Horse Training for the Trailer, Part 1

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

Loading your horse is a crucial part of showing and riding, make sure it’s easy on you and your horse. Journal photo

“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 e-book 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.”

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 e-book Horse Trailer Loading Tips, the late Bill Van Norman offers valuable advice on teaching your horse to trailer load.

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.”