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Step 7: The Lunchbox


Back to Step 6: Water and Bathing    Next to Step 8: Driving & Dragging

Editor's note: This article is part of a multi-lesson training series.

Nothing is more frustrating than a horse that won't load. A lot of people think that since they don't show, who cares if their horse loads on a trailer? They're never going anywhere anyway. Yet, a sudden emergency trip for colic surgery will require your horse to get on a trailer. Also, we've all seen weather patterns or other natural disasters that required short notice evacuations of people and animals. You don't want to wait until an emergency comes, such as a raging forest fire coming your way, to begin training your horse to load.

First, consider what your horse thinks of that trailer. To him, it's a LUNCHBOX. If a predator wants to eat him, there is no where for him to run. His instincts tell him to remain in safe, open places where he can easily escape and see all around him. So, it's natural for him to fear getting inside that trailer.

Some horses used to load well and now associate the trailer with work and won't get on for that reason. You take them away from their comfortable place in the paddock or stall and want them to go somewhere to WORK. If I were a horse and faced with that prospect, I'd call in sick and stay in bed too. We never seem to trailer our horses to grassy fields to let them eat all day. We usually go to events, or maybe the vet. No wonder some horses dread that trailer. Thankfully, horses dwell more in the "here and now" than in the future. They may connect trailering with work later, but you can easily refocus them on NOW.

So basically, we have two possible issues with trailering; fear or stubbornness. You need to recognize which issue your horse is having, though dealing with it will be very similar. The steps to load your horse won't change very much, but how you apply them might. A fearful horse cannot be pushed, he needs to be asked and encouraged. A stubborn horse can be pushed more, but be ready for explosions if you push too hard. Finding the right balance can be difficult because it's different for each horse. I've seen horses pushed from behind with whips and pulled with lunge lines go right in while others will rear and tangle themselves up. I've also seen horses wanting to trust and follow you onto a trailer, but they would not load if you didn't step in first — I've seen just about everything. The most important thing for you and your horse is not to get hurt. Any additional trauma, whether real or imagined, will just make your trailer loading job all that much harder the next time.

Recognize that your horse is not on a clock. Don't decide to practice trailer loading one hour before you leave for work. You'll be more frustrated when he doesn't progress as fast as you'd hoped. He'll feel that stress and everything will get worse. You'll also see this happen when trying to leave or get to a show and you're up against the clock. Always act like you have all the time in the world, even if you don't. You'll set yourself up for failure by forcing practice time into short time spans, especially if you might run out of daylight knowing it's even harder to get your horse into a dark lunchbox.

Figure out how close you can get to the trailer before your horse resists you. He may stop 20 feet away; he may stop on the ramp, but not go in. Wherever this line is, you need to recognize it as your starting point. If your horse was comfortable on that ramp to start with, then you cannot let him stop any further away the next time you approach it. He's already told you the ramp is OK and safe, so any stopping before the ramp is now a game to him of how far away he can get from that trailer once he knows you want him on it.

If this should happen, work your horse away from the trailer in small circles. Keep him going for about 10-15 minutes without rest, not hard, but keeping his feet moving. When you're ready to let him rest, let him do it at that stopping line he gave you, or closer, if possible. Pat him and rub him to let him know he should be comfortable and safe with you there. Now, BACK him a few steps away. He needs to begin to learn that his exit is behind him, should he choose to take flight, we don't want him thinking forward. This is very important — here's why:

Some of you have stock trailers and are used to turning your horses around and walking them out the back. This is a very dangerous thing to do for several reasons. Someday, your horse may be on a ramp loading into a straight load trailer and will try to turn around, could fall off and hurt himself, or could just get frightened about falling off — either way, you've added a new trauma. Most trailers on the market require horses to move forward and move backward inside of them, but NOT turn around. You don't want your horse to rush or run off a trailer, and they can't do that backing up, but they can if moving forward out the back of the trailer. If a horse panics on a trailer and tries to escape, he'll think forward and go up over the chest bar, hurting himself or getting stuck — I've seen this happen. Do your horse a favor and teach him to back off trailers, even if you have room to turn around in yours.

Now, I'll assume your horse has learned to lead properly and give to pressure as outlined in previous Steps. Ask your horse to move forward onto or towards the trailer by applying firm constant pressure to the lead rope. Don't yank, tug, or pull too hard. Allow your horse to resist for as many minutes as it takes, but don't increase the pressure. Eventually, he'll step forward and immediately release the pressure. When he does, rub him and make him feel comfortable. Continue this process one step at a time. If at any point your horse gets nervous and starts looking for an exit (usually behind him), back him up firmly to the point of being rough to make it uncomfortable for him to want to leave the trailer. Don't let him rest away from the trailer; either bring him forward again or work in circles again. Remember, you need to teach your horse that the trailer is safe and comfortable and that outside the trailer is hard work.

Once you can load him, let him stand quietly inside. Don't lock him in yet. Bang on the sides of the trailer, rock it a little, make some noise like it will when it travels. If he seems about to panic, back him off BEFORE he tries to leave by himself and work him again. Repeat this until he seems fine being in there with you and all that noise — you don't want him panicking while he's alone in there and you're traveling 45 MPH down the road — he needs to become comfortable now while you're there to help him. When that's accomplished, then you can lock him in. If you've prepared him correctly, he shouldn't panic. Of course, we're human and sometime misjudge our horses. If he panics a little, don't unlatch him, just see if he settles down. Only when he's calm do you want to open it up and back him off yourself. IMPORTANAT NOTE: If he is truly panicking and seems he may hurt himself, then you should let him out right away (always safety first).

I find it takes about 45 min to load a horse for the first time using this process. But, give yourself plenty of time. The goal, once you introduce the trailer, is to get him on. Anything less may reinforce to him that he never has to get on. Allowing him to get on the ramp and then putting him back in his stall tells him that is all you wanted him to do and he won't want to get inside that trailer the next time. So give yourself plenty of time to complete this training. If you can load him, but don't want to lock him in just yet, that's fine as long as he goes all the way into the trailer. It's also not a bad idea to take your first trailer ride with him around the block and back. That way, he'll not think that the trailer is taking him away from his home and buddies. Just keep trying to think like your horse about how he perceives this "trailering thing" and you'll do fine.

Back to Step 6: Water and Bathing    Next to Step 8: Driving & Dragging

Jennifer Goddard has been training horses of various breeds for over 20 years using her natural horsemanship methods. She has also ridden and shown in multiple disciplines and is owner of Levaland Farm, a 30 stall horse farm in Massachusetts. Jennifer has a degree in Finance and Entrepreneurial Studies from Babson College, and is also President of Equine Business Solutions, a business specializing in the starting and running of equine businesses.

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