Trainer’s tip: trailer loading

November 11, 2020

by Taryn Hillman and Brent Winston, Harmony Equine Center Managers

Hello again. I hope everyone is enjoying this beautiful fall weather and the relief from the summer heat.  Speaking of, this last summer was particularly hot and dry. As you know, with hot, dry temperatures come fires. It seemed most of the western United States caught ablaze.  With all the fires going on around the state, the team at the Dumb Friends League Harmony Equine Center was hooked up and ready to go when called. The situation got us thinking about crisis times and how we deal with our animals when an emergency hits. One crucial step of preparation is trailer loading.

It’s essential that our horses are good trailer loaders in a crisis and can safely be transported. One of the biggest problems that we’ve seen is that no one practices loading their horse until they’re already late for where they are going. There may be many reasons for not practicing, such as time or “my horse just won’t get in.” Harmony trainers like to use two schools of thought when teaching horses how to get into a trailer—“pressure and release” and the principle of “make the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy.”

We found it tends to work best when we start working/lunging our horse in a circle behind the trailer, and by work, use them so that they know it is work. We like to change directions a lot when doing this, so we’re able to keep their mind engaged and not wandering off because they’re just going around in circles. Our trainers prefer to use a rope halter and a 12-foot lead rope. It’s also not uncommon for someone to use a horsemen’s flag or something that would make your driving arm longer if you aren’t comfortable using the end of the lead rope. In other training tips, we’ve discussed more intricate details of ground work, and they all apply at the trailer, as well. The second mistake we’ve seen is that people make it all about the result of getting in the trailer. If we get too focused on the outcome, we’ll be prone to miss all the small successes along the way.

Once you’ve started your ground work at the back of the trailer, start paying attention to every time your horse starts to make a move toward the trailer. When it does, release the pressure you were putting on, even if it’s for just a second or two. Most often, in the beginning, the horse decides to quit without trying very hard. That’s OK—reapply the pressure and start working again, looking for the next effort. If you begin to release the pressure every time the horse moves to the trailer, eventually they’ll stop and put their nose in it or start sniffing it.  When this happens, give the horse an extra-long break even though they aren’t fully in or don’t even have a foot on yet. As long as the horse stays focused on the trailer, this break can be as long as needed. This approach teaches the horse to look for that trailer if it wants some relief from work. Once you’re ready to start again or the horse begins to lose interest, put them back to work, always offering the trailer as the release point. Sometimes it takes a while, but eventually, they’ll make an effort to put a foot on and then finally get in the trailer. It’s common for people to keep the pressure on once the horse starts to make an effort. However, this will only confuse the horse and make it harder to load as time goes because they don’t get the release they are looking for.

One last trick we’ve found to be very helpful is to have a “jackpot”-type reward once the horse is on the trailer. Let the horse sit there as long as they like with no pressure at all, and even give them a handful of grain once they’re in. Doing so emphasizes that the trailer is a great place to be no matter how bad of drivers we might be. We haven’t found that the bribery and showing them the treat all along the way before getting into the trailer is effective. But, having it waiting for them when they’re all the way in can be.

Throughout this process, you make the right thing easy and the wrong thing difficult by putting them to work and giving them relief every time they make an effort toward the trailer. It’s important to recognize the small tries and build on them. Remember to be patient but diligent, and you will get there. Until next time, ride with a smile and enjoy every step.