Does your horse have difficulty getting in the trailer?
Updated: Aug 20, 2021
Teach your horse to walk right on by him/herself 😀
Lots of people and horses have problems when it comes to trailer loading. Quite often it’s a very upsetting experience for both horse and human. For the human it can be extremely frustrating and can cause us to be late or miss events; pay for trailering without the horse ever getting on; leaving the horse behind; and many other stressful situations. Sometimes extreme measures are taken to get the horse onto the trailer which can leave emotional scars for both the horse and the human.
Why do horses have issues with horse trailers? We have to go back to a fact which has been discussed in many blogs before this one: Horses are prey animals and they need to feel safe. In their mind, they could end up being a predator’s dinner.
For a horse to walk onto a trailer it requires the utmost trust as a trailer blocks three exits for the horse. This is similar to why some horses have problems at mounting blocks; a mounting block prevents one exit for the horse. Horses in the wild don’t live in closed spaces because they are trapped should a predator arrive. It’s extremely unnatural for a horse to be in an enclosed space.
Additionally, quite often horses have had traumatic experiences around trailers in their past. We have probably all seen it before where a horse resists getting on and the humans force the horse on possibly with ropes under their butts and other even more harrowing methods …. then, very quickly the humans shut the horse in before he/she can back out. Not only are these experiences distressing for the horse, but sometimes the horse gets hurt either getting on….or getting OFF!
How do we help the horse with this innate feeling and/or overcome past experiences with trailer loading? Luckily for us, horses are unbelievably forgiving creatures ❤️. If we can create relaxation for the horse in and near the trailer, then the horse will reconsider his/her judgement of the trailer and see it as the “happy place”.
You might be saying now: there’s no way my horse will EVER think of the trailer as a “happy place”. Well, you’d be surprised 😊 And, by the way, it’s not done using treats as bribes.
Those who regularly read my blog will remember that horses’ first priority is safety, but secondly it’s the feeling of relaxation or contentment. If we can create that feeling when they’re near the trailer, the horse will almost want to step in….and as some of my clients have discovered, their horse enjoys the comfort so much, sometimes he/she doesn’t really want to come out.
To understand that feeling of contentment, the best comparison I can come up with pertains probably mostly to women. I’m not sure if men have experienced this or not. Have you ever had your hair brushed by a friend or someone when you were young? Can you remember or feel that sense of well being? Another scenario might be if you’ve ever had a massage…this one men can probably relate to 😊. Remember too that the only way we can get to that feeling is if we’re feeling safe …. and not feeling stressed. These are the most relatable feelings that I can come up with to imagine what a horse feels. If you can come up with others one, PLEASE include them in the comments section below.
Next, we need to have clear, consistent COMMUNICATION that makes sense to the horse. Clear communication involves using clear body/facial language, eye contact, clear and appropriate energy for each step along the way; predictable and consistent escalation; and possibly distinct vocal cues. It is best to perfect your communication away from the trailer. Become really adept at your body and facial language as well as escalation way before you ever go near the trailer.
The other component to trailer loading is TRUST. If you aren’t the person that the horse feels he/she can be safe with, the horse can’t see you as the leader. Regular readers of my blog will remember that mutual respect leads to trust.
Once you have developed the trust and communication components, then it’s time to introduce the trailer. Allow the horse to get close and check it out. DON’T PUSH FURTHER when the horse is willingly inspecting the trailer’s ramp, step up, or entrance. Allow your horse to just put his/her head and neck in. If the horse puts a hoof on…DON’T PUSH. Your horse may also stomp his leg/hoof on the trailer or ramp; that’s ok too….your horse is just checking it out. Your horse needs to feel from you that’s it’s not “all about you” and that you’re not going to PUSH when your horse is really “TRYING”. You’re going to emotionally “thank” your horse with each bona fide try.
If the horse wants to back out, initially you can let him/her do that. Your horse needs to (1) feel comfortable backing off safely and (2): for the moment, your horse needs to operate within his/her comfort zone and/or thresholds.
Each time your horse gets near the trailer and TRIES, make sure to spend tons of dwell time and keep a very relaxed energy within yourself. Let your horse know that he/she is doing a fantastic job; remember when your horse tries, he/she is pushing themselves slightly beyond their own comfort zone. The dwell time is the reward and the time where your horse should feel comfortable or content and begin to not only associate that good feeling with you, but also with the trailer.
Once your horse gets on the trailer, DO NOT CLOSE HIM/HER IN! Allow your horse to experience tons and tons of dwell time. If your horse wants to back off the trailer, initially let your horse do that. If your horse backs off, just ask him/her to go back in…..and when your horse does, again give tons and tons of dwell time.
Take your time. Only after your horse is comfortable going in-and-out, try starting to close him/her in with the butt bar or divider….depending on the trailer you have. Go slowly. If it’s a butt bar, rub it on your horse’s upper legs and heinie for a bit. Make sure your horse is ok. During this process, stay safe….you don’t want to get run over if your horse suddenly flies out backwards. Treat the whole closing in process as an “approach and retreat” situation. If your horse has allowed you to comfortably shut him/her in, check your horse’s attitude. Make sure your horse is ok with this by seeing if he/she is blinking and breathing normally. Look for a worried look and support your horse accordingly. Again, if your horse is ok with all of this give a good amount of dwell time. BUT don’t go so long to a point where your horse MIGHT get uncomfortable. The goal is to dwell long enough for your horse to feel good, but not so long that you cross a threshold and your horse NEEDS to get out!
The key with all of this is to really spend tons and tons and tons of dwell time with each improvement your horse makes in the process. Recognize when your horse is trying! Keep building the good feelings in your horse’s brain. Make the whole experience positive and build on the trust and communication you’ve developed with your horse.
Please keep in mind, that all of these steps do not need to be accomplished all in one day! It’s actually better to quit on whatever good moment you get to ….in a reasonable amount of time. Further the trailer loading process on future days. You’ll find that when your horse has days to process the situation, he/she will come back even better for the next session ❤️.
Teaching your horse to self-load has an additional benefit in that you don't need other people to help when you want to trailer somewhere. It's no longer necessary to have another person whose function is to shut the divider or butt bar after you lead your horse on the trailer. All you have to do now is send your horse up onto the trailer and then you close the butt bar or divider yourself. How nice is that?
Without experience and help, you might find the communication and trust components with your equine partner difficult to accomplish. It’s not always easy developing the body and facial language along with appropriate escalation. Reading your horse’s feelings and intentions in order to gain his/her trust is also tricky. In my opinion and experience, the best way to gain these skills is to find a good natural horsemanship instructor. If you’d like to contact me for help, you can reach me HERE.
Kyle Van Splinter