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.