No Nonsense Trailering From The Ground Up
No Nonsense Trailering From The Ground Up
By: Rhett Russell
Courtesy of Natural Horse Magazine
Good Groundwork Preparation Equals Good Trailer Loading and Unloading horse pics with Rhett Russell
We have all seen some real interesting trailer loading scenes – the person who “bribes” his horse into a trailer with food, or the two-person loading ordeal where one person pulls on the lead rope and the other pushes on the rear of the horse, and my personal favorite – “the threesome” where two people use a rope on the rear of the horse as a sling with the person inside the trailer using a come-along or winch to pull them in. You are never going to pull your horse into a trailer with a lead rope.
Let’s do some simple math and physics. Let÷s say that our sample human weighs 165 pounds and his horse weighs 1200 pounds. Do you think that he could pull a Volkswagen Rabbit automobile into his garage with a 12-foot rope? What if the car was in park, or even worse – reverse gear! What was he thinking? Buck Brannaman does a demonstration at his clinics where he teaches a horse to trailer load and then loads the horse while he is sitting in the cab of his pickup truck. This is no gimmick; a properly trained horse will do what you ask if it knows what you are asking and knows how to respond.
Many of the accidents that occur with the horse and rider are related to trailer loading. You can avoid being a statistic if you do your groundwork and get things working before you move to the trailer. Before you can even begin to approach trailer loading you must be able to longe correctly and ground drive your horse. This also implies that your horse will yield, stop, and stand quietly when you ask and while tied.
What you are after is a horse that will walk into a trailer without you having to get in with him. You want a “self-loader”; this is not a lot to ask. This is for your safety. You’re probably thinking, “Yeah, well you’ve never met my horse.” But, this doesn’t just happen overnight. It may have taken 4 to 5 years for your horse to learn to be a “bad loader”. You, or the previous owner, didn’t mean for this to be the case but this is what you have to work with now. Or maybe you have a young colt; the training is all the same – proper groundwork equals reliable loading.
Tailoring is one of the most difficult situations for a horse. This is not a natural thing for a horse to do. Hurtling down the highway in a metal box at 55 miles per hour is not something that horses learn to do in the wild. If he could see you try to eat lunch and read a map at the same time while you÷re driving, your horse would surely want to walk to the next horse show. Depending on the quality and style of your trailer, you may be subjecting your horse to a lot of stress by the time you get to your destination. You really need to make this as low stress and positive for the horse as possible.
Good Tailoring Practices
One thing to consider is that the horse÷s issue may not be with loading or unloading. How÷s your driving? Do you accelerate smoothly? Do you stop slowly? Do you change lanes quickly? Do you drive fast around corners? You may be contributing to your horse÷s issues with the trailer if you do any of these; evaluate your driving and consider changing your driving style. Have you ever shaken up a bee in a soda can and then let it out? That÷s how your horse feels if you drive erratically.
When you get to your destination, don÷t immediately rush to let your horses get out of the trailer. Get them used to the idea that they may have to stand quietly for a bit before you let them out. If you always hurry to let your horses out of the trailer, you÷re training them to expect that they÷ll be released immediately when you get to your destination. If the trailer becomes a good place to be, what÷s wrong with hanging out there for a little while? We even open the doors and let the horse stand inside the trailer for a while. The horse can see out and doesn’t think that now that the door opened, he’s going to get out immediately.
We don÷t believe in bribing our horses with food to get them into the trailer. But, there÷s nothing wrong with offering them hay while they are standing in the trailer. This is a positive thing to do for your horses; make it a good experience to be in the trailer. They will soon associate the trailer as a good place to be. Standing quietly in the trailer is a good thing to reinforce. We fill the hay bag and let them eat while they are in the trailer, but don÷t hold food in front of their face in order to get them in the trailer.
