Trailering horses can be a stressful event for both horse and owner. Many horses are never taught the skills they need to confidently load and unload from a trailer. For owners, a horse that won’t load can lead to a frustrating and dangerous situation for everyone involved. Through the years we have seen all kinds of trailer loading issues, from horses that rear, to horses that bolt backwards, to horses that do not want to go anywhere near the trailer. In this article we will address the simple skills and techniques we use for successful trailer loading.
Oftentimes, the most overlooked piece of trailering is unloading the horse. Unless you have an open style trailer that allows the horse to walk off forward, you need to be sure that your horse will be able back off before even attempting to load them. We find that setting up a narrow “chute” of sorts with jump standards and rails can act as a great practice spot before trying the actual trailer. Check to see if your horse will walk forward through the chute. Can you stop them in the middle? Can you back them a couple of steps? How about the entire length? The most important part is that your horse remains straight and doesn’t try to turn around or run into the sides of the chute. Once your horse can do this confidently then you can begin work with the actual trailer.
Every horse will start off trailer loading with a different level of comfort. A horse that hasn’t had any experience with a trailer may learn very quickly, whereas a horse that has had a negative experience might take longer to regain their confidence. Our primary focus is always keeping the horse straight and lined up with the trailer opening. They can stand quietly and relax so long as they are facing the trailer straight on. When the horse swings to one side or the other, we make it inconvenient by making them move their feet until they settle into the middle once again. In this way we have been able to load almost any horse. Remember that the horse’s rest spot comes only when they are lined up and facing the trailer. Horses learn very quickly with this type of clear pressure and release.
*The biggest mistake people tend to make when trailering is not doing it until they absolutely have to travel somewhere. Practice makes perfect, so expose your horse to the trailer as often as possible!
*With a really fearful horse you may only get them to stand facing the trailer the first day. Build on that gradually. Do not ask for more than they are ready for. It is all about confidence and trust.
*If you have a horse that will get on the trailer, but then likes to bolt out backwards… Have them load only part way and then YOU ask them to back off. Repeat this until they learn to settle in and wait for your cue before they move their feet.
*Ideally you should break trailer loading down into steps. For example, the first time a horse loads they shouldn’t get fully closed into the trailer, and then driven somewhere. Again, this process is about building trust.
*Everything surrounding trailering needs to be slow and methodical with you in control of where your horse’s feet are. You don’t even need a trailer to practice hoof placement. Try using obstacles like ground poles, bridges, etc to mimic the same type of scenario.
*Remember safety first! Make sure the trailer is parked in a safe area and that the horse is never tied in the trailer or to the trailer unless wearing a breakaway halter.
Please Note: We use rope halters for training purposes, but never trailer in them and always have a knife on us in the case that we need to cut a rope in an emergency.