A trailer-loading lesson

Many horses resist entering tight spaces. Here’s how to overcome that problem
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Question:I have a two-horse, straight-load trailer, which my horse will enter only if the divider is down. When it’s in place, he refuses to go in. Treats and grain aren’t enough to coax him, and I usually have to resort to using a butt rope with the help of two people to get him inside. Most of the time I am hauling him on my own, so when I need help, there isn’t anyone to assist. Once inside he is fine and will wait until it’s time to unload. The easy solution would be to take out the divider, but I’d like him to accept loading with it in place. How can I train him to load more readily?

Name withheld by request

Answer: I strongly agree with the idea that a person needs to be able to load his or her horse without assistance. The good news is that your horse loads without the divider, so if you were in a jam, taking it out could be an option.

Horses resist leading into trailers for a number of reasons, but in this case, it’s clear that the issue is the confinement of the narrower space. Here are some steps---the first two done without the horse trailer and the third with it---that will help you develop a long-term solution:

• Get the horse comfortable with passing through tight places. Create a pathway using four upright barrels, two on each side, a little wider than the trailer stall. Send the horse through on the lead line while you remain outside the barrels. To make it more challenging, gradually pull the barrels closer together to the point where he remains unfazed even when he bumps his ribs on the way through. As he gets comfortable with the barrels, use other obstacles, such as jump standards, to create more opportunities to guide your horse through narrow channels. You’ll want to do this until he relaxes and can walk through as many different tight spaces as possible.

• Help the horse equate confined spaces with rest. Once a horse will go through narrow pathways, the next step is to have him stand still in one. Circle him around and keep him actively working and moving for at least 15 minutes. When it’s time to rest, bring him back between the barrels and ask him to stand still. Resting is his reward for working, and he will eventually see that confined space as a desirable place to be. If at first your horse does not want to stay there, you can widen the gap between the barrels, but as you continue to use the area as a place to rest, gradually pull them in again---ideally, until the space is narrower than the trailer stall.

• When either leading or sending a horse into the trailer, release aids or pressure to reward him for even the smallest compliance. The horse needs to feel release and comfort with every step he takes toward the trailer. A release of the aid means you let the rope go slack, relax yourself and give him a moment to consider this try. Then after a moment begin asking again. Be patient and focus on each movement he makes getting closer or farther away from the trailer. If he moves closer in any way, release and reward for another moment. Then ask again. If a horse feels forced or is continually pushed toward or into the trailer with no relief or time for thought, he won’t build confidence to go in easily in the future. Reasons to release the pressure include: if he looks like he’s going in a bit deeper, is being curious or takes a small step closer thereby incrementally moving his way all the way in.

• When it comes time to load him into the trailer, keep him active beforehand. Do lots of transitions and movements both to get the horse’s respect and to get him to focus on you. Just as you did when you taught the horse to rest between the barrels, take 15 minutes before asking him to step into the trailer. One of the more common mistakes people make is to try walking a horse straight to the trailer without any preparation, only to find that he doesn’t want to go in, and then the struggle begins. If that happens, establish respect, keep him moving, and then go back to the trailer and send him inside to rest.

Notice that the bulk of your training work will take place away from the trailer. When a horse has confinement issues, it’s best to work on building his confidence through simulations before approaching the feared obstacle. This method will challenge him and help him gain the self-assurance he needs, but any struggles along the way won’t be “attached” to the trailer.

This article first appeared in the December 2017 issue of EQUUS (Volume #483)

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