Check out your trailer. Is it safe? Make sure that there aren÷t any sharp metal edges. Check the floor to make sure that it÷s sound ¿ no rust or rot. Check for any noises, loose objects, broken dividers, etc. Fix or remove them before they become a problem. Is it dark and gloomy? Ideally, your trailer should feel light and airy. This is much more inviting to the horse than a cramped dark cave of a trailer. Consider painting the interior of your trailer with a light colored paint. Does your horse fit into the trailer? I have seen people stuff a draft horse into a very small straight load two-horse trailer. Sure they got the horse in, but its chest was on the front wall and they had to push its rear with the trailer door to squeeze him in. Ideally, your horse trailer should be large enough for your horse to get in and stretch out lengthwise. The side-to-side measurement is not as important. Are your mats clean and dry? Throw some dry shavings down for traction. A horse that has slipped in a horse trailer is going to remember the bad situation and be cautious of the footing in the trailer. Take care of this before it becomes an issue.
Tie your horse in the trailer; don’t leave the horse loose in the trailer. If you have hay bags or mangers, I can guarantee that some of that hay is going to hit the trailer floor and the horse is going after it. This is where the trouble begins.
Don’t use your rope halter to tie your horse in the trailer. These are good training tools but lousy trailer ties. The rope halter can be very dangerous to a horse that gets into trouble in the trailer.
The time to train your horse to load or unload is before you go somewhere, not at the horse show or trailhead. A day spent on trailer loading exercises will pay off more than the amount of time that you will spend here and there dealing with problems over the course of your horse÷s tailoring career.
There are a few things that seem to make all of the difference in the world when it comes to quality loading and unloading. All of these should be accomplished on the ground before you ever get to the trailer. You have some goals to work towards; your horse must be able to stand quietly and be able to back softly before you are ever going to get quality loading/unloading. All of these exercises are important for building a foundation for your horse. The byproducts of this good foundation are good behavior, manners, attitude, and things like trouble-free tailoring. Good groundwork preparation for trailer loading and unloading consists of teaching your horse to yield, longe, and ground drive correctly. The general idea of these concepts is discussed here, but you may need to consult another resource for detailed information on this subject matter – there are entire books written on yielding, longeing and ground manners.
Your horse must yield to you. Yielding is an interesting term. As the definition suggests, there is a pecking order – the horse is subordinate and you are the leader. You want yielding from respect, not fear. If you punish your horse you don÷t have respect, you have fear. Don÷t confuse these two concepts. You want the horse to respect you, but why? Put yourself in the horseshoes of the lead mare. If you were standing next to another horse and wanted to get to some nice green grass on the other side of the horse, how would you do it? Would you walk all the way around the other horse÷s nose or rear? The lead mare is going to yield either the front or the rear of this horse out of the way and walk right through. If you were to walk through your horse at the head to get to the other side of the horse, what would happen? Would your horse stand still? Would it move into you? Your horse should yield to you and move out of the way. If you don÷t have this, then your horse thinks that you are the one who is subordinate. You need to learn to balance respect with an appropriate correction for a situation when necessary and reward for appropriate behavior.
You have to have the six basic yields working for you: forwards, backwards, hindquarters to the left, hindquarters to the right, shoulder to the left, and shoulder to the right. One of the great things about a horse that is yielding to you is that he is in a submissive posture. When yielding the shoulder or hindquarters, he is also at a disadvantage with the legs crossed over – the horse can÷t easily strike out or kick without adjusting its posture. The horse is vulnerable, and knows this, which gives you a big advantage when it comes to building a relationship and earning respect. In addition, the horse needs to be able to stop, and to stand quietly. Knowing how to back up is obviously essential but is not always easy to teach. We’ll discuss it here.
Using backwards pressure in a confined area like a horse trailer can be a little difficult. It÷s easiest to teach your horse to move off of the pressure of your hand first and then move to the lead rope. There are a number of ways to teach this.
Pressure on the horse÷s chest:
Use your thumbs and press into the chest muscle of the horse. Reward immediately when the horse begins to move backward. Lower your posture and reward the horse.
Pressure on the horse÷s nose:
Place your hand on the bridge of the horse÷s nose and apply pressure. Reward immediately when the horse begins to move backward. Lower your posture and reward the horse. Again, this is allowing the horse to follow the feel of your hand. It’s very important to have a good release.
