From your perspective, your horse trailer is wonderful because it allows you to bring your horse with you just about anywhere you travel. From your horse’s perspective, however, your trailer is a dark, cramped, scary space with no escape route. She might even have learned that if she gets in this dark, small thing, she’ll be forced to fight to keep her balance and constantly shift her weight in response to movements and bumps that she can’t see or predict. It’s little wonder many horses refuse to get into trailers. However, with the right training, any horse can be taught to load, ride and unload quietly and willingly from a trailer.
Loading Is Leading
It might surprise you to learn that effective trailer training doesn’t focus on the trailer. It focuses on teaching your horse proper ground manners and, most importantly, great leading skills. If you lead your horse to the trailer and she won’t follow up or move forward into it, she doesn’t have a loading problem, she has a leading problem. So the first step in getting your horse to load into a trailer is to teach her how to lead well. These skills are outlined and described in our article Teaching Your Horse to Lead; but, in brief, teaching your horse to lead—and to load—involves teaching her three basic skills:
- Give to Pressure Giving to pressure involves your horse moving into any pressure she feels from her lead or halter rather than pulling against the pressure. Giving to pressure is very important in trailering, because a horse who hasn’t been taught to accept and move forward into a tightened lead can easily panic at restraint in a trailering situation. Giving to pressure includes the following reactions by your horse:
- Dropping her head in response to pressure at her poll
- Turning her nose toward you in response to pressure to the side
- Backing up in response to pressure applied with the lead toward her chest
- Respect My Space Respecting space involves the following actions by your horse:
- Paying attention to you
- Staying in proper position relative to you
- Orienting toward you
- Turning away from you when appropriate
- Go and Stop Go and stop skills build on what your horse learned when you taught her to respect your space:
- Moving forward with the pressure of her lead
- Moving forward with the pressure of a series of feather-light whip taps at her hip
- Slowing and stopping with the movement of your body
- Giving to sudden pressure backwards to stop
- Stepping over with her hindquarters to stop
If your horse doesn’t know all of these skills well—and if she won’t load, it’s almost certain that she doesn’t know at least some of them well—please refer to our article on Teaching Your Horse to Lead. Work with you horse to master these skills. Once your horse leads properly, you can return to this article for further instructions on how to teach your horse to trailer.
Whenever you work with your horse, you should follow six basic practices. Adhering to these practices will help keep you safe, reduce stress for you and your horse, help make training enjoyable for both of you and maximize the speed at which your horse learns. The six principles are:
- Take it slow
- Be patient with your horse and yourself
- Be consistent Teach one thing at a time, and stay focused on that one thing.
- Let your horse see what you’re doing as much as possible
- Make it rewarding for your horse If you taught your horse to lead by using our article on Teaching Your Horse to Lead, you know that the basis of training and learning involves effective use of rewards. Our articles Training Your Horse and Teaching Your Horse to Target explain the use of rewards in detail. To summarize, there are two ways you can reward your horse’s behavior: one is to give her something she loves, and the other is to relieve pressure. You used both techniques while teaching your horse to lead, and you’ll use both to teach her to load in the trailer.
- Time your rewards precisely Timing is crucial in training because the timing of your rewards teaches your horse what to repeat for you. To improve the timing of your rewards, you should use a signal. The instructions in this article ask you to use the word “Yes!”—to pinpoint or mark the behavior your horse is doing that you like. Once you mark her behavior, follow the signal either by stopping pressure or by giving her a treat.
The following is a list of the equipment you’ll need to teach your horse to trailer:
- Your horse trailer attached to your tow vehicle Never allow your horse to get into a trailer unless it’s attached to a tow vehicle. Regardless of the type of trailer you own, open all the doors, secure them open, fill the hay net with hay and hang it where your horse won’t be able to get her foot caught in it. Have the butt-strap ready, and bed the floor mat with straw or sawdust.
- Halter and lead rope Your horse should be wearing her halter and a cotton lead rope.
- Gloves Choose gloves that stay close to your skin and are made of breathable fabric, such as riding gloves.
- Dressage whip Choose a whip between 36 inches and 44 inches in length.
- Treats your horse likes Keep the goodies easily accessible to you but out of your horse’s reach, such as in your pocket.
- A friend to help Training will go most smoothly if you have someone who can secure the butt-strap and shut the door while you stay outside at the front of the trailer watching your horse’s head.
Teaching Your Horse to Load in a Trailer
If you’ve followed the instructions in our article on Teaching Your Horse to Lead, your horse should be familiar and comfortable with giving to lead pressure and the pressure of a series of light taps with the dressage whip. This is important because, as mentioned, if she doesn’t know how to give to pressure she could easily panic if she feels restrained in the trailer. By the same token, if she hasn’t been taught to go forward from the whip taps, the taps or even just the sight of the whip could frighten her if she’s already nervous about the trailer. To teach your horse to load, you’ll likely need both types of pressure because your lead pressure alone may not be enough to convince your horse to enter the dark confines of your trailer. However, having taught her that she can control (stop) the light tap of the whip by moving away from it and into the pressure of the lead, the two pressures together will help her make the right decision to move toward and into the trailer.
Driving your horse into the trailer is safer than leading her in, and these instructions focus on the former approach. However, if you prefer to lead your horse in, you can use the same instructions with just a little modification.
- Hitch your trailer securely to your tow vehicle and, if possible, drive the rig into your corral or arena so that the training can be in an enclosed area. If your trailer is a two-horse straight-load, remove the center divider.
