way off. When the message is not noticed or heeded, the intensity increases and can ultimately lead to a nip or kick from the lead horse.
Hint: Being as effective as another horse does not mean we act with aggression or anger.
Steps to safe loading
First, use tools designed for communication. Rope halters have a different feel than web halters, but all rope halters are not created equal. Don’t put you or your horse at a disadvantage by using inexpensive tools not designed for communication.
Second, stay outside the trailer during the teaching process. There is nothing wrong with being able to walk a horse into a trailer, but I wouldn’t recommend being inside during the learning stages. Too many things can happen when a horse lacks confidence in the trailer, leaving you very vulnerable in a confined area.
People often ask where your correct position should be for trailer loading. The real answer is that it depends on how much communication you have with your horse. I load my horse from outside the trailer, by walking into it, sitting on the fender or the roof, or even by riding my horse inside. But when establishing the leadership position to help the horse gain more confidence and trust, stand outside and send the horse in past you.
She’s stuck – now what?
When the horse stalls out (stops forward movement into the trailer), allow her to stand as long as she appears to be thinking about moving into the trailer.
Next, back her out of the trailer without moving even one step from your position. Use rhythmic pressure with a training stick towards the chest or tap the lead rope until the horse is at a distance where you can reach down the rope with a firm feel to invite forward motion. This is not abrupt, sudden or demanding, just firm direction.
If the horse doesn’t move forward from this feel, resist the urge to get into a pulling contest. I’ll bet ten bucks on the horse any time! Instead, use the little string on the end of the training stick to deliver what I call a “Mama’s bite” just behind the drive line right at the shoulder. Keep from moving towards her hindquarters. It takes you out of your safe location next to the trailer, putting you in a vulnerable position. When the horse gets “stuck” deliver just a little “nip” with an immediate release, even if then she goes backwards.
Start again, politely reaching down the line to give your horse a direction to follow, eventually holding with firmness, then add rhythmic pressure with your teaching stick until the horse learns she can avoid the “Mama’s bite” by following your feel.
Hint: Hold this thought in your mind: “I am loading the nose of the horse into the trailer.” This keeps you in the proper position with steady pressure on the lead and rhythmic pressure at the shoulder.
There are many other strategies to effectively trailer loading a horse. These include circling outside the trailer and making the interior the resting place; and “squeezing” the horse between you and the trailer until he becomes desensitized to confined spaces. With a resistant horse, however, these two patterns can work against you in the final stages of loading if he continues to circle, or dangerously attempts to shoot between you and the trailer!