Your horse also needs to move off of pressure from the lead rope and back away from you. To do this, stand about 10 feet in front of the horse. Wiggle the lead rope with a side-to-side motion. Start by asking with a small side-to-side motion with the rope. Be prepared – it may take some extreme motion with the lead rope in order to get this message across to the horse. When your horse starts to move backward off of this pressure, quit moving the rope immediately, lower your posture and reward the horse. You will notice that the more you work with your horse on this exercise the smaller the motion (pressure) with the lead rope you need to get the horse to move.
Difficult Backwards Yield:
For difficult horses, and by this we mean horses that are so braced and resistant that they may as well have their feet planted in concrete because they aren’t going to yield, you need to take the pressure up a notch. We use a couple of different techniques in these situations.
This is kind of hard to describe. Stand directly in front of the horse about 2 feet off of the nose. Use a hand motion similar to what the flight crew on an aircraft carrier does with both hands (this is hard to describe) to guide an airplane in. If you were an Atlanta Braves baseball fan I would tell you to do the “tomahawk chop” with both hands while holding the lead rope between your hands. You are asking your horse to back up with pressure from your hands and the lead rope. If the horse doesn’t move, use the lead rope by rolling it over in a circular motion directed at the horse’s nose. If the horse still doesn’t move, use this same rolling motion with your hands and the lead rope to make light contact with the horse’s nose. Don’t make contact with the horse unless you have to.
This may startle the horse, but he will move off the pressure. Try this again without making contact. You will quickly get the horse to learn to move off of pressure if you reward the appropriate behavior. What you are after is your horse moving backwards with you moving both hands directed at the horse’s nose. You want to be able to do this very lightly.
In the case of a horse that simply will not budge, you will need to take the pressure up another notch. There’s a couple of ways to do this. You can use your body and posture to physically get “bigger” by standing taller, throwing out your chest and walking assertively at the horse while wiggling the lead rope. Then work backwards to as little pressure as possible to get the horse to move. You may have to use a lot of energy with the lead at first while doing this. Don’t walk into a horse that is rearing or striking out – this is not only dangerous, but also deadly.
If you really get stuck you may have to use a pretty severe energy check with the lead rope. If you have ever worked cattle with a lariat, it would be similar to throwing the lariat with a backhand loop. Direct the energy of the rope at the jawbone or cheek of the horse. The horse will think that the rope ran into him. They don’t think that this is something that you did to them, but they will move off of the pressure.
The important thing to remember with any of these methods is that you need to meet the resistance of the horse with a corresponding correction. By this I mean that if the horse is standing still and putting 100 pounds of pressure into you, you will need to respond with 101 pounds of pressure. The trick is not to get mad, but to stay focused on the task of backing up.
You need to be able to longe your horse over obstacles and onto pictures of horses longeing your horsedifferent surfaces. Longeing is used to teach a horse direction, posture, power, yielding and to move off of pressure. For this exercise, we assume that you have already worked through the basics of longeing on the ground. We start with a 12-foot lead rope. It÷s OK to use a traditional 22-foot longe line for this; it just may be a little more difficult to start with. Practice longeing your horse at the walk on good footing such as dirt, sand, shavings etc. then move on to a section of concrete or pavement, carefully. Once you have that working for you, practice longeing over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood. Do not trot or canter your horse on these different materials, this exercise is meant to be done at the walk.
You also need to be able to drive your horse from the ground. You can÷t Ground Drving your horse pictureask your horse to ground drive until you have taught him the concept of longeing. The reasons are simple; unless your horse understands direction and power, you÷ll be wasting a lot of time. And it÷s easier to teach those concepts by longeing than it is by ground driving first. If you have an arena wall or fence, you can save yourself a lot of time. The fence acts as a barrier, which you can use to your advantage. As with longeing, you have a direction hand and a power hand. With the horse on the wall, ask for direction with one hand and raise your power hand. Your horse should move off in the direction you ask. Ideally, you should be able to drive your horse from either side. You should also be able to work from the shoulder to directly behind the horse’s rear. It÷s easier to start up by the shoulder and gradually work your way back. Be cautious of the horse’s feet when starting to ground drive. A “green” horse may kick at you when you are in the “kicking zone” which is anywhere they think they can get you with a hoof.
