In the last two articles we have talked about preparing your horse for loading into a trailer. Once your horse is solid with the go-forward cue and crossing objects, and he is comfortable near the trailer, he is ready to load.
No matter what type of trailer you have, make sure it looks as open and inviting as possible. Insure any dividers are out of the way and windows are open, anything to make the trailer appear less confining. Now, as you begin your line work, position yourself so that as you ask your horse to go forward, he will need to go into the trailer to do so. If he only steps toward the trailer, reward him by releasing the pressure. Let him relax a moment and then ask again. Your goal is that he makes baby steps, if needed. Some horses may walk right in but baby steps are fine one leg up, reward him. One leg up again, reward him again. Maybe the third time or so, ask him to stand there for a couple of seconds before rewarding him. Just keep asking for him to go forward a little more,incrementally. Let him know he is doing well by releasing (letting him back down) when he gives you a little more. If your horse gets antsy, go back to the line work just outside the trailer for a few minutes, and then return to asking him for those few steps into the trailer. If his forward cue has been established and you have released the pressure at the right time to reward him, you should see him progress for both feet in, and then four feet in. Once he is solid with that, you can start to ask him to stand in the trailer for longer periods.
If your horse goes into the trailer and then turns himself around to walk back out, you can now make the next exercise teaching him how to back out of the trailer. We do this the same way as going in. Reward for little steps, releasing the pressure as he makes incremental tries. One thing to keep in mind as you are doing all these steps, is that you are also trying teach your horse that the trailer is a good place to be. One way to do this is to make sure that in general, the horse gets rewarded for standing quietly in the trailer. Ask the horse to work outside the trailer, and then once he is in the trailer, let him just hang out (once he is okay standing there). Not asking a horse to move is a reward in itself. The horse will come to know that the trailer means he gets to rest.
In terms of teaching a horse to relax while being trailered, it is best to start with quiet, short trips and, whenever possible, on road conditions that are favorable to the horse. So, for your first trip you don’t want to go up a lot of steep hills, around curves, or do a lot of stopping and starting. Avoid the freeway if you can. Just like teaching them to load, ideally you take the time and incrementally allow them to build their comfort zone of being moved about. And of course, the type of trailer you have can greatly increase or lessen the horse’s anxiety.
You may need to pick up a horse that you have bought or take a horse to a show or a trail ride and the horse just won’t load. At that point you may think that you don’t have the time to do all the pre-work we have been discussing. There are two things I would say to that position. First, no matter how trailer-broke your horse is, by going through the exercises you are helping to guarantee that he never has one of those “bad” days where out of the blue he just won’t load. And, without proper training, those days can happen a lot. Second, even for these unexpected situations, these concepts are still effective. This is what I do for that “need to load in five minutes” problem horse.
Yes, I can do it in five minutes because I have truly come to understand the nature of the horse and because I have developed the timing and feel that a horse really understands. This is has been my full-time job, I have learned when to release and when to push to get the best results quick for the times I need a horse to load very fast. But even then, I still go back and take the extra time later to go through all these exercises in more detail. And, even if I only have five or ten minutes, I still do line work. I cross objects if possible, move the horse closer to the trailer and then have the horse load from the forward cue. There is always time to do it right!
So, the method is the same for the “emergency load” versus schooling the horse to trailer well. The only difference is in the application, I just won’t take as much time to make sure the horse is truly comfortable at each stage before moving onto the next but, as I said before, I will go back and do it right once I have the time.
Now to wrap up, let me mention some aggressive behaviors that may be seen in horses learning to load into a trailer. Rearing, cow kicking, using a shoulder to push into you, striking, bolting and biting are not uncommon. These behaviors may be caused by fear or previous bad trailer experience. These behaviors need to be corrected within two seconds of the occurrence. If you miss that window, don’t bother as the horse will not associate the correction with the action. If the behavior is likely to occur, have your dressage whip ready and correct by a single quick strike as follows.
If your horse rears, strike it below the front knee while the leg is still in the air. For a cow kick, strike below the hock. If your horse bolts, stop his feet and bring him back around with quick, decisive action. If the horse strikes at you or bites, also strike it once below the knee. Please note, these are corrections, not punishments. They should never be done in anger and they must be done immediately if the horse is to understand cause and effect. Continue with the correction for each behavior until the horse desists. Continue also to do change of direction line work as needed to allow the horse to use its energy productively and to stay focused.
Whether you have a problem loader, a sometimes won’t load, or even a horse that walks right into the trailer, by taking the time to do the exercises with your horse as I have outlined, you are insuring that your horse will load easily under any circumstances or conditions. Having a horse that will load easily any time you ask opens up a whole world of activities you can do with your horse.