Horse Training for the Trailer

Get a horse's mind in the trailer, and his feet will follow.

From America's Horse

“The ancestor of every action is a thought.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Who knew that 19th century intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson was a horse trainer?

Truth be told, he wasn’t, but his sentiments are absolutely on the mark when it comes to trailer loading. For a horse to load in the trailer, he first has to think in the trailer.

That sounds also too simple to be true. But a few years ago, I had a horse – claustrophobic to begin with – who’d been in the trailer when a tire blew. He wasn’t going back into that scary horse-coffin, no way, no how. I called Brent Graef, a horsemanship clinician from Canyon, Texas, for help. We’ll get his mind in the trailer, Brent told me, and his feet will follow.

I was skeptical, but I needed help and I’d heard good things about Brent. It didn’t take long for me to become a believer, though, after Brent had my horse stepping on the trailer in short order – first with just his front feet, then all the way in, then backing slowly out – and doing all of it calmly. There was no fight, no fuss, no dust. Even better, Brent showed me how I could do the same. It wasn’t magic, but it sure seemed that way to me.

Trailer loading is really a very difficult thing for a lot of folks,” Brent says. “A big piece of that is that horses aren’t prepared to go in the trailer.”

And neither are the handlers. Brent says there is a proper mindset for success.

“The horse feels a lot from us,” Brent says. “If we can find a way to get ourselves in a good frame of mind, that’s a real big key. I want to exude calmness and confidence to the horse. I want to let the horse know, ‘Hey, I believe in you. This is no problem. It’ll be fine. Let’s do this together.’ … If I’m feeling any kind of frustration, I’ve got to quit and start over. Frustration and anger are emotions that don’t work with horses in any place.”

It’s good, too, to put ourselves in the horse’s shoes. Think about what scares him. For example, if he hates backing out because there’s a big drop-off, try getting him comfortable by parking the trailer in a small ditch or low spot so that the back of the trailer is just about ground level.

And when we ask our horse to do something, we’ve got to be clear.

“If we’re not clear in what we’re asking, how is he going to figure out what to do?” Brent asks. “We have to figure out how to ask with quality and be clear.”

Visualization can help with your focus. Play a video in your mind of how it’ll look when you ask your horse to load calmly into the trailer. Picture where your body parts are (to make sure you’re not in his way), and think about how you’ll make your request and when you’ll release the pressure. Keep it positive and visualize him stepping onto the trailer like a pro.

“If I know what I’m looking for, I can help the horse find it,” Brent says.

Starting in Kindergarten

Young horses who have never been on a trailer are the easiest to train, Brent says. If they’re properly prepared, the trailer’s just the next thing to explore with you.

“If you take a kid and find a way to make learning fun, he’s going to be a sponge for knowledge; he’s going to want to learn. So, if we can set up an environment like that for the horse, he’ll want to do it for you,” Brent says.

Brent teaches a young-horse handling class in which previously unhaltered yearlings are taught to lead, trailer load and much more in the space of six days.

If you're looking for more advice on tips for trailer loading your horse, look no farther. AQHA's FREE report Horse Trailer Loading Tips will give you everything you need to load your horse onto the trailer, calmly and patiently. The late Bill Van Norman always said that you need to take your time and keep your temper when teaching your horse to trailer load.

While they’re being halter started, the yearlings are led over uneven ground and across a platform of railroad ties placed snugly alongside one another. They’re even led halfway up on the railroad ties and backed off, then led all the way up them and backed off.

“We’re trying to get them used to going to and then coming down,” Brent says.

These youngsters are then introduced to the trailer in small groups. There’s safety in numbers, and the horses’ energy and curiosity work to draw them as a group into an open stock trailer.

The trailer is parked at the end of an alleyway, but the group of loose horses isn’t pushed onto it.

“What we’re trying to do is see where the horses’ minds are,” Brent says. If one of the horses looks off, with his interest going somewhere other than the trailer, Brent – who’s standing behind the group – will raise a flag or a hand to redirect the colt’s thinking.

