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Troubleshoot Trailering

Having issues getting your horse into the trailer? Troubleshoot your approach with a Certified Horsemanship Association instructor.

Question:

I have a 4-year-old horse who simply refuses to load! He doesn’t rear, back up or do anything stupid -- he just simply won't go in!

I have used food as a treat when he comes in the door with his front feet, and again when he finally steps his back feet in. He will stand at the trailer door for an hour or more and not budge. He hates it if you pull on his lead rope, and it makes him very resentful at what you're trying to do, so I don't pull on him -- I just try to coax him in by talking and maybe using a treat, such as hay.

Can you help me with my stubborn horse?

Answer:

There are so many different ways that people use to get a horse to load. If you look at it from a horse's point of view, it's hard to understand why a prey animal would ever allow us to put him into a dark box that does not have a way out, just in case a predator shows up.

It would help if I had more details:

  1. What kind of trailer? Is it a ramp or a step up?
  2. Has he had any bad experiences with trailers in the past?
  3. Have you resorted to other methods that do not work?

I get the idea from your letter that he has at least several times refused to load and your attempts were not successful. Therefore, it will be a bit more difficult to instill in him the habitual response to load. I would really try to work with him in a firm, but not forceful manner. If he is calmly refusing to budge, it should not be too difficult. It is the horse who has been hit or frightened into loading that can be a longer training task.

Training for the trailer requires time and patience. Download AQHA's FREE report, Horse Trailer-Loading Tips, today!

I hate to use any kind of force to get a horse to load. It usually backfires on you eventually. You always need to build trust between you and your horse. Yes, he needs to listen to you and respect you, but he needs to also feel that your requests are reasonable and that they make sense.

Here are some suggestions:

    • Have a sturdy leather halter. Do not use a knotted rope halter or a chain around the horse's nose. He will not want to go forward into discomfort.
    • Do not look at him directly. Your energy should be firm but quiet.
    • Know that the process can and may take several days and so what? Be analytical in your approach.
    • Watch your horse's reaction and learn from it.

I first establish that the horse needs to go forward when I lead him. He needs to do this again and again as a reflex. I will take a dressage whip and very softly tap him on the top of his haunches and ask him to go forward. I will do this in his pasture, in the arena, leading him around the trailer and anywhere else available. I will also use my voice and say "Walk on!" You need to watch the placing of your body. If you get ahead of him, he may stop. Right now, you are only establishing "forward" in his mind.

Once his response to go forward is constant, use it for other things than loading. If you have a large piece of plywood, lead him over that. Lead him into the barn. I have had people put up something over a horse's head, like a huge tarp and walk the horse through that. When you think it is time, matter-of-factly lead him toward the trailer. You cannot pull on him to get him to load. The motivation has to come from the rear  -- from his haunches. If he backs, back with him, face forward and tap him on the haunches and ask him to load again.

From your initial question, it does sound as if he is not really frightened -- he just does not want to load. You do not want it to develop into something that he is afraid of doing. This has always worked for me, but another method that I have used is to get him to accept pressure from a rope around his haunches.

There needs to be a person on each side of the horse. Again, this can be practiced away from the trailer at first, and the main thing is that he yields to pressure felt around his hind legs, just below the point of buttocks. Once you've accomplished this, then you can ask him for a step, so that he will load in the trailer. Stand there, then ask for another step, and so on, until he is fully on the trailer. Safety in all of this is paramount. People should be dressed appropriately with gloves and leather shoes.

To begin training  your horse to trailer load, there are several things to take into account. Find out what they are with AQHA's FREE report, Horse Trailer-Loading Tips.

Loading is a skill that has to be learned by the horse, and anything forced is not really learned. I have attended several problem-solving clinics when the clinician loaded the horse with special equipment, and after the clinic was over, the owners could not load the horse again to go home. The horse had not learned anything in that short space of time.

Additionally, the horse's legs should be wrapped, and of course the trailer should be checked for safety. If the ramp or floor of the trailer is unsafe, the horse may well know it and not load. Please let me know if I can help further by contacting me at summersdressage@aol.com.

Mitzi Summers
Certified Horsemanship Association clinician and master instructor

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