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Trailer Loading 101
Nathan Coffman

We’ve all experienced trailer loading problems. by Nathan Coffman

Either ourselves or somebody we know or have seen. We’re at a horse show, trail ride, or even just plain leaving from home for any number of horse functions, and the horse we thought had no problems getting on the trailer, refuses to set one foot on it.  Or possibly we have a horse that has never even been on the trailer, and therefore, is afraid to get on.  Whatever the case, it can be a frustrating ordeal.  So, where do we begin on getting that horse on the trailer.

First we need to have some way to tell the horse to move forward.  Start by teaching the horse the go forward cue.  Using a dressage whip or something of similar size and length, while standing next to the horse with the halter and lead rope on, begin tapping on the horse lightly on his hips.  Once the horse takes a step forward, stop tapping.  Repeat this until you have the horse walking a complete circle around you. Once the horse is solid and understands this cue, you are ready to move on.  Note: work on this step away from the trailer.

Begin by starting a distance from the trailer that the horse is comfortable with.  Using the go forward, ask the horse to walk towards the trailer.  Allow the horse to stop wherever he is comfortable.  Let him stand there and pet him.  Once he is comfortable at that spot, ask him to walk towards the trailer again. As the horse gets closer to the trailer, he will obviously give us smaller steps.  Remember with each step closer to the trailer, allow the horse to stand while petting him, and get comfortable being at that exact spot.  By doing so, if at some point, the horse goes backwards, you will be able to get the horse back to the point closest to the trailer that he was comfortable at.  If at any point during the lesson, the horse decides to back up when you are asking for forward movement, don’t stop tapping until the horse stops backing, and gives us at least some amount of forward movement.  Also, don’t forget, that as you get closer to the trailer, and ask the horse for forward movement by tapping, the responses by the horse may be minimal.  Stop tapping even when you get the slightest forward movement from the horse.  This may be as small as just a thought on the horses part.

As your getting the horse up to the back of the trailer, it is important control the horses head.  No matter where the horse goes, you will want to keep the horses nose pointing at the trailer stall that you are loading the horse into.  Next you are looking for the horse to put a foot on the trailer.  Once the horse does, allow him to stand for a bit before asking again. Gradually work on getting the horse to put the foot on longer while having it off for shorter periods of time, until he leaves it there.  Repeat this step for the second foot, as well as the third and fourth feet. When it comes to the steps of getting the horses feet to step on and off, repetition is the key here.  You may even want to set a number of times that you are going to have each foot get on and off the trailer, such as 30, 40, 50, or more.  While you are working on this, the horse will go through ups and downs in performance. Don’t let this discourage you.  As you will see, this is also teaching the horse how to back off calmly as well as load calmly.
A couple of things that the horse may try in an effort to avoid getting on the trailer are running between you and the trailer or rearing.  In both cases you can correct them by tapping them firmly, below the knees.  In the case where the horse tries to go between you and the trailer, use the tapping until the horse stops going in the direction he started and reverses and goes the other direction. In the case of the rearing, tap the horse only while the feet are in the air, and immediately stop as soon as the feet touch the ground.
Some things you can do to build up to the trailer are: teaching the horse to load onto a sheet of plywood, a rubber mat(possibly one of the mats from the trailer, this can help the horse get used to the smell of the trailer even before you get to the trailer), a tarp, a small wooden bridge( like those used in trail classes), or anything that the horse might have some fear of.  This way we can break the lesson down while building the control.  Be creative with this.  Use the same process of having the horse step on and off these different objects as described for the trailer, one foot at a time.

Some closing thoughts.  If you need some help in controlling the horse, you can put the bridle on and hook the lead rope to the bridle . You can either remove the reins or twist the reins around each other underneath the neck, and then run the throat latch of the bridle through a twist.  This will help keep the reins out of the way.  Remember, some sort of basic snaffle bit is best if you decide to use a bridle.  A full-cheek snaffle would be first choice.  Hook the lead rope directly to the ring of the snaffle bit on the side that you are working from.  As for the type of trailer, generally a step-up straight load is easiest.  If you have a ramp load, you may have to take some time teaching the horse to step on to the ramp before even getting him in the trailer itself.  With a ramp load, begin your counting of the steps, on and off, once the horse is stepping on to the actual inside of the trailer, and not just the ramp.  Always have the trailer hooked to a sturdy tow vehicle to prevent the trailer from rolling away or anything else that could be dangerous.

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