Horse Training for the Trailer, Part 2

Learn more about getting your horse in the trailer with ease.

A horse being comfortable loading into the trailer will make your life and his life easier. Journal photo

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 Graef, a horsemanship clinician from Canyon, Texas 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.”

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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.’ ”

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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 thought 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.”