If you’ve been to any equine event, you’ve likely seen a horse steadfastly refusing to load into a trailer and a group of frustrated humans determined to change his mind. It’s the perfect recipe for someone to get hurt. At the very least, it’s going to leave a lasting negative impression on the horse. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
“I think 90 percent of problems you see aren’t trailer loading problems but general obedience problems,” says James. “When you see someone whose horse is reluctant to load or is hurried and anxious when loading, chances are that horse has trouble with more than just the trailer.”
It may seem that if your horse is insecure and anxious about the trailer it’s because he just needs to practice loading and unloading more. James agrees that horses need confidence but emphasizes that it probably doesn’t have as much to do with the trailer as many people think. “It’s not so much a confidence problem as it is an obedience and control problem,” he explains. “If you have obedience and control, then both you and your horse will develop confidence.” The Double Dan ground-control program focuses on teaching these skills, which leads to a stronger relationship built on trust.
Being able to move and control the horse’s shoulders and hindquarters is essential for successful loading.
Basic ground-control exercises include teaching softness in the halter; being able to move, control and direct the horse’s hindquarters and shoulders; backing up; and sidepassing. As James explains it, virtually everything we do with the horse is based on being able to move him forward and backward, and direct him the way we want him to go.
“A horse needs to know obedience and control before the trailer ever comes into play,” says James. “You must be able to control his speed and direction. If you can control both of those, you’ll be able to load him.”
Teach your horse to move off pressure and reward him when he does by releasing that pressure. Once he’s learned these fundamental lessons and knows that you won’t ask him to do something unsafe, he’ll be willing to try anything you ask. Of course, this doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s essential if you want to effectively work with your horse.
James uses lightweight dressage and carriage whips in his ground-training program to cue the horse. He recommends a 60-inch carriage whip and a 40-inch dressage whip with a removable popper. Correct use of these whips allows you to communicate with your horse through clear cues.
When being urged to load, many horses go partway and then balk. They may also throw their head up. James explains that this is common with a horse that hasn’t learned the basic ground-control lesson of giving to pressure on the halter. “It’s the No. 1 cause of horses hitting their head on the trailer because they’re trying to avoid the pressure of the halter,” he notes. “I wouldn’t put any pressure on his head and halter, but I would use the dressage or carriage whip and teach the horse to come forward when tapped with the stick on his shoulder. Keep tapping until he takes even one step forward and then quit immediately. In this case, the pressure is the tapping of the stick, and you release that pressure when he moves forward.”
If your horse wants to drop his head and sniff the ramp or trailer, by all means, let him. This will also help him place his feet correctly to walk in, something he can’t do if you’re pulling on the lead rope. Be patient, don’t rush him, and resist the instinct to pull.
If your horse tries to rush off the trailer backward, this may indicate that he has a problem with tying or giving to pressure on the halter. You’ll need to take time to work with this on the ground away from the trailer. But you may also want to reconsider backing him off the trailer and let him turn around to walk out.
“Some trainers will tell you to only back your horse off the trailer, but I’m not really sure why,” says James. “If the trailer configuration allows it, I have no problem with a horse turning around and walking off. If you’re doing this because you think the horse won’t unload if he can’t turn around, then again, it goes back to training and it’s about more than the trailer.”
Sanctuary on Wheels
James routinely does “mark training” (also known as sanctuary training) with horses. This approach teaches the horse to go to a specific place, or mark, such as a flat block of wood. When he does, he is freed from all pressure and is allowed to stand quietly and rest. This is often the concept used to get horses in movies and commercials to run to a certain spot and stand still with no rope or line connecting them to a trainer.
“Mark training” teaches a horse to enjoy going to a designated spot. Dan James starts with a block of wood before moving to the trailer. When his horse reaches the wood block, James releases pressure and allows him to relax.
“The thought process behind mark training is that the horse desires to go to this place, not that you make him go there,” explains James. “Many people are not familiar with this method, but the principle behind it is the same approach we can apply to trailer loading. It’s more than a mechanical process of loading and unloading because the horse wants to be in the trailer. You’re sending him to a place that he considers a sanctuary. I’ve done demonstrations where I’d put the mark [block of wood] in a trailer and the horse would literally chase the trailer to get in.”
Whether you choose to utilize mark training or not, you must have consistent control of your horse on the ground if you want to make trailer loading and unloading a drama-free experience.
The trailer shouldn’t be frightening for your horse, frustrating for you, or potentially dangerous for either of you. You’ll both be much safer, not to mention happier, when you thoroughly prepare your horse with good ground control before you ever approach a trailer.
To learn more about Double Dan Horsemanship clinics and how basic ground control and mark training can improve your horse’s trailer loading and unloading, visit www.doubledanhorsemanship.com.
CYNTHIA McFARLAND is an Ocala, Florida-based freelance writer and horse owner. The author of eight books, her latest is Cow-Horse Confidence: A Time-Honored Approach to Stockmanship, co-authored with Martin Black.
This article originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!