Sometimes the hardest part about owning a horse is getting it into a trailer. Horses being the instinctively flighty animals they are, a trailer can appear to be a trap, and one bad experience can ruin a horse for loading in a trailer the rest of its life. Here are some tips for making that first experience the best one, and they may also help teach a problem horse to load correctly. The best scenario is to practice loading when you have enough time to do a thorough job of it. Don’t wait until you have to get somewhere in a hurry and expect your horse to jump right in. It’s something you have to practice, and you need time so that you can do it patiently and correctly, without losing your cool and damaging your horse’s sensitivity. This method really works, and if you always listen to your horse, you can be successful every time you ask him to step into a trailer.
Prepare the trailer in advance. If it is a small trailer with a removable divider, take the divider out to make it appear as safe and unspooky as possible. If it is a step-up trailer, get it parked so that the step isn’t very high, such as backed up to a slight hill, so the ground is only a few inches from the floor of the trailer.
Put a halter with a long lead rope on your horse. Lead him up to the open door of the trailer. Your horse will probably stop and balk at the door. Leave the halter rope as slack as possible to let him sniff and breathe and lower his head to “check out” the trailer floor. He needs to test it to see if it is safe. Pet him just a little, as he looks around at the trailer and gets used to the idea of standing near it. Standing at his side, (don’t stand behind him or in front of him; you are not pulling him or driving him into the trailer), give a vocal command such as “ck-ck-ck” to move forward, and use the last two feet of the lead rope in your hand to swing in an arc and make a light “pop” on his back, between withers and croup. If he moves forward, cease popping and reward him instantly, petting him and letting him stand and relax before asking for more forward movement. If he does not move, pop him consistently in an even timing until you get a response from him (you may have to pop a little harder for a desensitized horse; a sensitive horse, you will hardly need to even touch with the rope and they will jump forward). If he pulls back, or tries to go around the trailer door, longe him in a circle at a trot for a minute or two, and then ask him to stop at the trailer door, rest, and relax and then think about stepping in again. Make sure you get him up to the door of the trailer again, before you let him stand perfectly still and relax.
The main idea here is to make the trailer the “safe” place for the horse to be. Start with the “safe” place being the open door. (Later, the “safe” place will be inside the trailer.) Your goal is to get the horse to want to stand at the door, then encourage him to take a step forward. What you MUST do to accomplish this is reward him for ANY forward movement to the trailer. This includes just barely inching one foot forward. The second he lifts a foot to move forward, your consistent “popping” with the halter rope STOPS IMMEDIATELY and you praise the horse, pet him, talk to him, and let him stand a moment. Then, ask him to take one more step by giving the vocal command and starting the popping again. This is how you move his “safe” place forward into the trailer. Any backward or sideways movement results in him having to longe again in circles near the back of the trailer, and he will look for a place to stop and rest….that’s how you get him thinking the best place to be is the trailer. He should learn that it’s a lot of hard WORK for him to disobey. Use his lazy nature to get your desired result: standing in the trailer.
If you get him right to the trailer door and he won’t step up, you can pick up a front hoof and place it in the trailer. He may take it back, but continue the popping, then. Eventually he will learn to step in. At first, only let him put his front feet in, and then stop him and after a moment ask him to step back out. You can pet him, praise him, and then ask for forward movement again. Remember to ALWAYS reward his forward movement. Once he is completely inside the trailer, try to back him out again. It is scary for a horse to get out, and you don’t want him to “freeze up” once he gets inside. Repeat the whole process a few times, and only when he is loading smoothly should you give him any treats or grain inside the trailer. Let him stand for awhile, just petting him and standing near him in the trailer.
The more this is repeated, such as the next day, and the day after that, the better your horse will get. Remember, you are not PULLING or DRIVING the horse into the trailer. Your desired result is that he sees the open gate of the trailer, and thinks “that’s my comfortable safe place…I’m going in there.” The horse should walk right in comfortably.
Hope this works for you. If your horse is really wild, you might have a little more trouble, and need to do more groundwork before you try loading him. But I guarantee you this is the best way to put a horse in a trailer. The other methods (coaxing in with treats, or putting a rope on his hind end, or hitting the horse to drive it in to the trailer) aren’t good for you or your horse, and though this way takes longer initially, it will teach your horse the best mindset to have when trailer-loading.
Kerrie Tischer is the owner of Livery Stable. If you’re in the market to sell or buy a horse, this is the place to start. They offer horses for sale as well as detailed information on riding, selecting a good horse and much more. Visit online for more information.