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Trailer Troubles

When it comes to loading troubles, practice controlling your horse's feet.

Question:

My horse has never been a problem to load. He has started something new. He walks in, and before I can tie him and move past him to close the divider, he decides he's leaving and pulls back. He can't get loose because of the panic snap. Then, if I untie him, he bolts backwards out of the trailer. Any suggestions would be appreciated. I don't understand why he's doing this.

-- Anne MacDonald

For the answer, we spoke to Darla Rathwell, certified instructor and a member of the board of directors for the Certified Horsemanship Association.

Answer:

You mentioned your horse has no problems loading, so I will assume he is comfortable in the trailer. He has developed a habit that is escalating to a dangerous situation, and he needs to know you are in control of his speed and direction of movement. This will also teach him patience and to wait for your cues once you’re ready to ask him to back out of the trailer.

My first suggestion is to practice controlling your horse’s feet, moving his front and hind feet in all four directions. For this, use a halter, a 15-foot cotton lead rope and a dressage whip, to be used only as an extension of your arm and to help direct your horse’s movement. Then, only once you feel you have total control of his movement and he’s accustomed to the sensations of the whip, should you head to the trailer to practice this exercise.

Before starting, prepare your trailer with everything you’ll need, such as a feed bag, a place to tie your horse inside and something to secure the trailer door open, so it doesn't close on your horse.

For this exercise, use the back stall in your trailer with all other dividers closed. Stand off to the side of your trailer door, facing your horse. Direct your horse's head into the trailer door with your left hand. Holding the dressage whip in your right hand, gently tap your horse's rump until he takes one step, then immediately stop tapping. Move the whip to his chest to discourage any forward motion, and if necessary, tap his chest back until he takes one step back. Doing this slowly will relax your horse, making it easier to control your horse’s movement.

Next time, allow your horse to put just his front feet in the trailer. Once again, move the whip to his chest, wait a moment, then tap his chest and slowly back him out. Repeat, until he does it slowly and in a relaxed fashion. Then allow him in all the way. If he decides to back o

ut, let him. But immediately send him back into the trailer, since you hadn't asked him to come out yet.

After he relaxes and willingly stays in the trailer on his own and starts eating from his feedbag, take the slack out of the lead rope, while still standing off to the side of the trailer door opening (out of the kick zone). Don't worry if you happened to drop your lead during loading. Use your whip to retrieve it or wait until he comes out on his own and start over, because your safety comes first. Once the slack is out of the lead, touch your horse on his rump with the whip, so he knows you’re there, and softly make a clucking sound.

Make sure that each time you ask him to back out, you use the same cues, whatever you decide you want them to be. Be consistent, using the same ones in the same order, because this is his signal that you are ready and it’s OK for him to come out. If he’s backing out too fast next time, only allow his back feet out onto the ground. Then tap his rump to send him forward into the trailer again. Remember to stay relaxed, so your horse doesn’t get panicky. When he does this in a controlled, calm manner, then you can start closing the door.

Once the door is closed, you can go to the window and, from the outside, tie him. After he stops stepping around and stands quietly, go back to the window and untie him, but don’t open the back door to unload. If he starts dancing around again, wait. This way he will learn how to be patient and won't anticipate that every time the trailer stops, he can bail out. Once he’s quiet again, open the back door, retrieve your lead from the floor and give him your cue to unload.

This takes practice, but is well worth the time to help keep you safe.

-- Darla Rathwell, Certified Horsemanship Association certified instructor

The Certified Horsemanship Association, an American Quarter Horse Association alliance partner, seeks to promote excellence in safety and education for the benefit of the horse industry. CHA certifies instructors and trail guides, accredits equestrian facilities, publishes educational manuals, produces how-to DVDs and hosts regional and international conferences. For more information, visit the CHA website or call (800) 399-0138. To find a certified horseback riding instructor or accredited equine facility near you, go to www.CHAinstructors.com.

*AQHA and the provider of this information are not liable for the inherent risks of equine activities. We always recommend consulting an AQHA Professional Horseman.

Need more helpful advice about training your horse to load in a trailer? Download AQHA's FREE Horse Trailer Loading Tips report!

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