Practice driving your horse on good footing such as dirt, sand, shavings, etc. Move onto concrete or pavement. Once you have that working for you, practice driving over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood. We have made a bridge that we use for training. The bridge is two feet wide and eight feet long. We drive the horse over the bridge, ask him to stop, back up, stand quietly for a while and then walk off. Once the horse has this under control, we add a piece of wood under the center of the bridge to turn it into a teeter-totter. This adds the effect of motion to the exercise, which is very similar to the horse trailer giving under the weight of the horse. This is one of the best exercises to build confidence and bravery into a horse.
Backing over and through objects
Practice backing your horse over obstacles on the ground. We like to backing up the horse picsback our horses over ground poles. This does two things at once; it gets them used to picking up their feet and they are going backwards at the same time. We repeat this exercise until the horse will softly pick up its feet and step backwards over the ground poles. This can be a time-consuming exercise for some horses.
Another exercise that you can do is to practice going through gates both forwards and backwards. We added the tarp to our gate opening to make it even scarier to the horse. Many horses will rush through a gate because they don÷t like being in a confined area. This is a real good clue that your horse will probably rush into and out of the trailer. Try to use a gate or area with a 4 to 6 foot opening. Drive your horse through the gate and ask the horse to stop at the gate. Ask the horse to stand quietly. When you can do this with your horse responding quietly, ask your horse to back through the gate. Then ask the horse to stand quietly. Remember to reward your horse for appropriate behavior.
This may sound very strange, but we also like to ask our horses to load picture horse loading backwardsinto our trailer backwards. It’s not really important that the horse actually backs itself into the trailer. The concept is that it’s difficult enough for a horse to go in forwards, but if he has to back towards that big scary box then he’s really working through the fear and flight responses. Start by asking the horse to take a few steps backwards towards the trailer and work up to where he is just touching it. This can be very difficult and you may wonder what in the world that this has to do with trailer loading and unloading. When you do turn the horse around to go in forward, he’ll seem to be eager to attack this problem from the front. You are working on a couple of issues at once with this technique – backing up softly and going into the trailer (you just happen to be doing it backwards). It÷s tough for a horse that hasn÷t been exposed to these situations to accept being asked to back into a confined area. This is a very worthwhile exercise for both you and the horse to learn. We have done this in both straight and slant load trailers with and without ramps.
If you follow through with your groundwork exercises, trailer loading and unloading will not be an issue to either you or your horse. When I work with people on trailer loading issues, I tell them that we can either address the issue as a complete package and take the time to do it right or they can deal with poor loading the rest of their lives – it÷s your choice.
Trailer loading is not about eating. Don’t bribe your horse with food to get into the trailer. You may be able to get him in this way, but the horse probably doesn’t want to be there for any reason other than the food. This is where you can get into some bad behaviors such as the horse rushing out of the trailer, stepping on or over you, etc. Besides, what are you going to do if you don’t have any grain or hay to get them in after the trail ride or horse show?
Don’t hit your horse in the rear with a stick or crop – make this a good experience. It is OK to let a horse know that he is in your space. This is probably the most common thing we see people do – pester their horses to the point where they get some attitude and now they really don’t want to get into the trailer. On the other hand, if you have to use the lead rope to direct energy at the horse to keep them out of your space – DO IT. Be safe. Approach trailer loading in steps; again you have to be able to longe and ground drive to effectively teach the following technique. There is no magic time limit to any of these steps. Some horses can learn in five minutes while some may take two weeks. Be patient and make time work for you. Most of all remember to reward your horse for appropriate behavior.
Step 1: Show your horse the trailer. Open the doors. Make sure that everything is safe. Let the horse look around. REWARD your horse. Is your horse calm? If yes, proceed to the next step; otherwise work on this until your horse is calm being outside of the trailer. If he can÷t handle being outside of the trailer, you÷re going to have a difficult time when you have the horse inside the trailer. Remember to reward your horse for standing quietly.
