Safely Load and Unload a Horse From a Trailer
Some people are blessed with having trails, riding arenas and activities right where their horses live. For others, to enjoy these things means they will have to trailer their horses to another place. The reasons for trailering are many and can include traveling to horse shows, trail heads, and other pleasure activities. Sometimes, the reasons can be more urgent, such as a natural disaster, fire, or emergency vet care. When one absolutely needs to get a horse into a trailer, being able to load a horse quickly and quietly may be, literally, a life or death situation.
As with any equine activity, there are several different ways to load and unload a horse. Though of course individual horses may be more comfortable with something different, the safest and most convenient way for a single person to load a horse onto a trailer is to essentially have the horse load and unload itself. To load a horse using this technique, the handler stands to one side as the horse walks past them and into the trailer stall. The handler then fastens the butt bar/chain and closes the ramp/doors and walks around to enter the trailer at the horse’s head to tie them up. For unloading, the handler first unties the horse’s head, then walks around to the back of the trailer to drop the ramp or open the doors, undo the butt bar/chain, then steps off to one side, and with a tap on the rump, the horse backs out.
In this way, the handler is never inside the trailer while the horse is moving and is always at the back of the trailer to catch the horse when the horse is not contained inside. This technique also eliminates unnecessary running back and forth from the front to the back of the trailer. It prevents the terrible “fly-back” that occurs when the back of the trailer has been undone yet the horse has not been untied which can cause the horse break a halter or trailer tie and whack the top of it’s head on the trailer roof when he tries to exit before someone can get around to undo the trailer tie. Though the vast majority of horses can be taught to load this way, it does require some preparatory ground work and a patient attitude on the part of the handler. Training for this is an excellent way to gain trust and encourage confidence from the skittish or anxious horse and the training and cues will also be of benefit when one is out on the trails and encounters a situation that causes a horse to balk. It also can be of benefit with the horse that lacks respect for the handler.
Training for this way of loading involves utilizing a behavior common amongst horses. A dominant horse shows dominance, or leadership, in two ways. One way is that they physically lead the herd from place to place. They determine when to go to the water source, and when to move to a different grazing area. Often people don’t notice this behavior as much, since in many domestic pastures, the enclosed space is small enough that the individual horse is comfortable making the trek to the water source, etc, by themselves, and the entire group, therefore, does not need to move together so much since the distance to be traveled is not significant. However, if one pays attention, one will see that it is generally a specific horse that decides when to go to the shelter to get out of the heat of the day, and when to leave the shelter to go back to grazing. My article HERE, utilized this type of leadership dominance. The other way a horse shows dominance and leadership is by “pushing” other horses and making them move out of their way. Most people have noticed this behavior at some time or another. The pushing of other horses is more commonly used for short movements; either moving a horse away from the space they are occupying (generally because that space contains something the dominant horse wants), or moving a horse out of the dominant horse’s personal space for some reason. Because it is used for very short distances and small spaces, it is much more commonly seen in the domestic situation. It is this type of leadership dominance that is utilized for teaching a horse to load itself.
I advocate starting with the “leading” technique that was discussed HERE, in one of my previous articles. In this way, the handler shows the horse that the handler is a competent and trustworthy leader and that the follower can trust the handler to keep them safe. Once that trust is established, the handler can move on to the “pushing” technique that will build respect and that will ultimately train the horse to walk onto the trailer by itself. The horse will not feel threatened or anxious from this more dominant behavior from the handler if the handler takes the time to first establish the trust relationship. Horses are not afraid of the benevolent dominant horse in the group; only the unknowns and the bullies inspire fear.
As will most specific training issues, preparatory work is very important. Essentially, you are going to teach your horse to move out slightly in past you so that you push the horse in a direction of your choice. You want to be able to “drive” the horse and it move forward from you on cue.
