We’ve all been in this situation. You have somewhere to go and yet your horse will not get on the trailer. You start off calm and after 15 minutes your temper flares and your horse becomes increasingly obstinate. I once missed an event because my horse wouldn’t load. I know people who’ve literally spent hours trying to get their horses on a trailer and who have done everything short of picking up the darn horse and carrying him on.
I’ve seen a lot of interesting loading techniques over the years, many of them patently unsafe, both for the horse and the owner.
First there’s the lunge line behind the butt. I used that myself until I saw a horse flip over backwards. Luckily the horse wasn’t hurt, but I could certainly see the possibilities.
Next, there’s the broom on the butt scenario, where you have one person pulling and another standing behind with a broom (or a whip) hitting or pushing looking like a “push me pull you” from Dr. Doolittle. I’ve seen a few near misses when the irritated horse kicks out at the broom bearer.
Many people rely on the bribe your horse with food method. There are several variations on this theme. There are those who park their trailers in a field and leave their horse’s grain and hay on the trailer; others try to tempt their horse onto the trailer with carrots or grain. I’m sure we’ve all fallen into this trap as it’s just too expedient when you’re in a hurry. Unfortunately, rewarding your horse for its reluctance to load on your trailer only serves to reinforce its behavior.
But what do all the above methods teach your horse? That he’s in charge of whether he will get on the trailer. In addition, it makes loading into an unpleasant experience that involves threats, frayed tempers and occasionally injuries.
I used to have a horse that didn’t like to load. He wasn’t scared of the trailer; he simply wouldn’t get on. When I was at a boarding barn, there were always people around to “help.” Sometimes that worked; other times the help just got him too frazzled to focus. It certainly was easier when another horse was already on the trailer and at least once I put a decoy horse on just to get mine on board.
When I moved to a self care barn, I realized that 90 percent of the time I was going to be loading by myself. It was time to teach him to self load. In retrospect, I can’t believe that I waited so long. There is no longer any debate over whether he’s getting on the trailer, I don’t have to schedule extra time, and I no longer get angry and frustrated. It’s also the safest method because he gets on the trailer by himself; I just fasten the butt bar
What’s the secret? Patience, time, and ground manners.
Long before you try to load your horse it’s important to reinforce ground manners. If you can’t lead your horse without difficulty, if it pulls through you, lags behind you, or otherwise disregards your commands, it’s not going to get on the trailer. Start by making sure your horse will march along beside you (you should be at its shoulder), and will stop, back up and turn easily.
You can start teaching a horse the signal to self load by teaching it to move off in front of you on command. John Lyons calls it the, “go forward” cue, and it involves taking a 36″ whip and tapping your horse on the hip until it moves forward. Once the horse understands this, it can be applied to asking your horse to walk onto the trailer.
Once your horse is listening to you while you lead, you’re ready to load. The biggest mistake you can make at this point is waiting until you need to go somewhere. Instead, find a day when you have no commitments. Park the trailer in a quiet, level place, and spend as long as it takes.
Start by a ground rules refresher: march your horse out at a brisk walk and make sure it is walking beside you. Halt, back up, change directions. Then march up to the back of the trailer. It’s okay if your horse wants to take a look at it. By all means let him stop and take a sniff. Then ask him to go forward while you stand beside him. Do not lead your horse into the trailer. It’s just not safe and it’s much easier to fasten the butt bar if you’re not inside! If you do lead your horse on, then you are forced with the choice of either tying your horse on the trailer with the bar down (not good) or leaving your horse on the trailer untied while you run around to the back (also not good).
Once your horse steps onto the trailer ramp, even if he stops, ask him to stand quietly and praise him for the effort. Then ask him to go forward again. If he refuses, back him off the trailer so that you take control of the situation. I’ve found that backing your horse up (think 25 to 50 feet) often works well to make walking forward a more attractive option.
Most important is to stay calm and stick to the program. Once your horse is standing quietly on the trailer, praise him and let him stand for several minutes. Then unload and reload him several more times.
While the original loading session might be lengthy, if you make each loading session a consistent and pleasant session for your horses, you’ll find that before long, loading will become automatic and uneventful.