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Trailer Loading Basics, by Chris Cox



Chris Cox

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 you learned in the previous  articles. 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  q u i c k  release knot  inthe lead  rope. Tie  s h o r t  enough to  keep the  h o r s e ‘ 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

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  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.


[published in Performance Horse Digest, Volume 2, Issue 3.]

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