Once you’re decided to trailer your horse, he will need your competent leadership to convince him that it’s safe. Convince your horse you’re an excellent leader by upholding rules of a herd leader as part of your daily routine: stay out of my space; walk behind my shoulder; don’t rub your sweaty head on me; stand still while I groom you; and pay attention. Also, remain calm at all times to further demonstrate your self-confidence.
Test your horse’s opinion of your authority before getting to the trailer by asking him to follow you over intimidating objects such as sheets of plywood or tarps. If he follows willingly, his trust in you is overriding his instincts. If he’s reluctant to follow, you need to build his confidence.
Begin by creating a “relax” on cue to convey that you can provide him with a sense of well-being. Teach him to lower his head by applying downward pressure on the leadrope and rewarding him when he does. If your horse is overly confident, pushy, or tries to be evasive, ask him to step backward for several steps with his neck low. This simple task will refocus his attention and reestablish your authority as his leader. This is the mindset you want him in when you approach the trailer.
Before asking him to load up, make sure the trailer is tall enough that he doesn’t need to duck to avoid hitting his head. The space should be bright, not claustrophobic, well-ventilated, and as hazard-free as possible. Non-slip flooring and absorbent footing will make loading, unloading, and travel feel more comfortable and secure, as will a smooth ride. Outfit your horse in a well-fitting flat nylon or strong leather halter – rope halters are more likely to get caught on something and will cause more damage if your horse gets into trouble. If you use leg or head protection, let your horse wear it several times before his first trip.
Introduce your horse to trailer loading by teaching him to follow you in before asking him to load up on his own – follow-the-leader is natural herd behavior. By being willing to step in ahead of him, you are demonstrating that it’s safe. You are also acclimatizing him to the sounds he’ll hear when he steps aboard. Invite him to investigate the inside of the trailer. When he sniffs the interior and floors, he’s becoming more curious and less fearful. At this point, he may try to step up on his own or step all the way in, but let him progress at his own pace. Give your horse frequent breaks to allow him time to process the new information he’s taking in. Relentless pressure will trigger your horse’s insecurity and cause him to shut down or resist. If your horse becomes stressed, take him away from the trailer for a few minutes. A short break can also be a reward when he’s making an effort or real progress.
If your horse refuses to load because of resistance or a traumatic experience, time, patience, and encouragement will overcome his anxiety. Reacquaint him with the trailer without the demands of loading. Let him graze around it, eat a favorite meal, or groom him nearby. Once he realizes that being near a trailer isn’t stressful, encourage him to walk up to it and touch it with his nose. Once he show signs of interest, step inside and invite him to come closer. Offer him praise when he does and then give him a break. Your goal is to prove to your horse that the trailer is a safe place instead of a threat.
Fear is a powerful motivator for a prey animal, even one as large as a horse, and trailer loading is intimidating enough to increase a horse’s anxiety and trigger his fight or flight response. Avoiding stress in the first place, or taking steps to alleviate it if it already exists, keeps your horse calm and receptive to new experiences. Eliminate any reason for your horse to be reluctant, and he will willingly load up anytime you want to take him for a ride.