“As soon as they begin to look into the trailer, we back off anything that’s even perceived as pressure and let them find their own way,” he says. Once horses are looking into the trailer, it isn’t long before they go right in on their own accord.

That sets the stage for the yearlings to be led up to the trailer individually.

With a little buckskin filly, “We’re trying to see ‘Where is her mind?’ We block, get her to look in the trailer, and then just leave her alone. Relax.” With no pushing or pulling, the filly hops into the trailer.

When a horse looks away from the trailer, to the left for instance, an appropriate block would be a flag fluttered by someone behind the horse on his left side. The instant he started looking toward the trailer, the flag should be lowered. Or, the handler could send a soft request – a “feel” – down the lead rope, asking the horse to look forward.

“Where the mind goes, the feet will follow,” Brent says. “If you can see where you want them to go, then you’re well over halfway there.”

Directing the mind can even take place as the horse is led up to the trailer. Make sure he’s focusing his attention on the trailer as he approaches it, and he can be “loaded” from across the parking lot.

What is of utmost importance – and what goes against our human impulses – is that once the horse has his attention in the trailer, leave him alone.

“Often, people get a horse that gets his head in the trailer, maybe even gets a foot in the trailer, and then they spank the horse on the butt to make him go in,” Brent says, describing a common scenario. “Well, look at it from the horse’s point of view. You asked the horse to go in the trailer, so he’s looking in the trailer. He’s scared of it, but he’s trying for you, and then you spank him on the butt for it. He thinks, ‘Well, I guess that wasn’t what I needed to do.’ … If he’s trying, leave him alone. Let him try.”

And maybe, on the first time, the horse only gets his head and neck in the trailer. That’s OK. It was a try.

“You want, with the young colts and with all of them, to build their confidence,” Brent says. You want to tell the horse, “Yeah, you’re doing the right thing. Thanks a lot. Good job.”

Most of us have heard the mantra “Release for the slightest try,” and that applies here. “We tend to forget to do that,” Brent says. “But then we have to take that to a different place, too. Next time, we have to release for slightly more of a try, and then slightly more of a try, or else we won’t make progress.”

It’s easy to lose your temper when teaching a horse to load in a trailer. Unfortunately, getting impatient is the worst thing you can do. With AQHA's FREE report Horse Trailer Loading Tips, the late Bill Van Norman offers valuable advice on teaching your horse to trailer load.

Remedial Trailer Loading

Preparation is key for older horses who are having problems at the trailer. Sometimes, it’s that they were never halter started correctly and don’t really know how to lead.

“When I put some pressure on the lead rope, they need to come right off it,” Brent says. In his young-horse class, the definition of “enough pressure” is no more than what it would take to pull the wings off a butterfly; the horses – whether they’re youngsters or older horses – should be light on the lead rope.

So that’s Brent’s first checkpoint when he’s working with a problem-trailer-loading horse. If the horse doesn’t know how to follow a soft feel, then more ground work is needed until he leads up nicely. If the horse can lead correctly, though, Brent moves on to his next step: influencing the horse’s feet.

“I try to get in time with his feet,” Brent says. He asks the horse to lead at his elbow, so he can see the front feet. Then, as the right front foot is just about the leave the ground, Brent lifts up slightly on the lead rope, asking that foot to shorten its stride. He does the same thing just as the left front foot is about to leave the ground. On the next two strides, Brent will ask the horse to return to his regular stride. Then he’ll ask the horse to lengthen his strides, timing the requests just as each front foot is lifting off the ground.

To understand how this is helpful, try it with a human partner. You play the part of the horse and, just for fun, close your eyes so you’re focusing solely on the lead rope you’re holding in your hands. As your “handler” times his requests with your footfall, see if you can intuit what he is asking. You’ll find yourself thinking about how to do what he wants – much like the horse will be doing. Then have your partner get out of time with your feet. It’ll feel awkward – much like an out-of-time dance partner – and will be much harder to follow. And if you really want a wakeup call, let your partner yank rudely on the lead rope if you accidently misinterpret one of his requests.