Step 2: Longe your horse at a walk at the door of the trailer. Have the pictures of horses loadinghorse back up, change direction, and stop. REWARD your horse. This is a new environment; make sure that this is a good experience. Is your horse calm? If yes, proceed to the next step; otherwise work on this and reward your horse for standing quietly.
Step 3: Drive your horse (ground driving) on the ground at the door of pictures of horses loadingthe trailer. Ask for a halt. Drive him by the door and around in a circle, and stop. REWARD your horse. Is your horse calm? If yes, proceed to the next step; otherwise work on this and reward your horse for standing quietly.
Step 4: Drive your horse (ground driving)
into the trailer. Use the lead rope as a tool to ask for direction/power andpictures of horses loading to keep the horse out of your space. Don’t worry if he stops or takes a step into the trailer and then back out. Be patient and continue into the trailer. Horses are claustrophobic animals by nature; they don÷t really want to be in a confined space like this. Drive the horse into the trailer and ask him to stand there. Your goal is to have the horse standing quietly inside the trailer for as long as you ask.
NOTE: With this exercise, you are going to have to work with the horse to load and unload. You may not be ready, but the horse is probably going to want to get out of the trailer. If the horse starts out of the trailer on his own, go with him and support him through getting out of the trailer. Don÷t let the horse turn around and go out forwards in a slant load trailer. Walk the horse backwards out of the trailer. You want the horse to think that it was your idea to get out of the trailer, not his. Then load the horse again and work on standing quietly. You may want to skip ahead to the next section on Unloading so that you have the concepts of what to ask and look for with the horse.
You may enter the trailer to reward the horse and spend some quality trailering your horse picturestime petting (rewarding) for doing what you wanted. I like to stand at the horse’s shoulder and scratch his withers as a reward. Use common sense – if you are working with a horse that is rearing, pulling back, “dancing in the trailer” or kicking the walls, why in the world would you get into the trailer with him? For that matter, a horse like this is not ready to work on trailer loading – you should be working on groundwork exercises outside of the trailer. Get these types of issues worked out before you get to the trailer and you÷ll be set up for success.
Many horses will get the front feet in the trailer and just stand there – pictures of horse trailerinigREWARD this! You are making progress. Reward every step in the right direction. Start with 5 seconds of standing quietly in the trailer (even if it÷s just the front feet that are in) and gradually work your way up to longer periods of time. Pet the horse while he÷s standing quietly in the trailer ¿ REWARD, REWARD, REWARD! It doesn’t matter if the horse is all the way in the trailer or standing in the correct spot right now – you’ll work up to that. REWARD the horse for appropriate behavior and don’t allow your horse to move into your space. It÷s OK to let your horse back out of the trailer if he isn’t comfortable being in there. Your job is to reinforce the trailer as a good place to be right now.
If the horse just stands at the back of the trailer and won÷t step in, make him work. By this I mean yielding and longeing at the back of the trailer, and ground driving towards the trailer. You÷ve probably heard horse trainers tell you to make the right thing easy and the wrong thing more difficult for the horse. This is a great example of this concept. Reward any little step towards your goal of stepping into the trailer, but make the horse work when he÷s looking for a way out of the job. Horses don÷t want to work any harder than they have to and they search for the reward and release that come from doing what you ask. Use this to your advantage.
This can be a slow, repetitious process of ground driving into the trailer, rewarding for standing quietly, backing out and then getting back in again. I have worked with horses that I have loaded and unloaded 35-40 times before I was satisfied that they were comfortable being able to stand quietly and be rewarded. I want the horse to be so comfortable with the process of loading and unloading that it÷s “boring” to them.
While the horse is in the trailer, let him look around, smell the floor and walls, and show him the hay bag. Don÷t restrict curiosity and most importantly don÷t have a “death grip” on the lead rope. Let the horse know that this is a good place to be; your posture and attitude will show the horse a lot about the environment – if you are tense and nervous then your horse probably will be too.