You will need to have a long lead line, 10-15 feet, or a longeline. Start by leading the horse parallel alongside a wall or fence. Step sideways slightly to put the horse between you and the wall/fence. Raise your free hand towards the horse’s hindquarters and step to the rear of the horse while encouraging it with a verbal cue to move forward. Because I want this to be used in specific situations without confusion or hesitation on the horse’s part, I use a voice command, not just a generic “clucking” noise. As the horse moves forward, allow the line to slip through your hand so that the horse can move past you. Keep him going until his hindquarters have gone past you. Practice this a few times in different places along the fence or wall working from both sides of the horse, until the horse understands the concept and moves willingly forward past you. Aim for a relaxed, calm walk forward. Also make sure the horse waits on your “go forward” cue and doesn’t just start moving forward on his own in anticipation. I have seen more than one handler get stepped on when the horse started walking into the trailer before the handler was ready; you may have to pause to gather up a lead line so that you or the horse doesn’t get it wrapped around a leg, or you may see that something in the trailer is not right and needs to be attended to (ALWAYS pause and check the inside of the trailer before sending the horse in…….I once found a wasp nest inside the trailer as I was standing outside of it with the horse waiting–sending a horse in with a wasp nest would have been disastrous!). It is also essential that the horse understands that the only time it is permissible to go past you is when you give a specific cue to do so.
Once you feel he understands the cue, you can then move to using the horse’s stall, or by creating a “stall” with barrels and boards and tarp or whatever you have around. Even hay or straw bales will work. In fact, building a “stall” with bales is a great way to practice for the trailer, it allows you the opportunity to back the horse out of a small space, too. When utilizing a real stall, though, again, don’t just simply let him walk in on his own accord as you might normally do. The idea here is to establish a set of cues, much like a dominant horse does, that you will use consistently to let the horse know that you want him to walk forward. I will walk the horse up to the opening, then stop him and make sure I have his attention. I then fiddle with the rope, or move around a step or two. After a moment, I move off to the side and rear of the horse and give the cue to walk forward. You can use tarps on the ground and ask the horse to walk over it, or past scary umbrellas, or dangly things, but the point is that this time, instead of you going first and him following (as explained HERE), he is expected to move out away from you and past, over, or into the scary thing by himself. The timid or anxious horse will need calm encouragement. Sometimes, just standing and waiting without allowing movement in any other direction except the indicated one works best with this horse if they appear very tense. With the obstinate or stubborn horse, you may need to apply stronger pressure with the end of the line, or a longewhip. But the horse must go forward in the direction you’ve indicated and no where else, so often starting with something very easy (such as moving past you and a fence/wall to open space) or familiar (such as their stall) and progressing to more scary and then more confined is more productive. It will avoid overstressing the sensitive horse and build confidence and will often reinforce your right to push the obstinate horse around and avoid confrontations. And certainly, not every horse will even need to go through all the steps. Horses that are already loading willingly and calmly by following someone up and into a trailer will often have no issues at all with doing it without a leader once they understand the cues, simply because the trailer is not a big deal to them.
Finally, when the horse is ready to start working with the trailer itself, I will generally have some sort of yummy food in there for them to find, even if it is a haybag with some tasty alfalfa in it. Once the horse is in the trailer and happily munching on their reward, I will flip the rope up over their back (when the horse is loading consistently then I will usually flip it up over their back before, or as, they walk on) and do up the butt bar and then ramp/doors, then walk around to the front of the trailer and give them lots of praise while taking off the lead and tying them with a safety trailer tie. After a few minutes, I snap the lead back on, take off the safety trailer tie, flip the lead over their back (making sure that it is near enough to the haunches that I could reach it from behind), and then walk around to the rear of the trailer and undo the back of the trailer. Once you undo the butt bar/chain, make sure you are standing off to the side incase the horse comes off too fast. If you think that your horse might do so, it will be helpful at first to have a helper stand at their head to keep them calm until you are ready to ask them to back out and to help control the speed. To ask him to back out, I will pat the horse on top of the rump lightly and tell him to “come on” or “out” or something of that nature. If he does not come out or appears confused, reach up and get the rope that is laying across his back and give a gentle tug to get him started. I have a ramp trailer, so I usually try to keep one hand on the point of his rump to reassure him that I am there and when he is ready to step off the ramp with the first rear hoof I will apply a bit more pressure and tell him “easy.” If you are consistent with your timing, it will help him know when the step is coming and makes it less worrisome. With a step down trailer, they step down nearly immediately, so giving a second cue for the step is not necessary.
If you don’t own a trailer, borrow one periodically, just to keep you and the horse accustomed to it. Many trailer sales places will have trailers for rent, and I feel that it is a good investment to even rent one once in a while for a few days to practice with. Having a horse load and unload calmly is an essential skill, in my opinion, even if you never plan on trailering. There are always exceptional circumstances that could come up and no one knows what the future may bring. It’s best to be prepared.