For many people, just getting their horse on the trailer is a struggle and when you finally do, it feels like the battle has been won.
And because we are human and direct line thinkers, all we want to do is get that horse on and go somewhere which is probably the last thing the horse wants to do.
If we look at trailers from the horse’s point of view, we would see a mobile cave that takes them away from their pasture mates and most likely means hard work or frightening new experiences.
Horses are naturally claustrophobic so it takes a lot of confidence-building to have them feel safe in such a confined space.
More importantly and something that we humans don’t often consider, is that horses are herd dependent so asking a horse to go on a trailer on their own is quite a challenge for them.
A horse’s instincts tell it that being alone and confined possibly means it will die.
Thankfully, horses are naturally inquisitive so once fear is overcome, they are willing to look at new things.
It’s only once a horse has become confident about what happens after he gets in the trailer, that he will look forward to and enjoy outings. Once he does, loading will be a breeze and travelling easy with your horse arriving dry and happy.
So how do we train our horses to love trailers?
It’s relatively easy actually once you take the pressure off – first of all about getting the horse loaded in just one session and then, go nowhere.
If you think of the trailer as a comfort zone for the horse then it’s your job to convince him that it’s the best place in the world to be.
This can be achieved by placing the trailer in his pasture so he/she can spend time checking it out. It’s probably a good idea to cover up the towing connection and wiring so an inquisitive horse doesn’t chew it.
Be sure to chock the wheels and if you leave the ramp down, ensure there are blocks under the back so if he steps onto the trailer, it doesn’t tip up which will alarm him.
If your horse has had some negative trailer experiences or is very suspicious about it, then feeding him near the trailer or from the ramp will allow him to see it’s a good place to be.
Some people have success with feeding their horse in the trailer which is fine providing there is nothing he can injure himself on, or get stuck trying to turn around (this can happen if the centre divider is pushed open wide – it’s better to remove it altogether or keep it secured in the middle).
When your horse is confident about being around the trailer when you’re not demanding anything from him, then it’s time to add your suggestion to load.
Loading for the first time
But before you do this, consider what’s happening with his pasture mates. If he’s in a place where they can disappear from sight then it may be best to keep one yarded nearby preferably where he can see it from behind.
Better still, if he has a buddy that loads calmly then put him on first and ask your young or frightened horse to join him.
You need to be careful here as a particularly assertive horse may be too threatening to expect a submissive horse to load beside so choose a gentle friend as a trailer companion.
If you are asking your horse to learn to load on his own, then have a helper hold his friend at the front door so he doesn’t feel like he’s completely on his own.
Whichever way you choose to load (by leading or driving in) take small steps and use lots of approaches and retreat.
If you can ask your horse to back up after each time he goes a little further in and once he’s relaxed at that point (licking and chewing, head down or willing to eat food), you will be confirming that he will not be forced or trapped in this ‘metal cave’.
When horses know they can come and go if they need to, they feel much safer and therefore will be more willing to stay there longer.
It will be up to you to judge how far to take your horse in any one session but think about the saying ‘Less is More’. If you can finish when the horse has made some small achievements and is relaxed, he will remember this for next time so his confidence levels increase rapidly.
As an example, for the first loading lesson with a young or frightened horse, I would only expect them to feel comfortable putting the front feet on the ramp and being able to back calmly in their first session.
In the next session, they might get all 4 feet on the ramp or 2 in the trailer and be able to stay there for a minute or so.
Then in the third session, they may go all the way in but not have the back closed which is something I don’t do until the horse can stand calmly on the trailer to eat some food without me holding him there.
Before doing the backup, see if he can cope with the ramp being lifted a little and put back down. Horses need to become familiar with all the noisy things a trailer does and at first, these may cause him to shoot out – allow him to but then ask him straight back in and re-confirm the trailer is the comfort zone.
Better still, show him the ramp lifting while he’s outside the trailer along with rattling and banging the chains and dividers so he becomes familiar with the noise before loading.
When he can handle the back being done up, I would then teach him about a breeching chain by first using a breeching rope outside the trailer and asking him to yield forward to the pressure.
Then repeat the same thing on the trailer and when you can back him off halfway and use the breeching rope to bring him forward again, then you know he will accept a breeching chain.
So, now we have our horse standing calmly on the trailer and you’re thinking – “now we can go to the horse show”! WRONG!!
This is the quickest way to confirm to the horse that the trailer means discomfort instead of comfort. I like to get the horse thinking the trailer is just another version of his stall – where he gets fed really nice things.
So, rather than drive him somewhere, feed him there several times.
He will then look forward to going in the trailer and become used to being separated from his herd mates. Be sure to only allow him off the trailer when he’s relaxed as releasing him from confinement when he’s upset, only leaves him with a negative memory of the trailer.
When you are ready to go for a drive, just go a short way – this will depend on your situation but it may be anything from a few metres to around the pasture once.
Again, when your horse is relaxed, he can be let off the trailer so don’t be in a hurry to get him out when you stop.
By all means, check on him and leave the front door open for some fresh air but teach him that he only gets off once he is quiet.
The same goes for when you let the ramp down. Wait until he’s quiet before you undo the breeching chain and remember, never undo the back unless he’s untied as a pullback in a float is usually a disaster.
Once your horse copes with short trips, either with a friend or alone, then it’s time to take him somewhere that you can unload but put no demands on him other than to perhaps enjoy a nice pick on the grass while you have a cuppa with a friend.
You could even use the trailer to move your horse to a new pasture – provided he’s not leaving his best friend as then he’s likely to think trailers take him away from familiar things.
A couple of trips like this and your horse will think trailer rides are a good thing. Only then, would I ask a horse to go to a play day or a small event where we could ask them to do things.
When you get there
When you first get to a new place, your horse will feel happier in his comfort zone (the trailer) than outside in unfamiliar surroundings so leave it a while before you unload – once he’s happily eating, you can be sure he’s relaxed enough to get off.
And if you need somewhere secure to leave your horse while buying lunch or walking a course, the trailer is probably the best place as it’s his comfort zone, provided he has food to occupy him, and someone to check that he doesn’t get into any trouble or agitated.
Now your horse is happy to go on and travel to an event, the training needs to be reinforced occasionally. I try to put my horses on for a feed and go nowhere after 3 trips somewhere.
This reinforces the trailer as a comfort zone and will keep your horse travel happy for a long time.
Read this article for more tips on how to Easily load and unload an anxious horse.