You should also be aware of the horse÷s posture when getting in or out of the trailer. Posture is an important clue as to what you can do to improve the horses “comfort level” in this type of stressful situation. One of the most important things to look for is the height of the horse’s head. A horse that is stressed will keep its head high, so work on yielding at the poll with a horse like this and you÷ll eventually get the horse into a more relaxed posture. The horse’s posture and frame of mind go hand in hand – a relaxed posture equals a calmer attitude and you can encourage your horse to have a better attitude in these types of situations. Many people will regard the horse’s getting into the trailer the first time as success, slam the trailer doors shut, and drive off. This is a HUGE mistake, because the act of getting into the trailer is only part of the success – equally important is the posture and attitude of the horse while he÷s in the trailer.
Tie your horse in the trailer (he should already know how to quietly stand tied elsewhere). Practice tying and untying your horse in the trailer. Close dividers if you have them and ask your horse to stand quietly while tied in the trailer. Practice opening and closing the doors on the trailer so that the horse gets used to the trailer getting darker when the doors are closed and the light flooding the trailer compartment when the doors open. I like to walk around the trailer and bang and clang anything that the horse will likely hear, such as doors, starting the engine of the truck, throwing saddles in the tack room, etc. I also like to make sure that the horse has hay to munch on while standing tied in the trailer. Make the trailer a place the horse wants to be.
NOTE: Use a flat halter for this exercise.
DO NOT TIE YOUR HORSE IN
THE TRAILER WITH A ROPE HALTER!
Rope halters are great training tools but extremely dangerous to the horse for tailoring.
Reinforce these things every time you load your horse. Teaching a horse to load properly can eat up a lot of time. Ideally, you want to practice numerous times with each of these exercises and do them until the horse is soft (in a relaxed posture). Is your horse calm loading and standing in the trailer? If yes, proceed to Unloading; otherwise work on this (patience) and reward your horse for standing quietly.
Now that you have your horse in the trailer, your objective is to ask your horse to calmly back out of the trailer. Trailer unloading is as much about groundwork as is trailer loading. You can really see where you are with your horse÷s foundation by how he reacts to getting out of the trailer. Ideally, you want your horse to slowly back out of the horse trailer in a relaxed posture. Whether you are using a straight load or slant load trailer with or without a ramp, you should be working towards this goal.
Don’t let the horse turn around to go out headfirst; this is dangerous in most trailers. The exceptions are stock trucks and horse or box vans. These vehicles have steep ramps that may not be safe to back down. The reason you want to ask the horse to back up is safety related; a horse that is in a hurry to get out of a trailer may step on or over you to get out. The trailer is one of the most dangerous places for you to be with your horse, so make it a little safer by following some simple guidelines. We personally don’t like to get into a trailer full of horses unless it’s absolutely necessary, and we have some pretty well trained horses.
Untie the horse. Ask the horse for a step backwards and then release and reward. This is the exact same exercise that you would do if you were asking the horse to back up outside the trailer; you÷re just doing it in the trailer now. Reward the horse and ask the horse to stand quietly for a few seconds. If I am working with a horse that starts out of the trailer on his own, I go with him and support him through getting out of the trailer. I want the horse to think that it was my idea to get out of the trailer, not his. Then I will immediately load the horse again and work on standing quietly and soft steps backwards out of the trailer.
Ask the horse to stand quietly, and then ask for another step backwards Get one good soft step backwards, then two, then three, etc. Pretty soon your horse should be backing up softly out of the trailer. Ideally, the horse should not start to get out of the trailer unless you ask. Use the backing techniques that you learned in the groundwork exercises. You have to be flexible; some horses will step back and seem to get “stuck” and some may want out of the trailer as soon as possible. Take what the horse gives you and work with it. You may need to use the forward yield to correct the tendency for the horse to drift or rush out of the trailer immediately – when a trailer door opens, a horse is naturally going to try to get out of the trailer. Don’t try to hold the horse in the trailer with the lead rope. Again, if your horse needs to get out, let him out. It÷s much safer for you and the horse if you work up to longer periods of time of standing still in the trailer. I still want the horse to think that it was my idea to get out of the trailer, not his. If the horse rushes out, I will immediately load the horse again and work on standing quietly and stepping backwards softly out of the trailer.
