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.
When you’re hunting for a new equine trail partner, look for an experienced horse with a mellow, kind, forgiving attitude. For trail riding, also look for a horse that’s been out and about, hauled around a lot, and will enjoy the ride with you.
Here’s the proper trailer-loading and -unloading order for optimum safety and results.
Step 1. Prepare the trailer. Hook up your trailer to your vehicle. Drive your trailer to a flat, open area. Securely close all trailer doors and windows against flying debris. Close manger windows and escape doors.
Step 2. Open the stock door. Open the stock-compartment door, and prepare your horse’s footing and feed.
Step 3. Load your horse. Halter your horse, and load him into the trailer.
Step 3. Shut the door. Shut the stock-compartment door immediately, before confining your horse by tying. If you have a slant-load trailer, it’s safe to secure the compartment’s partition before you shut the door. But when the compartment door is open, don’t tie your horse. If he tries to back out and finds that he’s tied, he may panic and injure himself (and you).
Step 4. Secure your horse. Tie your horse, and exit via the escape door. Or, tie your horse while you stand safely outside the trailer.
Step 5. Park, and untie. At your destination, park at a level area, then begin the unloading. To do so, you’ll retrace your loading steps. First, untie your horse.
Step 6. Open the back door. Make sure your horse is completely untied, then open the stock-compartment door.
Step 7. Unload your horse. Back your horse out of the trailer.
Bottom line: Never tie your horse in the trailer until the stock-compartment door is closed and secured locked; always untie your horse before you open the door for unloading.
Question: Hi Julie:
I just recently purchased a horse in October this is my first horse and boy I am not starting off very well. This horse was 200lbs underweight when I got him so to say the least I baby him (oops). He has successfully gained 100lbs and I am very excited. He is a very loveable horse and has no bad habits except for the following. My first problem is every time I saddle him I cannot get him to walk as soon as I say walk he will for only a second and he immediately goes into a trot. Now that the winter has set in on warm days I walk him on the roads (I am not mounted on him) and just keep saying walk good boy…Now this weekend I am going to try and ride again but I am getting nervous and discouraged. My second problem is I cannot for the life of me get him in a trailer it takes me about 1 to 1 1/2 hours but once he is in he is fine. I am now at the point where I am putting grain and hay in the trailer but he will not go in for it. Any advice would be greatly appreciated…
Thanks for your email and it sounds like you are going through some fairly common scenarios with your new horse. Most often, horses are jigging because of the anxiety over the pressure on their mouth. It could be that your bit is too harsh or that you are holding too much contact on the bit and not giving a release in a timely fashion (about 95% of the horses I see jig for the latter reason). This Q&A will give you some food for thought.
As for the trailering issue, my first question is, did he load well when you got him? If so, he may have just learned to be disobedient and what you’ll need to do is basic groundwork to establish yourself as the leader of your horse. If he did not load well when you got him, he needs to be trained. There are many good techniques for training horses to load and I can share with you the technique I have found the most success with. However, it will be difficult to really explain this thoroughly enough to address all the variances that can occur with an individual horse when it comes to trailer loading. You may be better off enlisting some help from a qualified trainer and perhaps some of the things I mention may help you determine if the techniques you or the trainer use are effective. We recently did a Horse Master TV episode and DVD called “Loaded Up” that might help you understand the whole process.
First, let me mention the things I would definitely NOT do. Do not use butt ropes, whips, chains, tie a horse to the trailer or hit him on the rear with any objects. Most horses do not load because they are afraid of the confinement. Forceful techniques generally increase the horse’s anxiety, not alleviate it. Also, when you start forcing a horse with ropes, chains, whips, etc, the chances of him getting hurt are greatly increased and if he gets hurt in the process of loading, you’ll really have a big job ahead of you and you’ll never be able to undo the fear memory that was logged in his brain from getting hurt trailer loading (this is documented research). Finally, I do not like to put pressure on the horse’s rear-end in anyway. I want his attention focused forward and if you start hitting him or putting a butt rope on him, his attention is focused back and he is thinking about defending himself, not moving forward.
