For many horses and horse owners, happy trailer loading is a mystery. Let’s face it, to a horse, the trailer is just a metal box on wheels where they can be trapped for an indeterminate amount of time. For an animal whose natural environment is thousands of acres to roam, it is easy to understand why trailer loading and transport can be harried for everyone involved. Not all horses have the luck or luxury of traveling in big semi rigs with a controlled climate and the cush of air ride.
Every summer for the past few years, I have taken natural horsemanship courses at the Parelli campus in Pagosa Springs, CO. It is a great way for me to further the bond, connection, and relationships with my horses. This summer will be no exception, and this time, I will take my youngest horse, Stormy, an 8-year old half-arabian mare.
As I thought about taking Stormy to the ranch, it occurred to me she has not been in the trailer by herself very often. As a foal, she accompanied her mother for a visit to the vet a few times. My husband also played with her for the first year of her life, and they worked on trailer loading and other introductory experiences. In her adulthood, I’d taken her to several shows, but always in the company of one of my other horses.
I took for granted that Stormy loads when led, and rides quietly with another horse. I remembered the few times I have trailered her by herself, the distance only a handful of miles, and she pawed and called for help the whole way. It hardly seemed fair that I will expect her to travel 4-5 hours to Pagosa Springs by herself. I decided to start trailer loading with Stormy from square one. What better way to test the foundation, right?
The first day provided many distractions. Dogs barking, people riding bikes on the ditch behind our property, and the other three horses of her herd looking on like kids watching a movie. She wanted to look and be everywhere but the trailer. I had to remind myself what Pat Parelli always says – “It’s not about the trailer.” It is about the relationship.
Here are some of the steps I’ve taken to help Stormy feel confident and secure enough with the trailer to load and travel alone. It is important to note that my trailer is a two horse slant load with a ramp. Slant loads provide more room for the horse to get into the trailer and are less claustrophobic than straight loads.
- First, we hung out at the back of the trailer with the doors open and ramp down. An extroverted horse, Stormy needs to move her feet when nervous, so I worked on yields (hindquarter yields and forequarter yields) near the opening of the trailer. I kept my stance relaxed and when she yielded well, I gave lots of praise. Then I asked her to investigate the trailer using the “approach and retreat” method. I asked her to touch the ramp with her nose and when she did, I took her away from the trailer. I did this several more times.
- Horses are naturally curious when they don’ts feel threatened. After we worked with “approach and retreat” for a while, Stormy soon found it comfortable to stand at the ramp. She sniffed it, pawed at it, and then put both feet on it. I knew she wasn’t ready to go in yet, so I let her hang out there for a little while and then backed her away. After doing this three times, I asked her to step further onto the ramp. This time, she got all four feet onto the ramp and started investigating the walls, the floor, the windows, etc. I heaped lots of praise, with “good girl” and rubs.
(As I mentioned before, this was not Stormy’s first time loading onto a trailer or riding in a trailer. Because of this, I knew she could advance a little faster than a horse who’d had horrible experiences in a trailer or who’d never loaded onto a trailer before. If your horse has had trouble before, you might want to stop at this point. Use your best judgement.)
- I knew I could ask for more, so I backed her out and asked her to walk onto the ramp and put her two front feet inside the trailer. After she’d accomplished this a few times, I asked for four feet. She managed the task, but flipped around and rushed out head first. I am not comfortable with horses turning around in a trailer and going out head first, but I wanted her to know she could get out. I let her do this a few times. At the third or fourth time, she turned around and stood in the trailer backwards. Progress! I let her stand there for as long as she wanted. When she walked out, I repeated the process of asking her to load all the way in. I did this three or four times. The next time she loaded with all four feet, I blocked her with my stick so she couldn’t turn around. With gentle bounces of the rope, I asked her to back out. Stormy understands this suggestion, so she backed out without issue.
- After Stormy felt comfortable standing in the trailer for several minutes at a time, and could back out calmly, the next time I asked her to load, I closed the partition and stood in the trailer with her. I continued to praise and rub while she stood quietly, and after a minute I opened the partition and backed her out. We did this three or four more times.
We had accomplished so much in this session, that I felt it a good time to stop. It is important to know when to stop – when your horse accomplishes the task in a relaxed and confident manner. This is hard to do because when things are going well, it is natural to want to keep going. It’s important to remember that trailer loading, or doing anything that is out of your horse’s comfort zone, can be mentally and emotionally taxing for them. Quit while you are ahead. Your next session will go so much faster!
- In the following session we repeated the above four steps, and once Stormy could stand quietly with the partition closed for several minutes, I closed the door and took her for a ten-minute ride.
Stormy and I are still working on our trailer loading until we leave for Pagosa at the end of July. I will slowly increase our excursions and unload at different “safe” areas around town, like the public arena or trail heads near the Rio Grande. We’ll do some exploring either on line or under saddle while we are out, and then load up again, and head home.
I will keep you informed on our progress! To learn more about the Parelli Program and trailer loading click here.