If you look at it from a horse's point of view he is not supposed to go into a trailer or float or horsebox. It puts him in a situation that takes away one of his key survival mechanisms - the ability to go into flight. Couple that with the fact that people tend to put pressure on their horse when it is near the trailer it is no wonder there are problems. He is already skeptical about the trailer and every time he looks at it you put pressure on him to go in making him mentally and physically uncomfortable. It won't take long before he won't want to even look at the trailer let alone go near it.
Changing a horse's perception of the trailer from a trap to a place of comfort and safety is the key to years of successful, easy loading for you and your horse. Sounds easy when you read it quickly doesn't it? But how do you do that?
I don't for one minute think that the way I do it is the only way to approach it, but it has been successful for me with thousands of horses and I've shared it with many people over the past two decades.
Firstly, preparation is the key. Every horse has a limit to what they can successfully learn or change in one session and that is determined largely by their starting point, so you have to set up a programme. If the horse you are dealing with is already troubled by the trailer, has learned negative behaviours or has had little or no handling then you are looking for an improvement on that to make tomorrow's session easier. In fact, for the first few sessions you may not even go near a trailer.
Here is the sequence that I use to prepare a horse for successful loading:
1. Get some groundskills going
I start with at least the "four yeses". These are the four essential yields of forwards, backwards, hindquarters and forehand. If your horse is saying "yes" to your requests to these simple questions, and by "yes" I mean is giving you a positive response where he is putting effort in and doing more than you, then you are ready to ask more complex questions. This is also a fundamental safety issue. If your horse is pushing into you, barging you with his shoulder, swiping you with his head, pulling back from pressure and swinging his hindquarters into you when you are making a simple request, this will only get worse, if not dangerous, when he feels that he is under pressure near the trailer.
2. Use obstacles creatively
I then start to introduce obstacles. When asking a horse to go into a trailer you are asking him to go over, under, between, up to something and then have something come up behind him. All of these pressures can be broken down and taught as isolations: over a tarp, over a bridge, between barrels, under a branch, through pool noodles, through narrow gates. This allows you to build his confidence with the noise, sensation and motion of each element before beginning to put them together. The more confident he is with these obstacles then the lesser the challenge of the first session with the trailer.
3. Build the "try"
Left up to their own devices horses have a natural investigative behaviour pattern that they use to check out new objects that they are not sure about. Just put an unfamiliar object in the paddock and watch what they do. They would not usually go straight up to it like a human would, they would firstly stop a good distance away and look at it before possibly snorting, turning, running away and then reproaching (advance and retreat). They would walk past it one way and then back the other way to get a good look at it out of both eyes. Gradually they would get closer and closer until they were confident enough to touch it with their nose or maybe their whiskers (vibrasse). All this behaviour is gathering information: What does it look like? What does it smell like? What does it feel like? Then they make a decision about whether it is safe.
Whilst we don’t want them turning and running from an object, we can try to mimic as much of this natural investigative behaviour as possible. We can allow him to approach and retreat, touch and smell it until he gains enough confidence to go over, under or through.
Unfortunately, it is human nature to want to take a horse up to something and “show” him that it is ok. If they don’t go we put pressure on them because we know it is only a ........ (fill in the blanks) that won't hurt him. However, we need to do the opposite; whenever they are trying to investigate we leave them alone. If they stop trying we back them away (retreat) and ask them again (advance).
So what is a "try"? This is a willingness to try to advance towards something. It could be tiny, just centimetres, but it is a "personal best" and that is all that matters. When a horse makes a try I will pause and then retreat as a reward for the try. Sometimes it will be a full retreat by walking away from the obstacle and sometimes it will just be a backup. If there is no "try", no advance, or attempt to investigate, or even look at the obstacle I will back him up and then send him forwards again immediately with more energy than I had in the back up. He finds the release going forwards and so begins to seek that as an answer. It is all down to timing because:
"Where you put the energy and where you put the release causes a horse to think in any given direction".
Using obstacles teaches your horse the pattern of being sent towards something, being left to investigate and then being allowed to retreat. They become more confident that you are not going to put pressure on them when they are trying.
4. Confidence with the trailer
So, once we have a good relationship with the obstacles and the horse understands the pattern I can start to use the trailer just like any other obstacle. I prefer to stand to the side of the ramp because it makes it easier for the horse to lower his head as he goes forwards and he is less likely to pull back because I am not trying to pull him forwards. This has been practiced over and over with obstacles so by now he is very familiar with the pattern.
I then do exactly the same as at the obstacles; ask him to go forwards, leave him to try, reward the try with a retreat and ask again. After rewarding the small tries and advancements it is typical that he will start to try more, making larger physical advances until you reach a point where he is fully inside. This approach requires patience, persistence and consistency from you. Likewise, if he stops trying I ask him out and send him straight back in with more energy.
Only once he is going in and coming out confidently would I go to the next stage. It could take you many sessions to reach this point so don't get disheartened. Remember you are just looking for personal bests each session.
5. Building the desire
Simply put, if a horse doesn't really want to be in the trailer it doesn't take much to put him off going in so I want to get to the point where he really wants to be in there before I add the stress of shutting him in and going somewhere. So how do I build the desire to be in there? I simply set up a contrast to where he finds rest and comfort inside the trailer. I will move him around a lot away from the trailer doing a variety of yields: forwards, backwards, half circles, hindquarter yields, forehand yields, back up, sideways, doing just a little more than he would like and then rest him in the trailer. After several repetitions he will soon be looking for the ramp.
Remember - this can only be done once he is going fully in with confidence. If you try this too soon you will end up losing his confidence and having to start again. I see a lot of people who have seen a demonstration of the second stage without understanding the pre-requisite and have tried to do a "technique" without understanding the concept.
The first stage builds the "try" and the second stage builds the "desire".
If you want a step-by-step guide to loading try our on-line course "Loading for Life" and get our on-line ground skills course for free.