Trailering Issues

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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. Be sure to watch the “Loaded Up” episode of Horse Master with Julie Goodnight April 1 or May 13, 2009 on RFD-TV. Plus, watch a clip online now: http://horsemaster.juliegoodnight.com/episodes.html

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.

–Julie Goodnight

Talk About Tack: Rope Halter — Do’s And Dont’s

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Question: Dear Julie:

I have a silly question…My mare is 15yo and I have NEVER used a rope halter. Do you have a basic do’s and don’ts for me….things I need to know to help me better understand how it works?

Answer:
I wish more people would ask simple questions like this– it’s not silly but smart! When people stop and think about what they fundamentally know (or more likely, what they do not know) they generally get a lot farther with horses. There is a lot to know about using rope halters, how they work, how they should fit and when to use them (and when NOT to use them).

I think of rope halters as a training aid—it is a way to apply enough pressure on the horse’s face to get his attention and/or gain control. It is a far superior tool, in my opinion and experience, than using a stud chain on a horse for control because you can finesse the pressure with a rope halter. A stud chain will put constant pressure on the horse—you can make the pressure worse but you can never totally release it. With the rope halter, there is only pressure when you manipulate the lead rope, so you have more training ability and finesse. But all rope halters are not created equally!

A rope halter can be harsh or mild, depending on the diameter of the rope (thinner is harsher) and the number of knots on the noseband (more knots create more pressure). While a narrow diameter halter with added knots may be more expedient on the more difficult horses, it is not necessary (or advantageous) for all horses. I prefer to use a thicker diameter (3/8 inch) stiff rope for my halters and the minimum number of knots to make it a halter. I’ve yet to meet a horse that wouldn’t respond to this amount of pressure and there are many horses for which too much pressure can cause the horse to have a met-down rather than think his way through the problem. The thicker diameter is mild enough for everyday use and not just as an aid when you are actively engaged in ground training.

Contrary to popular belief, the knots in a rope halter are not placed to take advantage of pressure points on the horse’s face—they are put where they need to be to make it a halter—exactly where the hardware is in a flat halter. However, the knots do focalize the pressure and when you snap or jiggle the lead rope, the horse feels more pressure than he would in a flat halter.

For ground work, I prefer to use a rope halter (my halters are specially designed for comfort, fit and effectiveness) and a long training lead—12 or 15 feet. I do not have metal buckles on my training leads because when I snap the rope, the chin knot will bump the horse in the chin (that is the pressure he feels when he is doing something wrong) and a metal buckle hitting the chin can be too much pressure for many horses (and they become afraid of the correction and quit thinking). To me it is critical that the training lead be made of the highest quality marine rope that is soft in your hands and heavy enough to have good feel so that you can make subtle movements with the rope and impact your horse.

The rope halter should always be adjusted correctly and make sure you learn how to tie the halter knot right. At the start of every ground work clinic that I do, I spend a few moments adjusting halters and retying the knots correctly on most of the horses in the clinic. A rope halter that hangs too low can really hurt a horse’s nose and if the noseband were to sag so much that the horse could get a foot in, it could really hurt your horse. Check out this link on my website that explains rope halter fit and how to tie knots correctly: http://juliegoodnight.com/pdf/halterinstructions.pdf.

As for the DONT’S: never turn a horse loose in a rope halter. For that matter, I wouldn’t turn a horse out in any halter but definitely not a rope halter. Generally they are made of high-tensile rope that will not break; a horse turned loose in a rope halter could catch it on something and panic and get hurt. For the same reason, I would never tie a horse in a trailer in a rope halter. You know he will get off balance at times and end up pulling on the halter—I don’t want him to have too much pressure on his face, just because he got off balance. Plus, in the trailer the horse should be outfitted in a break away halter in case of an emergency. In the trailer I want him to be safe and comfortable, so I’ll use a leather halter with sheepskin lining. Don’t use a rope halter that’s too snug—there will be constant pressure on his face so you lose the ability to release the pressure. Don’t use one that’s too big either; the noseband should not be so large that the horse could get it caught on something like his foot.

Tying a horse in a rope halter can be good training or can cause a problem if you have a horse that has a pull-back issue. We tie all our yearlings and older in a rope halter as they are learning to stand tied quietly. They learn not to pull on it because they’ll feel pressure every time they do. But if you have a horse that is already a chronic panic puller, the rope halter may make him worse by increasing his panic and fear when he pulls.

An important thing to know before you invest in a rope halter is that all ropes are not created equally and all halters are not tied correctly. With rope, you get what you pay for. Really high-quality rope that does not stretch out or break and works well in your hands is more expensive. You may have already figured this out with cheap lead ropes that break and burn your hands. Also, if not made correctly, the proportions of the halter can be off so that it never quite fits your horse’s face right—I see this a lot with home-made rope halters. As with most equipment that you buy for horses, it is best to stay away from the really cheap stuff.

Of course, the real benefit from rope halters is in the training techniques you use ot teach your horse obedience and ground manners. Once you invest in a good rope halter and training lead, use my video, Leadline Leadership, to learn specific training techniques and exercises to teach your horse to stand quietly, walk and trot off your body cues, back, circle and change directions so that he becomes focused on you as his leader.

Thanks for asking a great question!
Julie

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