- Attach your lead rope to your horse’s halter at the chin ring, and lead her into the arena. Lead her around the outside of the trailer. As you walk her, practice the leading exercises you’ve taught her, including dropping her head, turning toward you, backing up, stepping over with her hind legs and moving forward at the sight of the dressage whip pointed at her hip. If she’s sweating or otherwise seems nervous around the trailer, work until she’s completely calm. Between exercises, ask her to drop her head all the way to the ground and hold it there (ask for no more than 20 to 30 seconds at a time).
- When your horse is calm and has repeatedly performed the leading exercises, begin your trailer training steps.
- Position your horse about 20 feet from the opening of the trailer, facing the opening. Stand facing your horse’s hip. Hold the dressage whip in your right hand and the lead in your left hand.
- Cluck or otherwise cue her to go forward, and begin tapping her hip with the whip.
- The moment she takes one step forward, say “yes,” stop tapping and cue her to stop with a “whoa.” Gently take up pressure on the lead to stop her forward movement. Because she was moving forward from the tap, she’ll likely take a second step before she stops, but that’s fine because she’s responding to your cues as quickly as she can. Tell her she’s brilliant, and give her a scratch on her withers.
- Drive your horse toward the trailer one step at a time. If she shows any nervousness, after you stop her, ask her to drop her head for 10 or 15 seconds. Then back her up two or three steps—don’t allow her to move off to the side, make her back up straight. After you’ve cued her to stop with “yes” and a release of the lead tension toward her chest, give her a treat.
- Note on moving forward To effectively teach your horse to move forward into the trailer, you need to keep tapping when you ask her to go forward even if she backs away. Just keep tapping gently, no matter what she does, until she takes a step forward. The instant she takes a step—even if she’s quite a bit further away from the trailer than she was when you started—stop tapping. She must learn that she can stop the tapping by taking a step forward, and only by taking a step forward.
- Note on moving to the side Don’t allow your horse to stray from her path to the trailer as she moves forward. If she tries to dance sideways, simply work through her diversions. Use the exercises you taught her regarding giving to pressure on her sides and giving with her hindquarters.
- When you’ve moved your horse up one step at a time to the trailer, ask her to take one step in. Use the same cues and the same gentle but persistent tapping to get her to take a step in.
- As soon as she steps onto the trailer, stop her. Say “yes,” and offer her a treat. Talk to her calmly, and scratch her withers or stroke her neck. (Don’t pat her; instead, move your body and your hand slowly and gently in stroking motions.) If she still seems nervous, practice having her drop her head. Keep her standing with her one foot in the trailer until she calms. If she tries to back out, tell her “whoa” calmly, but at the same time put forward pressure on her lead and begin tapping her forward until she stops trying to back out. It’s very important that you don’t stop tapping until she stops trying to back up. After she’s been standing in the trailer quietly for a few moments, back her away as before. Wait half a minute or so before you ask her to step forward into the trailer again.
- Continue with your loading training by asking for one step at a time, and only one step. Never allow your horse to rush into the trailer.
- Horses who have had no issues with loading in the past can be asked to load by simply going in one step at a time, but horses who have had problems in the past will need more work. Practice each extra step at least 10 times before asking for the next step. That means you’ll ask your horse to:
- Put one foot in the trailer
- Stop and get a treat, and relax while you scratch her withers and talk calmly to her
- Back up
- Repeat these steps at least 10 times
- As your horse goes further into the trailer, you have two options:
- Option One If you’re training in an enclosed area, unsnap the lead and go into the trailer and out the forward door. Pop your head back in and encourage your horse forward while your friend works the dressage whip. Make certain that your helper’s taps are feather-light, and that her timing is good and she continues the taps until—and only until—your horse steps forward.
- Option Two If you’re training in an open area, have your friend work the dressage whip while you hold the lead and go into the trailer ahead of your horse and stand at the front next to the open forward escape door. (Never stand directly in front of your horse as she loads because she could panic and run over you.) From your position by the door, reel in the lead to keep it out of her way as she moves forward, one step at a time, and encourage her forward. Don’t pull her forward—even though you’ve taught her to go with forward pressure, it’s usually counterproductive to pull a horse into a trailer. When your horse reaches the front of the trailer, offer her hay and practice her relaxation exercises as before.
- Repeat all the steps until your horse will load and stand calmly in the trailer. At that time, without tying your horse, secure the butt-strap. Repeat these steps until your horse seems oblivious to the butt-strap before also shutting the door.
Unload your horse as you loaded her, one step at a time. Always cue her when it’s time for her to back out—never allow her to choose when she’s going to back out.
Some horses will load but perhaps because of a problem they’ve had in the past, they panic and scramble while in motion. Quite often, guardians try to eliminate this problem by riding with their horse into the trailer. Depending on the trailer type, this practice is not only illegal in most states, it’s also extremely dangerous. NEVER RIDE INTO THE TRAILER WITH YOUR HORSE. Instead, help your horse overcome her travel fears through gradual desensitization. While driving, keep these safety tips in mind:
- Drive carefully, and begin each new maneuver gradually to cue your horse to stops and turns. Never stop quickly or turn sharply, and never back up and go forward repeatedly.
- If your horse has developed a habit of dancing or scrambling in the trailer, help her overcome this problem by removing the divider when traveling. The extra room will help her find and keep her balance. Take short, slow practice trips. After she learns to ride in the open trailer, help her learn to keep her balance in a divided trailer:
- Tie a length of rope tightly from front to back where the divider should go. The rope should be at the height of her breast so that she can feel it along her side.
- Load her in on the driver’s side of the trailer, and take her for short practice trips as before. Of course, it’s essential that you move forward very slowly and avoid lurching the trailer. If possible, begin on smooth pavement and avoid extra stops and turns.