You may already see that patience is a difficult thing to teach when a horse is concerned about the surrounding environment. If you go into trailer loading/unloading with the attitude that the horse is going to do this because “I said so”, then you really need to consider whether you should be training the horse.
This is the point where you will see if your horse will stand still and your groundwork has paid off. Use your yielding skills to ask the horse to stand quietly by yielding at the poll (lowering the head at the last vertebrae between the head and spine), then to back out calmly. Take your time and don’t worry about getting everything right. You may even want to ask for an occasional step forwards. You don’t want the horse to anticipate your next move and it’s easy to get stuck in this rut when you’re in a hurry to get out and get ready for a show or to go riding. You should be rewarding your horse by petting or scratching, whatever reward method you have worked out, as you go. Your horse should be relaxed, not sweaty, nervous, or anxious to get out. If not, then you probably missed something along the way.
Take your horse for a ride in the trailer. I like to get them used to the movement of the trailer as soon as possible. Some horses do better with another horse in the trailer for their first few rides. If you have another horse that will stand quietly, use him as a “role model” to help support the horse you are training to trailer. Don÷t wait until you are going to a show or trail riding to see how your horse handles the movement of the trailer. Get the horse used to the tailoring process. When we go to the grocery store, we often take a horse with us in the trailer. We get two things done this way – we get food, and the horse gets to go for a ride.
If you did your groundwork correctly, you should have a horse that will load without you getting into the trailer with him. This same horse should also exit (backing up) from the trailer in a soft relaxed posture. If you have problems with any of these areas, you should review your groundwork exercises.
Practice Makes Sense
The three biggest issues that people have with their horses when unloading are rushing out of the trailer, rearing, and turning to go out forwards in a slant load. I have seen many people with slant load trailers turn their horses around so that they can walk out forwards. Many of these same people tell me, “my horse can÷t back out of a trailer”. I wonder how the horse told them this? There are situations and horses that merit allowing turning and unloading, but as a general rule, you have to train your horse to be able to softly walk backwards out of the trailer.
At times you are going to have to get into the trailer with your horse. No matter how well trained you think your horse is, you should minimize the amount of time that you spend in the trailer with your horse when loading and unloading. This is the time when most of the accidents happen with the horse and/or rider getting hurt.
We like to practice loading and unloading at home with the trailer safely connected to our truck. We don’t go anywhere, but we may load and unload 2 to 3 horses at a time. Why not get more than one working at a time? You can work on patience and the expectations of the tailoring process with the horses. Mix it up and load them in different orders, and tie them outside your trailer and let them see what’s happening with the other horses. If you only have one horse to work, mix it up with him too. Tie him to the trailer for a few minutes in between loading and unloading sessions.
For training to load and unload, we use a rope halter and lead rope. This is the only time that we can recommend using a rope halter in a trailer. Never use one when you are moving down the road.
Those of you who have spent the time to build a relationship with and a foundation for your horses will be rewarded with quality loading and unloading from your horses. Find out where you are in this continuum and work with your horse to get to the goal of loading and unloading quietly and softly.
As with everything that you do, there are “exceptions to the rule” – times when you just can÷t do what you know may be right. I had to go get a sick horse from the racetrack that was a poor loader but needed to get into the trailer so that we could get her to the veterinarian. And I have bought horses at auction with absolutely no experience getting into the trailer. Obviously, you need to get the horses home before you can do very much with them. In cases like this, you do whatever it takes to get the horse in the trailer safely. Just remember that cases like this are exceptions; you don÷t have to live with poor loading and unloading.
About the author:
Rhett Russell is a freelance writer and horse trainer. He and his wife Marilou live near Olympia, Washington beside the Capitol Forest recreation area. They own and operate Cloudburst Farm where they breed, start and train horses for future careers in dressage, eventing, and other disciplines. They believe in developing the horses’ abilities with a foundation of good ground manners and versatility.
Rhett and Marilou produce all-around horses that are at home on the trail as well as in the arena, and in the process they help people build lasting relationships with their horses. The Russells also own and operate Natural Horse Supply, an online supply store, and they make many of the high quality products that they offer.
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Article and pictures courtesy of: Natural Horse Magazine