This post came to be because one of my readers asked me to do a post on trailer loading. I'm a little conflicted when I post on this or any other training topic - I'm not a trainer, except with my own horses, and although I know more than some about working with horses, I also know a lot less than many people. I am only writing about what I know and have experienced or have observed - and what I say may be poorly communicated or not work for you and your horse. Every horse and person are different, and what works for one may not work for the other. The methods I use are also not necessarily the only ones that will work while still being fair to the horse and non-coercive. These are my opinions, and you may agree or disagree with some or all of it - and that's OK. The main reason I write about topics like this is to use the writing process as a way of clarifying my own thinking - having to write it down in a way that others can read (and with luck, understand) makes me think more carefully about my experiences and about how to describe them. When I say that "you" should do something, I'm really talking to myself!
With that out of the way - this is really a two-part post - part is on the philosophy I try to use when working with my horses, and part is on practice - with some particular stories from my own experiences in trailer loading. This is also a really long post, for which I apologize - for me trailer loading brings up a lot of topics.
First, on philosophy. I try to think of every bit of training work I do with my horses as building links in a chain, using all the links we've built before and adding to them bit by bit to get to my goals. This way of thinking forces me to break down what I'm trying to do into small increments, so I can focus on exactly what I am asking for and reward the smallest try the horse offers up. This also allows the horse to learn more easily - he can say "OK, I know how to do steps 1 through 5 already - that's good and I feel comfortable with that - but what's she asking me to do here in step 6? I'm not sure but I know if I keep trying different things that she'll ignore the wrong ones and give me a release when I come up with the right answer." And so on, to steps 7, 8, etc. Sometimes having the earlier links in the chain in place allows you to build on the earlier training in all sorts of directions.
Now, that's all well and good, but a bit abstract perhaps. Trailer loading is a difficult skill for many horses, probably because it's difficult for most people. It tends to accumulate a lot of emotion and even fear. It's also a skill that many horses may not have been taught well, or where they have been taught they've been taught badly or have learned to fear the experience, making it all that more difficult. It's also sometimes a case where people get impatient and frustrated and use force to load the horse, which can damage the horse's trust.
First, a really big disclaimer. Trailer loading can be dangerous, both for horse and person. Large, strong horses in confined spaces with a person can be hazardous. Horses can also injure themselves when loading and unloading. Also, for stability and safety, I never load a horse in a trailer that isn't securely hitched up to a truck. But you know all this - but I think it makes building the links in the chain properly all that more important.
In an earlier post I did called "Presenting the Question", I used teaching Maisie to cross water as an example. Trailer loading is no different - it's just a question we present to the horse to solve, but it's a multi-part question so that makes it a bit more complicated. That post is useful background to this one, since I believe the methods described there are also applicable here.
What skills go into successful trailer loading? Here's a few: giving to halter pressure, backing in hand (backing around turns comes in handy too), backing down an incline or off a step, learning not to be concerned about sounds (the hollow banging of horse feet hitting the trailer floor or the slamming of a partition), passing through a narrow opening, being confined, etc. You get the idea - there are a lot of links in the chain. Although it's certainly possible to get even a completely untrained horse into a trailer, I prefer to build the links in the chain before working on loading so that's it's easier and lower stress. I also believe one reason some horses are reluctant to load is that they are worried, not about getting on, but getting off the trailer - but if you prepare, this should be much less of an issue.
Before I start working on loading, I want my horse to give to halter pressure - head down, soften at the standstill, head side-to-side (although I'm not a big fan of the nose to side head flexing as I don't want a horse with a rubber neck unconnected to the body). I want the horse to give to the pressure of my hand by softly moving away from the pressure if I touch their chest or side. I want the horse to be able to back softly and slowly, one step at a time - no rushing or bracing, and if there's no pressure the horse should stop and stand. I would like the horse to be able to back around a turn in hand. I want the horse to be able to walk forwards easily - no pulling or dragging, and no rushing - the one-foot-at-a-time exercise is great for this (see the first part of my post Backing, One Step at a Time . . . ). The horse should know how to stay outside of what I define as my personal space, and ideally to stand still for at least a short time without being constrained. In order to deal with the backing off the trailer issues, in addition to knowing how to back softly, the horse should be able to back softly down an incline (as in a ramp), and down a step (as he'll have to do with a step-off trailer) - a low secure retaining wall, say along a driveway, would work for this. A good starting point for this is backing over a pole, and then a pile of poles (don't use the round PVC ones that roll - if they roll the horse may be scared - you want the pile of poles to stay put). This question of where the back feet are and knowing what they are doing while backing is a big issue for many horses, and sometimes takes a good bit of work before getting to actual loading and unloading. I think this is one reason some horses get stuck after putting two feet in the trailer - they're not sure they'll know what to do with the hind feet once they get in, in order to get back out. If you've got a trail obstacle platform or bridge, leading up onto this and then backing off is good training for getting into and out of the trailer. I've used a "victory stump" - a large flat stump that the horse is trained to stand up on with its front feet - with good success to help the horse learn to step up with the front feet, since learning to do this simulates the first part of trailer loading.
