Expert Trailer-Loading Fix
Learn how to avoid common trailer-loading mistakes, and load your horse every time you ask, with these steps from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
Have you ever had trouble loading your horse into the trailer — even when he’s loaded successfully in his past? There’s a chance you may unknowingly be contributing to his trailering issues.
“It’s easy to train your horse to resist trailer loading,” notes top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight. “Chances are, you may not even realize how you’re contributing to his behavior. It can take years to train a horse to do the right thing, but only moments to ‘un-train’ him.”
Here, Goodnight will help you examine the innocent mistakes you might be making. Then she’ll show you how to squelch a behavior problem before it escalates. She’ll also give you three things to avoid
Before You Begin
Wear sturdy boots and leather gloves, for safety. Outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. (Caveat: Switch to a gentler, flat halter for trailering.)
Find a quiet place with good footing. Consider backing up your trailer to the barn, close to the fence, so that your horse’s options are limited and the only way to go seems to be into the trailer.
In any case, avoid wide-open spaces that might encourage your horse to think about freedom instead of stepping forward onto the trailer.
Step 1. Perform Ground Work
Begin with ground work. How well your horse handles from the ground will impact how well you can handle him in a difficult trailer-loading situation.
If your horse suddenly decides he doesn’t want to get into the trailer, you need to know that you have fundamental handling skills intact. If he doesn’t normally have good ground manners (for instance, he pulls back, balks, drags you to the grass, and doesn’t stay in step with you), you need to work on instilling those manners before you work on trailer loading.
Make sure your horse will stand still on command. A horse that will stand still on your authority has decided he must abide by rules of behavior. He’s respectful. If he won’t stand still, work on that skill first.
Step 2. Correct Unacceptable Behavior
Does your horse look away from the path you choose? Do you allow him to look away without correcting him? Does he walk in front of you or look where he wants?
These are all signs that your horse isn’t paying attention to you. He thinks he can look and go wherever he wants.
Address those small acts of disobedience away from the trailer — and before the looking-away behavior leads to a turn-and-bolt. Once he learns he can get away from you, it can’t be unlearned.
If your horse has learned to get away from you or turn his nose to the side to go where he wants, he may display these behaviors when trying to avoid something he doesn’t want to do, such as approaching the trailer.
If your horse displays the turn-and-bolt behavior when you’re trailer loading, examine your leading techniques and his behaviors when you’re working away from the trailer.
The first time your horse ripped the rope out of your hand and got away, it may have been an accident. But then he thinks “wow, I got free.” It’s a terrible thing for a horse to learn, because he’ll forever know that he can overpower you. You can dissuade the behavior and remind him not to do that, but he’ll always remember that it’s possible.
That’s an example of “un-training” a horse that once knew the right thing to do but now has learned a new thing. By not correcting him and allowing him to look away, the behavior escalated to getting away. Once he got away, that was a reward for him. You trained him to pull away and be rewarded.
To fix this behavior, do your homework with your horse and have a solid relationship from the ground. He’ll remember that you’re in charge when you approach the trailer.
Caveat: If your horse has escalated his behavior and knows how to get away, you may need to enlist the help of a knowledgeable horse friend or qualified trainer to work through the trailer-training process.
Step 3. Be Confident and Aware
Your horse will always turn away from what he doesn’t like and toward what he does like. He’s transparent. Just pay attention to his focus. Watch his ears to see what he’s “pointing” at. His long neck makes it easy to see any movement toward what he’d rather be doing.
Horses are also keen on your determination and intention level, so pay attention to your own attitude and body language.
Here’s how to project confidence, and read your horse’s intentions and make corrections early on, so the behavior doesn’t escalate.
Be confident. When you approach the trailer with your horse, there should be no doubt in his mind that he’s going in. That’s the one and only option. Be a confident leader. Conduct yourself in a way that tells your horse you both are walking straight in the trailer. Project confidence and determination so he knows the best thing to do is to follow your lead rather than make choices on his own.
Watch your horse. If you’re having a trailer-loading issue, evaluate your entire approach to the trailer to pinpoint what your horse is thinking and what he’s paying attention to. Determine the exact moment when he sees the trailer and realizes that’s where he’s going.
Catch the look-away. If your horse doesn’t want to load up, he’ll tense and look away long before he’s close to the trailer. Be prepared for this reaction. One of the biggest mistakes made in trailer-loading is allowing a horse to look away from the trailer. After you’ve lined him up and are ready to load him, he should look only straight ahead at the goal.
If you don’t notice that small glance away, your horse may look right and left to plan his evacuation route. Correct your horse the second he looks away, before he escalates his plan and balks, turns, or even bolts.
Keep his nose straight. When you approach the trailer, keep your horse’s nose pointed straight ahead. If he even tips his nose to the side, bump the rope to remind him that he’s only to look straight ahead. Out of the corner of your eye, watch his eyes to see whether he’s even thinking of moving back, not forward.
