The owner said his horse had trailer issues. He’d watched a video and used a whip and rope, with bad results. Then he hired a local trainer but after two hours of fighting with his hysterical horse, she gave up and left. Now the horse was even worse, the owner said, and dangerous.
The trailer isn’t the problem. It’s always my first thought.
It was a very slow load but the horse got into the trailer and I brought him to my barn for training. He was smart and very athletic. A sensitive breed; the sort of horse some people would label hot, unless you looked at his eyes and saw his fear. The really crazy part was that the horse wasn’t crazy. He’d been an endurance horse and was spectacular on the trail. Calm, forward, and happy; wonderful to ride. It’s just the trailer, the owner said.
The trailer isn’t the problem.
The gelding and I worked a little bit every day trying to build his trust back–a glacially slow process. Eventually he loaded faster, just one step at a time. I showed the owner my method and he felt he could continue on his own. Patience was crucial. We agreed.
I was at their boarding barn a few months later and saw them tacking up. The horse was tied to the trailer pulling back and rearing, while the owner, with the lead wrapped around his arm, leveraged his body off the ground and onto the rope, using his weight to add to the pressure the rope halter already cutting into the gelding’s poll. The poor horse managed to pull back even more frantically, his eyes wild with terror. There are no winners in this war. It’s been three years and our failure with this gelding haunts me still. It’s enough to make you think it’s time to lock the front gate and take up needlepoint.
Any horse can have a bad day loading. Sometimes it happens when a rider is loading the way they always do; everything is fine. Then someone innocently asks to borrow fly spray, so the rider says, “Yes, it’s in the truck,” and all of a sudden her horse won’t load. Meaning a small thing can alter the usual rhythm of the process and then normal becomes broken; the horse hesitates. At that moment, the rider has an opportunity to not turn loading into a training issue.
Step One: Standing next to your horse, announce in a loud and clear voice, “We’ve got all day. Take your time.” Breathe. It’ll take twice as long if you hurry, so repeat, “No rush, what a good horse.” Obviously this cue is meant for you.
Step Two: Stop worrying about the trailer. Humans have much more anxiety about trailers than horses do. It’s why some folks have trailer issues with generations of horses. It’s not about the trailer.
Step Three: What is the horse really afraid of? Imagine an area the size of a living room rug, around 12’x 10′, on the ground just at the back of the trailer. They’re afraid of that space of ground because that’s where the fight happens. Horses are smart enough to see the big picture and they’re conflict avoidant. They want to avoid the “scene of the crime.” So DO NOT EVER pick a fight there. Instead, bring them to that place as peacefully as you’d lead them to water. Go one step at a time, if needed, with a release and reward each step.
Step Four: Do you feel like this is all just a bunch of coddling and that firm discipline is needed? Do you want to make something happen? Go to the tack room and get a whip. Then flog your face with it until you’re obedient. See how well that works? Now call a friend and get a set of polo wraps out. Have your friend take one end of the wrap and wind it around your torso, starting about mid-chest and going down to just above your wrists, so you are able to move your hands a bit but not use your arms at all. Then go back out to the horse. In other words, discipline yourself. Do less, go slow, be polite.
Step Five: You may ask him to move up from his hind, but no pulling on the lead. Not once. Sing it out, “All we are saying … is give peace a chance“. If you still need to pull on his face, repeat step four.
Note: Using feed to tease him into the trailer might work on a sunny day with no wind or challenge, but attraction to food fails when the stakes go up. When faced with multiple horses or injury or natural disaster, a relationship with treats will never save your horse. He needs a relationship with a leader for that. Feed him when he’s in if you want, but not during the process.
Step Six: Once the horse’s head is near the back door and he’s standing quietly, can we all agree that the horse knows what’s being asked? There’s no need to get loud now; you’re there. Ask for anything remotely like another step toward the trailer and reward that. Be cheerful; you’ve refused to escalate so far and that’s wonderful for someone of your species.
Now is a good time to ask how much importance your ground work plays in your daily routine. Do you do leading exercises consciously? Does he move forward when you ask without pulling? Is going into the trailer any different from stepping on a tarp? Use your best groundwork language every day, connect and ask for light responsiveness as a habit, and know it’s about your relationship. It’s not about the trailer.
If you’re looking at your watch, you’ve lost. Time is a human currency and if you haven’t planned enough time to load him, that’s totally your problem, not your horse’s. Blame yourself.
Still have emotions or frustrations? Need control? Absolutely normal. Breathe, overcome them. Force a smile and become a real leader.
Last Step: He still knows what you’re asking. His head is in the door and you ignore everything that isn’t forward. You reward everything that’s even a thought of forward. Then he simply steps in. He volunteers when he’s ready. It may end up taking less than a minute or over two hours, but he did it and you reward him, knowing that he will remember and go faster next time. Each time you load, the most important thing is what your horse will remember the next time you load.
Then celebrate not resorting to violence. Notice how good it feels not being filled with frustration and anger. Smile for real; this is what winning feels like.
Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.