You get the idea - there are lots of links in the chain, and as you build them, one by one, your horse will gain confidence in himself and in you. Besides, all these links involve fun and creative training exercises for you and your horse to enjoy! I could do separate posts on lots of these steps, but for today I'm just going to talk about loading itself.
So you have a horse with basic leading and giving to pressure skills. What do you need to bring to the party? - besides your horse, a halter and a securely hitched trailer with doors and partitions secured so they can't cause problems by moving while you're working - protective boots - like SMBs -for your horse and a head bumper wouldn't be a bad idea either although many people don't use them. You need to have a plan - how you will proceed step-by-step (and "get the horse in the trailer" isn't a plan), patience - each session may take a while and the entire training process may take a number of sessions, and a complete lack of emotion. If you're worried about the trailer, your horse will be worried about the trailer. If you're beginning to get frustrated or angry, your horse will know it - stop before you get to that point. Don't let bystanders give you advice or "help" - unless you're with your trainer at a lesson or clinic or as noted below where an assistant is necessary if a horse gets really "stuck". Don't use force - no yelling, whips (unless you've trained your horse to go forward from the side using a carrot stick or gentle touch of a dressage whip) or butt ropes. Those methods are for people in a hurry - you'll probably get the horse on the trailer but it'll confirm the horse in thinking Trailers Are a Bad Thing and the horse won't really learn much else. It should be lah-de-dah all the way! Stop when you're ahead and don't try to get too much done at once - if you let your horse think about what he has learned overnight, you may be amazed at how much progress you can make the next day.
As you do each link in the chain, be persistent in asking for what you want but also reward your horse instantly with a release from pressure for each small increment of progress - the horse learns that if he can figure out what you want and do it, he can rely on you to deliver a release. I'll give examples of how I do this when loading as we go along.
So you have the horse on a lead and you approach the trailer. Lah-de-dah, we're walking around and we ignore the trailer. If there's concern about the trailer (if there is it's probably coming from you unless the horse has had a prior bad experience), lead the horse around first at a distance that doesn't concern him for a bit. If you have an assistant, they can open and shut trailer doors and bang things around in a normal manner. Then approach closer and ask for one tiny step - or even a lean - out of his comfort zone. It helps not to face the horse - just look over your shoulder. When you get a step, part of a step or even a lean, release the pressure and walk away for a bit. Don't go further until you get easy compliance at the earlier step - but don't drill, either - once the horse does a step a few times with comfort and softness, go on to the next step. You're building links in the chain, one step at a time. If things are going well, you'll begin to get some licking and chewing as you walk around after your release. Take frequent breaks to allow your horse to process things - a big walk around for 5 minutes or so from time to time, away from the trailer, to allow the horse to relax and rest is a good idea. And remember to stop when you're ahead - have a goal for the day - say, to get the horse to approach within 5 feet of the trailer - stop when you're there or modify your goal to a lesser one (don't get frustrated!) if it's clear that the goal you set is too big for one day.
Once you're at the trailer door, you want to give releases for the smallest tries, but once a step is established, move on to the next one or stop for the day. You also need energy and movement - the objective is for you to ask as clearly and consistently as possible, for the horse to offer things up to you and for you to see what the horse is offering (you really have to pay close attention). Don't let the horse just stand there - keep the feet moving - you want the horse to offer up behaviors that you can ignore (things you don't want) or reward with a release (things you do want).
A typical progression of steps - with releases and walk-arounds with each successful small increment - but every horse and person combo will be somewhat different - might include: lead in the vicinity of the trailer, lead closer to the trailer, lead even closer to the trailer, lead right up to the trailer, sniff the inside of the trailer, bump the trailer with a front leg, paw the inside of the trailer, put one foot in, put two feet in, get in (it's nice if the horse will put one hind leg in and then out but many horses do both back feet together), get in and stand for a second, get in and have the partition or butt bar swung in a bit but not shut, get in and have the partition or butt bar shut but not latched, get in and have the partition or butt bar latched, get in and have the partition or butt bar latched and trailer closed up, get in and have the partition or butt bar latched and trailer closed up and go for a short ride. Also, I want my horses to be able to back off rather than have to turn around to get off, since I consider backing off an essential trailer skill. If you have a step-up trailer, backing it up to a slope so the drop is smaller will ease the learning experience. Then there's loading in the dark as another skill to learn - lights and shadows make everything different.
Some stories that relate to my trailer-loading experiences. First, one time Dawn was being trailered by someone who made one of the big mistakes you can make - tying the horse up before you close the partition or the butt bar. Dawn got frightened, pulled back, broke her halter, hit her head on the ceiling of the trailer and fell out the back on her butt. No serious damage done - just cuts and scrapes - but it could have been much worse. Luckily Dawn didn't hold it against us and has always loaded well.