Step 4. Avoid Circling
If your horse is “experienced” in throwing tantrums before trailer-loading, he may learn that if he does turn his head, balk, or even wind up completely out of position, you’ll circle him and approach the trailer again.
Never circle your horse when trailer-loading. It’s a fatal mistake. If you turn him around and allow him to face the direction he wanted to go, he’s gotten his own way for a few steps.
You may think you need to get a better approach by circling back and starting again. But your horse only associates his behavior with what happens within three seconds after he acts. He wanted to turn away and he got the reward of stepping in the direction he wanted.
You’ve unknowingly trained your horse to throw a tantrum by allowing him to turn away. Horses are more in the moment than we are. In the moment, your horse wanted to turn away, and you allowed it. Turning away reinforced the tantrum, so he’ll certainly do it again.
If your horse throws a tantrum and gets out of position, let him figure out how to straighten up and get his feet in line without circling. Then follow the guidelines in Step 3.
Step 5. Stay Out of the Way
Think about your position as you enter the trailer. Horses are trained not to invade your space, so avoid stepping up into the door of the trailer before asking your horse to step up. If he were to follow your request, he’d have to walk on top of you.
A smart, well-trained, agreeable horse will wait until you walk forward and get out of the way to load up. However, a horse that doesn’t want to load will take your placement as a reason not to move forward and to think of an alternate destination.
You may think you’re out of the way, but your horse sees your position as blocking him. Ideally, you don’t want to step into the trailer with him, but some trailers are designed so that you have to step in and lead him to the right place.
If you’re stepping up into a long slant-load trailer, go in the door well ahead of your horse. Keep walking straight ahead, then step as close to the wall as possible to get out of his way. Show him there’s a path to move forward.
Step 6. Retrain Your Horse
If your horse has been known to balk at entering the trailer, approach, then ask him to stop before he enters. When he stops, praise him for listening and looking forward at the trailer. If he looks away, correct him to remind him he’ll be moving straight ahead. When he looks at the trailer, praise him.
Why stop along the way? When you stop, your hose will show you what he’s thinking about. You’ll have an opportunity to praise him for looking forward and looking at the trailer.
Stopping him also keeps your horse in a compliant mind-set — he’s being praised for moving and stopping on command. It keeps him interested in moving forward and discourages him from thinking about an escape.
Your praise instills confidence in your horse. You’ll have an opportunity to maintain obedience. Plus, you’ll encourage his forward interest and his investigative behavior.
For more trailering videos and tips from Julie Goodnight, visit tv.juliegoodnight.com.
For more information on equine behavior, see Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding, with bonus DVD, available from HorseBooksEtc.com.
If possible, don’t trailer-load alone. A travel buddy can help snap the butt bar and close the trailer doors, so your horse never learns he can back out before you can secure him.
What Not to Do
Here are three things to avoid when loading your horse into the trailer.
1. Train your horse on the road. Don’t fight with your horse because you need to get on the road right away. If you’re in a hurry, you may be tempted to resort to different and inconsistent tactics to get him loaded.
Instead, schedule plenty of time (days and weeks) for trailer-loading practice sessions. Let your horse know he’s going in the trailer; there’s no time constraint.
Don’t use a rope or whip. Julie Goodnight has seen many different trailer loading techniques and some major wrecks and injuries. Though a lifetime of experience, she understands that it’s a lot better to teach a horse the right response than to try and force him into the trailer.
To do this, your horse has to be thinking about moving forward. Therefore, avoid touching him with anything from behind, including a rope or whip. As soon as you touch him from behind, his attention is immediately transferred to his hindquarters. Using a rope or whip could also scare him; a fearful horse isn’t going to learn what you’re trying to teach him.
Teach your horse that he should move freely forward. Let him know that you want him to think through the problem and learn that the easy answer is to go forward.
If your horse needs extra encouragement to go forward, enlist a helper to snap a training flag. This technique applies mental pressure that tells him backward isn’t the direction to go. The noise helps your horse associate quiet and easy with forward movement and an unpleasant sound with thoughts of backing up. You’re not physically touching him or applying constant pressure.
Don’t trailer-load alone. If possible, ask a traveling buddy to go with you to help you load your horse. After your horse walks into the trailer, your buddy can snap on the butt bar, close the doors, and help you tie your horse, all in the correct order.
You need to close the back door before you tie your horse, for safety. You don’t want your horse to learn that if you’re alone, he has time to back up before the butt bar is snapped and the door closed.
Before you start each trailer-loading session, outfit your horse in a rope training halter for control. Switch to a gentle, flat halter for trailering.
When you approach the trailer, your horse needs to know that you mean business. Point his nose straight ahead. Don’t allow him to look from side to side.
Keep your horse’s nose pointed at the trailer — no matter what.
Avoid circling. When you circle back around, your horse learns that he can get his way — if only for a moment.
Stay out of your horse’s way as you load him. Don’t stand in front of him.
A well-trained horse will wait until you walk forward and get out of the way to load up. However, a horse that doesn’t want to load will take your placement as a reason not to move forward and to think of an alternate destination.