What we want the horse to do is move forward, willingly and calmly. It is important before you train a horse to do anything that you know exactly what the desired response is and design a training plan that leads the horse to the correct response. There are a few fundamental principles that I like to keep in mind when training a horse to load. One is that he has no choice except to go where his nose is pointed. So I will do my best to eliminate all other options for the horse by backing the trailer into an enclosure or up close to a fence, to eliminate as many escape routes as possible. Also, I must be able to keep total control over the horse’s nose and make dead certain his nose is pointed toward the trailer at all times once I am asking him to load. Once I begin to approach the trailer, I will not take him away for any reason, until he has loaded. I will keep the nose pointed at the trailer and make it clear to the horse that there is only one option for him- and that is get in the trailer.
Secondly, I need to keep in mind what the right thing is and what the wrong thing is. The right thing is to move forward when asked; the wrong thing is to move backward. Then I will make the right thing easy and the wrong thing hard (one of the fundamental principles of natural horsemanship).
As I approach the trailer with the horse, I will ask him to move a few steps forward then ask him to stop. Then reward him with a rub on the neck and give him a moment to relax and look at the trailer. It is important to ask the horse to stop before he stops himself, that way you maintain control. If you ask the horse to move too close to the trailer too soon and he balks and slams on the brakes, he is now being disobedient and we want him to stay in an obedient frame of mind. So ask him to take a few steps forward then stop and relax and praise. At no time is he allowed to turn his nose even slightly to the side. Hopefully, if you have done good groundwork with your horse, you will have control over his nose. If not, you may need to work on some more basic things first (see my website for more info on groundwork and my Lead Line Leadership and Roundpen Reasoning DVDs). Give him all the time he needs to be comfortable where he is and do not ask him to step forward until he is calm. Every horse is different; for some you may be stopping 100 feet away, others won’t get nervous until they are closer to the trailer.
I like to use a rope halter with a 12′ training lead for this type of work, because it gives you much better control. I do not like to use a chain on the horse’s nose or chin, because that will add to his anxiety and it is much more difficult to release the pressure on his face. You can order a rope halter and lead from my website if you need one.
The next part of the equation will require some capable assistance for you. You’ll need someone to operate a flag, which is simply a stick of some sort with a plastic bag or piece of tarp on the end. The helper will stand very quietly back behind the horse, some distance away so as not to distract the horse. The assistant’s only job is to watch the horse’s feet VERY closely and at any time the horse begins to move backward, the helper will vigorously shake the flag, stopping the instant the horse moves forward at all. This actually takes a lot of concentration and excellent timing. You must shake the flag the INSTANT the horse moves back and stop the INSTANT the horse moves forward. The shaking, rattling plastic will be an aversive stimulus to the horse and it will scare him. He will quickly learn that he can make the scary thing go away by moving forward and that he can avoid it altogether by not moving back.
Through the use of the flag, the horse will learn that moving back is not an option, only moving forward is. If you have good control of the horse’s nose and he cannot move back, he will, in short order, realize that moving forward into the trailer is the only option for him. Do NOT use the flag to make him move forward. You ONLY use the flag to discourage backward movement. I cannot over-emphasize that the flagger must concentrate carefully on the horse’s feet and must have perfect timing with the flag, both starting and stopping the flag. In my experience, the flag is harder to do well than controlling the horse’s nose, but both are hard. Although the flag is hard, leading the horse is the most dangerous position so you must be very careful not to get hurt.
The first time you flag the horse, he is likely to explode forward, so be prepared and be careful and make sure you keep his nose pointed toward the trailer. This may be too big a job for a novice horse handler. Let him stop and settle before you ask him to move forward again. After he has stepped back a few times and gotten the fright of the flag, he’ll quit backing up and start thinking about what his other options are.
If your trailer is small, you won’t want to lead the horse into the trailer so you’ll need to have a long rope to run up through the trailer and back around to where you are standing beside the horse encouraging him to move forward. Take whatever time you need as you are training the horse. Don’t get in a hurry and give yourself plenty of time; the horse needs to know you will out last him. Once he accepts that backwards and sideways are not options, and that you will be persistent but patient, he will give in and load right up.
Once he gets in, he should find a grain reward so that his efforts are rewarded. But do not use the grain to bribe him into the trailer. When the flagging technique is done correctly, you’ll have the horse, no matter how bad he was, loading right up in no time. Keep loading him a few times a day, with him finding grain in the trailer each time and soon he will see the trailer and trot right in.
