Ed Dabney Gentle and Natural Horsemanship Confidence Course. Step by step obstacles to develop confidence, trust, agility, awareness on part of horse.
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"Bite Size Trailer Loading"

For generations horses have been chased, killed and eaten by predators in the wild such as the bear, wolf, lion and yes even the most efficient predator of all, the human. As prey animals their self-preservation instincts have been well honed.

For the past few hundred years most horses have not been free to roam at will across the open plains. Even though horses have been domesticated for many years, their survival instincts are still very much intact. These powerful instincts are still responsible for much of the horse’s natural behavior and decision making process.

We have confined the horse into the human world of corrals, paddocks, stalls, and trailers. By doing so it now becomes our duty to try to understand the horse’s natural instincts and view his life in our world from inside his head, looking through his eyes. In fairness to our horses we must introduce ourselves and our claustrophobic environment to him in a way he can gently understand and gradually learn to accept.

Your horse may view you trying to load him into a trailer as a predator trying to make him walk into a dark cave. For many horses this simple request is just too far beyond their instinctual comfort level. Their survival instincts shout to them with no uncertainty to “never trust a predator and absolutely never go into a dark cave.”

Survival instincts function to keep the horse alive. Horses will often fight to the point of hurting themselves in order to avoid what they perceive as the certain death that awaits them inside the trailer. While humans may see his refusal to walk into the trailer as stubborn, the horse sees it as the age-old struggle of life and death.

Over the years, the attempt to get horses into trailers has produced some of the most horrific examples of horse handling ever witnessed. If you’ve been around horses very long I’m sure you have seen examples of attempts to load horses into trailers using sheer man-handling, butt ropes and whips.

As a youngster I once witnessed a horrendous trailer loading situation. The owner had lost patience with his frightened and shaking horse that refused to get in a small, dark two horse trailer at night. He had tied the lead rope inside the trailer toward the front when I heard him say, “I’m going to get my loading shovel.” He proceeded to retrieve a large, metal scoop shovel from the back of his truck and beat the horse repeatedly in the rear until it leapt in sheer panic into the trailer.

Unfortunately the front window over the feed bin had been left open and in it’s frantic attempt to escape both the shovel and the trailer the fear-crazed horse jumped into the feed bin and through the window becoming lodged with his head, neck and one front leg through the window. The rest of the story is too gruesome to relate here but I’m sure you can draw your own conclusion.

So how do we convince our young horse that he will not die by walking into the trailer? We must prepare him to calmly step into the trailer, because he must load himself into the trailer for it to be right. Attempts to force him into the trailer will be anything but calm.

Thousands of horses have loaded into thousands of trailers over the years so I would certainly not claim that my way is the only way. It is simply a way I have found that works well for the horses I’ve trained.

In training horses to load on trailers most well-meaning people start with their horse and their trailer. We should back away from trying to accomplish too much, too quickly. Instead, break down trailer loading training into small bite-size pieces that are more easily accepted by our horse.

As with any type of training, the foundation is the key to success. I recommend building a relationship of mutual respect and trust with the horse. Work with him for a time on ground exercises on the lead rope such as leading, backing, yielding front and hindquarters and circling or lunging around you.

Once you have established this foundation, you will be ready to begin more focused trailer training. I have designed a horse-friendly “trailer trainer” as pictured. This simulates the size of a two horse trailer. The left side has a short wall on the outside and is open on both ends. This makes it less claustrophobic so the horse is more willing to step onto it and walk across.

I first lead the horse all the way through the left side. Take your time, hold steady pressure on the lead rope and give a release for any positive move toward the “trailer”. After walking through, I rub the horse in praise then lead him back through the same side several more times. An additional benefit of this exercise is exposing your horse to the sounds of crossing a wooden bridge as he walks across the floor.

Then I lead him onto the left side and stand in front of him blocking the open end. I rub him and then ask him to back off using the same cue I use to back him as a ground exercise. I repeat this several times until he stands and backs off calmly.

Next I stand at the front corner of the left side and send him up onto the “trailer” using the same cue I use for lunging or circling as a ground exercise. I direct him onto the “trailer” with my focus (eyes) and left arm. I encourage forward movement with the rope in my right hand swinging toward the hindquarter. I instantly stop swinging the rope and drop my right hand every time the horse makes the slightest shift or movement toward the “trailer”.

If he is hesitant or resistant about stepping up on the “trailer” I will lunge him a little on the ground near the “trailer” then lead him onto it several times until he is comfortable. If you encounter resistance, go back and reinforce the previous step until he is completely comfortable. Try again to send him on the “trailer”. Let him stop, and rub him when he places one or two front feet on the “trailer”. Let him back off here then send him on again until he is willing to step on with all four feet.

When he is standing on the left side calmly you may have to help him back off by standing on the ground by the short wall near his head and applying slight back pressure to the halter and using your “back up” cue. Eventually you will want to have him back off by standing behind him and wiggling the lead rope.

Once you can send him onto the left side without resistance and back him off calmly, then you are ready to move to the right side of the “trailer”. With the door tied open, start all over in the same sequence of exercises that were described above for the left side.

Once you can send him onto the right side with the door tied open and back him off calmly, then you should shut the door but not latch it and lead him onto the “trailer”. Stay with him inside at the front of the trailer, rub him and talk calmly to him. The interior will look different to him with the door shut, so let him stand and investigate until he is calm. If he gets nervous and you can’t calm him, you may safely escape by simply pushing the door open and leading him off through the front.

When he is calm standing in the “trailer” with you, you should back him off and lead him back in a few times. Now you are ready to latch the door and send him in by himself while you are standing near the front corner of the opening. Stand facing his front shoulder with him facing into the opening of the “trailer”. Give him good direction and focus by looking into the “trailer” and holding your arm straight with the lead rope pointing into the “trailer”. Your other hand should have a couple of feet of the end of the lead rope to swing toward the hindquarter to encourage him to move forward. Be sure and give him plenty of slack in the lead rope so he knows he has enough rope as he moves forward onto the “trailer”. I use a 12 foot, yacht braid lead rope for this as well as for all my ground exercises.

Be patient in encouraging him to step onto the closed “trailer” by himself. Remember if you encounter hesitancy or resistance go back to the previous step, lunge him a little on the ground near the “trailer”, or send him onto the left side a few times then try again to send him onto the right side. At first be satisfied with him only stepping on with one or both front feet. When he is in this position stop encouraging forward movement, let him relax, rub and praise him. You may then back him off and continue to ask him to go back on until he is able to go all the way in with all feet and stand calmly.

Once all this is accomplished, he should be well prepared to step into any trailer. Always give him time to investigate any new trailer and let him take his time about getting in the trailer until he can do this calmly, with dignity and no hesitation. Don’t wait until you are “late for the show” to ask him to load in your trailer!

In all horse training, try to break your lessons down into bite-size pieces. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you must get him all the way in the “trailer” in the first motion or even that you must accomplish all this in one or two sessions. You’ll find the lesson he has trouble with today will be much easier for him tomorrow, after he has had time to think about everything. It is helpful to do this training over a number of different sessions with patience, a calm demeanor and no time constraints.

Stay calm, patient and focused. Try to see everything from his perspective and you will develop a wonderful and fulfilling relationship with this most noble animal.