Then there are the stories about what to do if the horse gets stuck - either won't put a foot into the trailer at all or gets stuck with two feet in and won't go any further. A quote from Mark Rashid - "a body in motion tends to stay in motion, a body at rest tends to stay at rest". So, keep the feet moving. This is where having an assistant who will follow instructions can help. At one Mark Rashid clinic we went to (the same one where we had the infamous Dawn-and-the -broken-window experience described in my post Happy Birthday Dawn!), we arrived and Maisie, who was in the last slot of the trailer, wouldn't get off. We tried for about a half hour but she wouldn't budge - taking one step back and then charging forward again - and was resorting to head-butting the person inside the trailer to express her frustration. It turned out she really didn't know how to back off - she'd apparently always been allowed to turn around to get out but that wasn't an option even as a stop-gap because she was in the very last slot. It was very embarrassing - Mark stood and watched us wrestle with her and didn't say a word - we've learned that Mark never offers assistance unless asked - we finally asked him to help and she got off in a minute or two more - he made it clear to her that head-butting wasn't an option and that getting off now was the job - no fuss, no muss.
Well, we worked on backing up and backing over obstacles and off steps before we worked on more loading. Maisie would get up to the door of the trailer and stop dead and no amount of pressure from the lead rope would get her in. What Mark did to help her was to use pressure to encourage her to keep the feet moving - if the feet are moving the horse can make choices about where to move the body and feet and when the horse makes the correct choice you can reward by releasing the pressure. He picked up a handful of gravel and stood about 15 feet behind her. He would take pieces of gravel and "ping" her on the butt - not really hard enough to hurt but enough for her to feel it. If she moved her feet, he stopped pinging, if she stopped he pinged her again until she started moving. It wasn't punishment, it was non-emotional pressure to keep her stimulated enough to want to move her feet and offer up behaviors, including at first swinging her body from side to side. The job of the person inside the trailer (me) was to keep her head pointed into the trailer - not really pulling, just directing. When she offered up a try in the right direction, such as putting a foot in, she got a release and was rewarded by going for a walk around. Within 20 minutes she was loading calmly - she was still backing out awkwardly and too fast, but we worked more on that at home. Maisie now loads well, and backs off adequately - I'd like it to be a bit slower but it's OK.
Another trailer loading experience we had was with Lily. Lily had loaded before but really didn't much like it since previous loading involved coercion. My daughter was working with her, using the methods I've described, and had pretty easily gotten as far as Lily putting two feet into the trailer. At that point Lily decided that she was done and that she wouldn't go any further. She wasn't at this point in the slightest bit concerned by or scared of the trailer - she just didn't want to move. For many horses who get stuck at this point, that may not be what's going on - some of them may have the backing up concerns. I think you can tell the difference if you look at the horse and its demeanor. Lily was ready to fall asleep with two feet in the trailer. We hadn't seen Mark use the pinging-the-butt-with-gravel method at that point, but had heard him describe using a plastic bag on a stick - not to hit or scare the horse but simply to rattle at a distance behind the horse to create a stimulus to move the feet. We did that, briefly, only until the feet started moving again. Within a short time, Lily offered to load. She's loaded every time since without a problem - no plastic bag required.
Some things I've learned from all this. First, it's OK to put pressure on the horse. It's also OK for the horse to be presented with a problem it needs to try to solve even though that may be somewhat stressful. There's a big difference in my mind between coercion and putting a fair, consistent and immediately released pressure on the horse to get them to offer up behaviors that can be ignored or rewarded. I want my horses to think and try to figure out what I want and offer it up, not to act because of pain or fear of pain. But it's important to figure out how much pressure to apply - too much pressure can frighten a horse or cause it not to be able to think and learn - each horse is different. My definition of enough pressure is what is sufficient to keep the feet moving. A horse that's continuing to exhibit more extreme behaviors, such as rearing and plunging (sometimes a horse will do this once as the feet get unstuck and start moving - to me, that's OK and I just ignore it), is either experiencing more pressure than it can handle - there may be a lesser amount of pressure that will get the job done - or it may be telling you that there are some big holes in its training that need to be filled before it can do what you're asking, or that it just can't understand at all what you want - think of ways to break the task down in ways the horse can understand. And of course some horses that respond violently or with fear have physical issues that make loading or unloading painful or they have had traumatic experiences with trailers - the physical issue may need fixing or very careful step-by-step training may be required.
It was a big help to my horses and me to have someone like Mark Rashid to listen to and work with on these issues. Getting professional assistance isn't a bad option, provided the professional knows what they're doing - sadly this isn't always the case - and uses methods that are consistent with how you want your horse handled and trained. If you want a professional to teach your horse to load or work with you on loading, make sure you watch them train another horse, and are comfortable with what you see, before you hand your horse over to them or work with them.
I think there's still a hole I'd like to fill in my horses' and my trailer loading experience. The way I do it now requires me to get on the trailer as I lead the horse in - this puts me in close quarters with the horse and I'd prefer to stay outside the trailer. The next thing I'd like to teach them to do is to load themselves - Mark's horses will do this even from 20 feet away - he just points them at the trailer and they walk right up and hop in on their own, no leading required. In order to do this, I think I need to start by teaching them a good go-forward cue from the side - those of you who use some or all of John Lyons' methods will recognize this. They already know how to get on the trailer - I just need a better way to cue them.