Again, I want to stress that this is very dangerous stuff and it is very easy for you or your horse to get hurt. It is advisable to get qualified help, but do not let anyone beat or force your horse into the trailer. With this technique, the horse decides on his own that getting in the trailer is his best option and when you can train a horse this way, you’ll always have a calmer and more cooperative horse. Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer, Horse Master with Julie Goodnight TV Host
During the episode of Horse Master that we nicknamed, “Loaded Up,” I helped Laura Barnhart of Tuscon, Arizona teach her horse to walk onto the trailer instead of throwing a fit, rearing and bolting when a trailer was in view. It was a wild training session and I had sore muscles all over my body the following day. The horse had learned the very nasty trick of rearing, snatching his nose away and running off–dragging behind him whoever happened to be holding the lead line (I fondly refer to this as dirt skiing). The turning and bolting issue was a disrespectful ground manners issue that was separate from the loading problem, but it made loading difficult and nearly impossible. I had to escalate my training cues and the mental pressure the horse felt. With some groundwork training done first, it was a short time before the horse was walking calmly in and out of the trailer. Again, the turnaround was very dramatic and we got some great footage.
Read on to learn about how I helped this horse learn to walk on the trailer and learn how you can teach your horse to stay in the trailer once he loads. The lesson is good for you if you if your horse likes to back out of the trailer too quickly or has learned to run backwards as soon as he loads.
Although there are many good techniques used to train a horse to load in a trailer, the technique I prefer not only trains him to load, but also teaches him to back out only on command and in a very controlled fashion. You’ll need two people, a rope halter and training lead and a training flag. Make sure the trailer you’re using is safe and in a good location; without any sharp edges protruding, with good footing and in a clear, but somewhat confined area. I prefer to use a rope halter and long lead (15’ is good) for training purposes, although I wouldn’t haul my horse in a rope halter (I prefer a webbed break-away halter for hauling, for safety and comfort).
One person leads the horse and controls his head, always keeping it pointed toward the trailer; the other person waits subtly in the background with the flag, prepared to flag anytime the horse backs up and releasing the pressure as soon as the horse moves forward. I do not like any techniques for trailer loading that involve touching the horse in the rear—I want his focus to be forward. And I don’t want to use techniques that physically force him—I want him to make the decision to go in voluntarily.
Don’t ever touch the horse with the flag; it’s just the sound and movement that makes him uncomfortable and acts as mental pressure to help him choose to move forward, away from the scary sound. The person controlling the flag has to have excellent timing and must concentrate fully on the horse’s feet so that the flag starts the instant the horse moves backwards and stops the instant he moves forward.
By using this technique for loading, the horse learns that anytime he tries to backup, there is a scary and uncomfortable thing behind him (the flag waving) and that anytime he goes forward, the scary stimulus goes away. Since backwards is no longer an option for him and the person at his head is preventing him from going right or left, he quickly figures out that the only other option is to go forward and into the trailer. The nice thing about this method is that he won’t blow out backwards because he has learned that backwards is not an option.
You should have practiced your backing and general control on the ground way before working on trailer loading, so that your horse is responsive and controllable. Make sure that once you have presented him to the trailer, he is not allowed to look away at all or go in any direction but straight toward it. Be aware that when the flag starts waving, your horse is likely to lunge forward, so make sure the person leading stays well out of the way and is prepared for the horse to jump forward.
Once the horse has loaded, I’ll usually offer him a bite of grain as a reward and pet him for a few minutes to relax him then I’ll ask him to back out slowly—one step at a time. Be careful not to pull on him—that will make him want to pull back and blow out backwards; try to keep the lead loose. Ask him for one step back then ask him to halt and pet him and let him relax; then ask again. Have your flagger ready and if he takes more than one step and starts to blow backwards, flag him forward, let him settle, then ask again for one step, repeating the process until he is out.
It’s also helpful for unloading if you can let your horse turn around and walk out forward a few times, so he can understand where he is going; but that’s not always possible. It’s not natural for a horse to back down something; in fact, in nature, they would rarely back up at all. If he is allowed to walk forward down the ramp or step a few times, he may be more relaxed when you ask him to back down.
The training flag (available at www.juliegoodnight.com) is a great tool for trailer loading and also for motivating a lazy horse to go forward; mental pressure often works better than physical pressure. It’s also a useful desensitizing tool, but I’ll never desensitize a horse to the flag until I know whether or not it will be needed for trailer loading or for getting him to move forward. The flag is a 4’ rigid stick with a plastic or nylon flag on the end. The flag I sell is lightweight and very durable and balances easily in your hand, making it easier to handle than most other flags I’ve used.