It’s sunrise on a horse show day, your trailer is packed, hitched up, and ready to hit the road…but your horse is side-stepping around the trailer ramp. It’s never a good start to your show day when you get into a battle of wills with your horse before the competition.
Many people just take their horse out of the stall on show day and use any means possible to get the horse on the trailer. There are a few tricks such as running a lunge line under the horse’s rear or cracking a whip to startle him forward, but this is stressful and can even be dangerous for both horse and human. While these tactics may certainly get the horse on the trailer eventually, there are quieter ways of loading a horse.
Horses need to be trailer schooled just as you school them with anything else. Dedicating a day when you are in no rush to schooling your horse to load will make show days far less stressful.
The first step is to make your trailer as comfortable and inviting as possible. Park the trailer in an open space so that you have plenty of room. Open the doors, windows, and ramp to allow more light so that the trailer doesn’t look like a black hole to your horse. Always leave the chest bar up so the horse can’t push his way out the side door! If you have a swinging divider, widening it as much as possible will make the trailer seem less claustrophobic. Avoid giving treats while practicing loading because bribing the horse does not make him respect you, nor does it teach him anything.
Before trying to ask your horse to load onto a trailer, you must have good control on the ground. If your horse walks over you, won’t patiently stand still, or tries to drag you to the nearest blade of grass, then he does not respect you and this is a huge problem in the partnership between horse and human. Everything you ask your horse to do will be much easier if he respects you and you can calmly communicate with him.
If you do have good basic control on the ground, then teaching a horse to load is just a matter of patient schooling. When I get a horse that is reluctant or anxious about loading, I calmly introduce them to the ramp of the trailer. Many people make the mistake of walking up the ramp ahead of the horse, then turning and trying to coax him from there. When you face a horse, you are not only in their path, but this can also be an aggressive stance that is telling them not to come near.
Standing at the left side of the ramp, allow the horse to sniff and investigate it as they please, but they must stay engaged (just like they must stay with you while riding) and cannot start grazing or staring off into the distance at something else. If he is comfortable with this, I start to ask the horse to think about setting a foot on the ramp by lightly tapping with a dressage whip. The response can sometimes be better if you tap the back of a front leg as opposed to the haunches, because this just causes the horse to get crooked or kick out. Take as much time as necessary and don’t put too much pressure on the horse. The emphasis should be on how calmly this can be accomplished, not how quickly.
Once the horse sets a foot on the ramp, reward him by stopping your tapping and just let him stand. Ask him to step off, then repeat the process until it is easy to get him to step both front legs on the ramp. Eventually, continue by walking all the way in with him. Stand in the trailer with him for a minute or two without suddenly closing the trailer up. Then calmly back out while thinking about having him do so one slow step at a time.
Many trailer issues occur because loading is not a regular part of the horse’s routine, and the only time they are asked to get on a trailer is when everything is rushed. Spending a little time trailer schooling will make loading less stressful.