Hop into a dark, small box on wheels and head down the highway – from a horse’s point of view, you can see where the trailer can be intimidating. The good news is that trailer loading doesn’t have to be a terrifying, frustrating ordeal for either you or your horse. The key lies in thoroughly preparing the horse before you ever approach the trailer, and this is where many owners make mistakes.
You can’t expect a horse to load quietly if he doesn’t understand basic ground control lessons. “It’s the preparation you do prior to trailer loading that will give you success. There’s no sense in trying to load a horse that hasn’t learned how to disengage his hindquarters and direct and drive,” explains horseman and clinician Chris Cox. “Preparation is the key and the only equipment you need is your halter and lead rope.” In an area away from the trailer, take the time to reinforce these two important lessons presented in my Training DVDs , as well as on the Performance Horse Digest Clinician’s archived articles with Chris Cox.
When disengaging the hindquarters, remember to “go to the corner,” not the horse’s shoulder, otherwise he may back up. The horse should pivot on his front feet as he disengages his hindquarters. Practice disengaging first, then direct and drive.
If you have a step-up trailer, it helps to direct and drive over a log obstacle so the horse picks his feet up. Be as assertive as necessary so the horse understands what you are asking. “Your horse must be solid on these basic lessons well before you approach the trailer,” explains Chris. “We use direct and drive for trailer loading instead of leading the horse into the trailer because this method is not only safer, but it becomes the horse’s idea to load, not something he’s forced to do.”
Teach the Back Up
It’s much safer for both you and your horse for him to back out of the trailer, rather than turn around and walk out. Before you introduce the trailer, you need to teach him to back up on command.
“¢ Standing in front of the horse slightly to the side (near the point of his shoulder), drive him backwards by using your body language.
“¢ You should assume a slight crouch and twirl your lead rope as needed.
“¢ As soon as the horse moves his feet and starts backing up, stop twirling.
“¢ For safety’s sake, don’t move past the horse’s nose as he is backing.
“¢ Keep his head straight while he is backing up. In the beginning, don’t put any pressure on the horse’s head with the lead rope.
“¢ Simply drive him back by twirling the lead rope.
“¢ Once the horse catches on and starts backing, let him catch his breath and “soak” for a few minutes.
“¢ After the horse has learned how to back this way, you are ready to introduce him to the trailer.
Approaching the Trailer
- Make sure all trailer doors and dividers are secured so they can’t swing and startle the horse.
- Stand to the side of the trailer, not in the doorway.
- Pick up your direction hand and drive him forward toward the trailer.
- Keep his head straight so he is facing the trailer.
- Stop twirling your rope as soon as the horse makes an effort.
- Give him time to “soak” and relax by lowering your hands when he tries.
“In the beginning, make sure you build on every try and progression the horse makes by giving him relief,” says Chris. Some horses will step up into the trailer within minutes. Others require a bit more time. Don’t fight with the horse to load, just direct and drive him as you have been doing. In his mind, the lesson is direct and drive. The trailer just happens to be the obstacle instead of the log you introduced in the first lessons.
In the Trailer & Out Again
“The way the horse learns to back out of the trailer in the beginning is how he will always try to do it in the future, so concentrate on having him back out slowly and relaxed,” Chris notes.
- Once the horse gets in the trailer the first time, don’t let him turn around and walk out. Twirl your lead rope if necessary to encourage him to stay inside.
- Walk up into the trailer beside the horse, making sure he sees you and knows you are there.
- Then standing at the horse’s shoulder, give him the cue to drive backwards as you taught him earlier on the ground.
- Encourage him to step all the way out and not jump back into the trailer.
- Ideally, you want the horse to stand inside the trailer until you get in and ask him to back out.
- But if your horse wants to back right out after loading the first few times, don’t force him to stay in the trailer. Instead, just keep reloading him until he realizes it’s less work for him just to stay inside the trailer and wait for you to back him out.
- During this first trailer loading session, load your horse several times.
First Trailer Ride
For safety reasons, don’t tie the horse in the trailer until you have latched the divider or gate behind him. Run your lead rope through the tie ring, but don’t tie it at first. Hold the end of the lead rope in your hand, and hold onto it as you close the divider. Drape the lead rope over the divider away from the horse’s legs and go out to the side of the trailer. Tie a quick release knot in the lead rope. Tie short enough to keep the horse’s head up, but not so short that he can’t move a bit to keep his balance. Once the horse is tied and standing quietly, take him on a short drive. Ten minutes or so is plenty this first time. Then unload the horse and put him up.
“Take your time and make this first trailer experience a positive one because it will stay with him forever,” says Chris Cox. “Success with trailer loading depends on the groundwork foundation you build before you ever get near the trailer.” (These techniques are covered in detail in Chris Cox’s “Trailer Loading” two-DVD set available through www.chris-cox.com)
Up Close with Chris Cox Born in Florida and ranch-raised in Australia, Chris returned to the United States in 1986 to make a career of working with horses. Years of working horseback on the ranch near Queensland gave Chris a healthy respect for the horse’s ability and intelligence, and helped him develop his own methods of individualized training. Active in the cutting horse world as both a trainer and competitor, Chris has trained a variety of breeds for different disciplines. He travels the United States, Canada, South America and Australia appearing at expos, conducting clinics and horsemanship demonstrations. His “Come Ride the Journey’ tour takes him to cities across the U.S. each year. Chris offers week-long intensive horsemanship clinics at his Diamond Double C Ranch in Mineral Wells, Texas. In 2008, Western Horseman released Ride the Journey, by Chris Cox with Cynthia McFarland, a 225-page, full color book that details Chris’ practical methods and training techniques. Packed with step-by-step exercises and color photos, the book will help you improve your horsemanship skills, no matter what discipline or breed you ride. Visit www.chris-cox.com or call Chris Cox Horsemanship Company at 1-888-81-HORSE for information about the Ride the Journey book, upcoming course dates and appearances, equipment and training DVDs.