Brent continues with his ground work, asking the horse to back up softly from a light pressure on the bottom knot of a rope halter.

“Can I get him backing up light, and then can I back him up and then bring him forward? Can I get that to flow from forward to back

and from back to forward?”

He’ll ask the horse to walk a circle around him, with his nose tipped in just a bit. He’ll lead him over uneven ground. He’ll ask the horse to walk between him and a fence. The he’ll ask the horse to walk between him and the fence as he stops his feet and asks the horse to continue forward. That sets the stage for sending the horse into the trailer, while the handler stops at the back of the trailer; it’s asking the horse to follow feel instead of just following behind a person.

Next, Brent will lead the horse up to the trailer – but only to look inside it.

“I’m going to go in and explore the trailer first. I’ll get him as close as he’s comfortable getting to the trailer, and I’ll let him see me go in.”

Brent’s looking for jagged edges, sagging boards in the floor – even wasp nests – anything that could give the horse a reason to fear the trailer. His exploration also lets the horse hear the clanking and rattling sounds that come from moving around inside a trailer.

Sometimes, a horse that

has already gotten in tune with Brent from the ground work will want to look into the trailer to see what he’s doing, and “sometimes they’ll just come right in.”

In AQHA's FREE report Horse Trailer Loading Tips, Bill Van Norman offers valuable advice. Use a lead rope not a longe line, work in both directions and, most importantly, keep your patience and take your time. These great tips and more are included in this helpful report. Download yours today!

But for those who don’t, he works on getting their focus in the trailer just like he

does with young colts. Block – with a hand, a flag or a feel on the rope – when they look away from the trailer, and leave them alone when they put their attention inside the trailer.

Often, people try to make it uncomfortable outside the trailer thinking this will cause the horse to seek refuge in the trailer. “If you can get the trailer to be a good place – not just the lesser of two evils – they’ll just step right in, and it’s a sweet deal,” Brent says. That means no punishment outside the trailer and no spanking on the butt as the horse is thinking about stepping in.

And patience is perhaps the biggest virtue.

“Especially with problem horses, short sessions are better,” Brent says. “Depending on how bad the situation was, if I can get him half in, I may just go completely away from the trailer and do something else. I may be done for the day with him. I’m not going to get in a huge hurry. That’s where our mistakes happen, and maybe that’s what got him in trouble in the first place – someone was in a big hurry and just jammed him in and scared him, so it was a bad experience.

“I’ll take my time, however long it takes. The next time, maybe it won’t take so long. And the next time, maybe it’ll take half that time. The next time, maybe it’s a non-issue. The idea is for the person to do less and less and the horse to do more and more.”

Some problem horses, however, seem to shut down when they’re led up to the trailer.

“It’s like a child who has been abused,” Brent says. “They curl up in a ball and they go within themselves … It’s like ‘OK, it’ll be over soon.’ ”

With these horses, “we have to get their mind unlocked, to keep them thinking. If I see a horse come up to the trailer and hold his breath and his eyes just glass over, I need to do a little something different.”

The key is to keep the horse’s feet moving; if the feet are in motion, so is the mind. A light tap on the lead rope also might help say “wake up.”

But as with a lot of horse training, there are some fine lines here. How do you tell when a horse is processing a through vs. when he’s tuning you out?

“That’s hard,” Brent says. “You want to be aware. And we’ll make mistakes as we try to figure it out. But horses are very forgiving, and I’m glad of that.”

So there’s some hard work involved, but it’s well worth the effort.

“Everything’s intertwined,” Brent says. It’s about preparing your horse to interact successfully with people, and trailer loading is just one piece of that.

“Everything else will be better if my trailer loading’s better. Everything else will be better if my tying’s better. Picking up their feet’s better if backing them is better. It’s all connected.”

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Once you have your horse in the trailer, it's important to know how to tie your lead rope correctly. This video shows you how.