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Trailer loading is a hot topic with many opinions, I want to share with you how I helped train my horses to be superstars on the trailer.
I budget about 30 to 60 seconds per horse to load them onto the trailer because I know that my horses are going to load quickly, that’s how much confidence I have in the way that I trailer load horses and you can have that same success too. Recently I was observing somebody struggle with their horse, it wasn’t my place to step in, but they were doing things like blindfolding their horse, putting a rope behind their horse, using lots of different tricks. Unfortunately, I have quite a few bad stories about trailer loading, nothing I have experienced personally but the things that I’ve witnessed or things that I’ve heard from other people. Trailer loading is one of those things that it can be super easy, or it can be hell on wheels. It can be a stressful situation, but the good news is that there’s a lot of things that we can do to help make it a lot better.
I had a clients call me up to ask for my advice on trailer loading. This horse was a show horse and had been trailering a lot and had no issues with trailering him. Until one day, they forgot to undo the horse’s head first and undid the butt bar. With the horses head still tied he began to back out of the trailer, when the horse felt the pressure on his head he panicked, pulled up and hit his head on the ceiling, and this ended up being very traumatizing for the horse. At the time they didn’t do anything to help get the horse over the stress, so they went into the show and left it alone. When they went to load the horse again, the horse was stressed, they were stressed and worried and instead of assessing the situation they tired to force the horse on the trailer. Upon arrival, the horse was sweating and stressed out, and not relaxed in the trailer. He did end up backing off the trailer with no issues. However, each time after it started to get a little worse, he now starts to rear, and still it is not addressed. The next time they load the horse on the trailer the horse starts rearing so badly that he flips over, hits itself, and gives himself permanent brain damage.
It’s very important to help your horse find relaxation and understand that if we see that adrenaline spike, that anxiety, and if we’re so focused on getting the horse in the trailer, and not actually helping that horse overcome that fear can result in a more serious issue. This story was not to blame the owners or to make them feel bad, this is more of a learning experience to help you be aware that it can be quite dangerous if we don’t help our horses fine this relaxation and understanding with the trailer, and there’s lots of ways that we can help our horse do that.
When tying your horse, in general, if you’re tying your horses head low that’s going to cause more panic than if you tie your horse’s head high, horses get very stressed if their head is tied low so you don’t want to tie your horse’s head at chess bar height or where he could feel tension to pull down, because your horses reaction is going to be to pull up and back. If your horses butt bar is not done up and they can go backwards, and they pull, they will feel the tension on the halter and may panic and pull back. If this is the case, they need to be trained to give to that pressure on the halter. When they feel tension, they’re more likely to pull up so if your horses already not great at tying, or they’re a little bit anxious with things like stepping on their lead rope, those are signs that your horse isn’t fully aware of how to give to pressure. It is better to tie your horse high in the trailer on a tie ring that’s right up against the ceiling. If he pulls back and feels that pressure he may start to panic and pull back harder and break the snap or the lead rope and end up getting away from the pressure and off the trailer anyway. Therefore, it is much better to untie or unclip your horse’s head from the trailer first before undoing the butt bar.
We need to try to help our horses realize that this is a happy place for them. So how can we help a horse think the trailer is a happy place? Trailers need to be reasonably comfortable with good airflow. Having shavings or something similar to absorb the manure or the urine is helpful so that way your horse isn’t standing in it. It can also help putting shavings from their own stall to give them a familiar smell. I always like to make sure my horses have hay on the trailer, and make sure that the hay nets are a slow feeder net that have the smaller holes so it’s not big enough that a horse could put their hoof through. Even putting better quality hay in the trailer might help the horse think that the trailer is nice stall to be in with the best hay. Offer your horses water in the trailer after they’ve been in there for a couple hours. You can also feed them a meal on the trailer, this will help them be less likely to want to rush off the trailer.
Not many horses like to trailer by themselves, this can make trailer loading even harder. One way to tell if your horse will trailer by himself or not is to put him in the barn or another area by himself, if they can’t go into the barn and be in a stall by themselves, then there’s no way that they’re going to get into a trailer and be fine with being by themselves. You can practice this by bringing the horse you want to trailer somewhere where he can safely be by himself everyday even if for only a short period of time to start and work your way up. And just like in the trailer you can offer him grain, better quality hay, etc. One other thing you can do is put a mirror in the trailer, where they can see it but not touch it, this will might help take his anxiety down.
You want to make sure you drive reasonably careful, stopping slowly, making turns slowly and not taking off to quickly. It can be very eye opening to get in a trailer yourself and stand in the back as somebody tries to drive carefully. I don’t recommend doing this on any public roads but driving around your farm can give you an idea of how the horse feels. This will give you a little better understanding how the horse feels and to give you that awareness for how you’re going to drive your horse trailer. Once you get to your destination it’s important that the horse has a positive experience. If you trailer your horse somewhere, lunge them hard, and compete them hard and you don’t give them any rewards and then ask them to get back on the trailer, well you might have a hard time getting them to go on the next time. You must think about what you’re going to do once we get to the destination to help them feel relaxed and want to go somewhere with you again. All these things are going to help with the trailering experience.
Another mistake that I sometimes hear of people doing is putting a horse in the trailer and practice going for short 5-10 minutes rides. In all actuality that is not super productive because if your horse is nervous in the trailer, they never get fully relaxed in the trailer on those short rides, it’s usually better to go for a longer drive so they are in there long enough to relax and start to be okay with being in the trailer. Two-to-four-hour trips are better for the horses then the short trips, in terms of making sure that they’re fully relaxed on the trailer and when they get off.
When it comes to loading on the trailer, a lot of times people get so focused on getting the horse into the trailer. At an event recently I witnessed a horse was struggling to get on, once it got on, after about 10-15 minutes the people went to quickly shut the doors to essentially trap the horse in. I was asked to help and suggested giving the horse some carrots in the trailer. While the horse is still eating and knows that there’s more yummy stuff still to be had in the trailer, take the horse off and put him back on again, and repeat. The point is to make the horse feel confident in the trailer and reward him for going on and being relax. This is a tactic that could have potentially helped the horse in the first story with his anxiety, and ultimately with the incident that caused the brain damage. Therefore, it is important to find that relaxation and understanding with the task that we’re doing, and don’t be afraid to take your horse off and repeat it until your horse is comfortable, confident, and relaxed while loading.
Before you get to the trailer, there are a lot of things you can do to achieve this. Putting your horse between narrowed spaces, between two barrels or jumps that are set close together to help with your horses’ confidence. There is a proven way you can help build your horses confidence, through Harmony Horsemanship’s 12-week guided Building Confidence Course. In the course you will learn the different types of confidence and training, all the different pieces to why a horse might lack confidence and how to help each specific scenario. This is because there are many different types of confidence and just because your horse can go through a narrow space doesn’t mean they can handle being by themselves, and not seeing other horses, that’s herd confidence. There are so many different types of confidence, we must train for each one. Check out https://harmonyhorsemanshipacademy.org/ for the Confidence Building Course and many other helpful course.
One last important pieces is you must stay focused on your task, and that if your horse is trying, leave them alone. For example, if they’re sniffing the trailer or looking in the trailer that means they are thinking and paying attention. Don’t rush them or force them to get on, wait to ask for anymore effort until they are in a thinking frame of mind. If they stop trying, then go ahead and ask them to try harder, but be patient, you don’t need to do lots of circling or switching tactics, just give your horse some time to think about it. Be patient, be understanding, reward when them by staying out of their way when they are trying and gently asking when they are not.
Lot of tips to help you guys on trailer loading, with a lot of pieces to think about. The easy part is getting on the trailer its all mental pieces we must focus on to help make sure that your horse is set up for success and that they’re going to want to go in the trailer and that they’re going to be okay with where they’re headed. I hope you have enjoyed this blog, please share with us your favorite tip or trick and which one you might use on your horse.
Thanks so much, bye for now.