Is any problem more frustrating than packing up for a show or trail ride- usually running a bit behind- and rushing to load your horse just to find the horse won’t walk into the trailer?
In this article, I’ll be discussing the problem and describing specific training interventions you can use right now or gradually over a few days or weeks to get the horse on the trailer. Click on the links to jump to the “what to do” portion of this post.
Why Horses Refuse to Load
Understanding any problem is an important part of fixing it. When we consider horses loading on trailers- it actually makes sense that they’d hesitate. Loading into a trailer is a difficult task for an animal that has every instinct telling them to flee from cave-like spaces. In the wild, caves were home to bears and mountain lions- and wild horses had every reason to stay far away from caves. When you ask your horse to step into a trailer- especially a dark one- you are asking them to go against instinct, and that takes a motivated, horse who trusts you and your ability to keep them safe.
There are two reasons that a horse will not walk into a trailer: fear or challenging you. Some horses legitimately find trailer loading terrifying, while other horses refuse to walk in a trailer simply because they believe that if they refuse long enough or with enough force, they won’t have to. But how do you tell which state your horse is in? With attuned attention, you can make a pretty good guess about whether your horse’s trailer refusal is because of fear or challenging you for alpha status.
What scared horses look like: A horse truly afraid to load onto a trailer will appear tense and distraught, the whites of his eyes may be showing, he may appear to be ready to bolt, and he may poop as soon as he sees the trailer (passing manure can be a sign of anxiety in horses). If your horse is legitimately afraid, give them a chance to get familiar with a trailer.
What challenging horses look like: A horse who is simply testing boundaries will appear calmer. More likely to stand sedately outside the trailer in between attempts to load, they may carelessly barge over or around you during loading attempts as a way to avoid stepping into the trailer.
What to Do To Get your Horse to Step onto a Trailer
For the willful horse, we prefer a simple exercise. It’s not a quick fix to get your horse on the trailer instantly, but if you take a few deep breaths and keep your cool, this method will get your horse to step onto the trailer. If you are attempting to load your horse in shipping boots and extra equipment, remove the boots- getting the horse the trailer may be more easily accomplished without additional equipment.
Method: Simply make being outside the trailer the more uncomfortable place! Prepare your trailer- get it ready and open, prepare the horse to load, walk them up to the trailer and give them an opportunity to load themselves.
If they refuse or try to turn away as you walk them up to the trailer, stop the horse (a stud chain may be appropriate for this), BACK them up about 10 steps (never turn them away from the trailer), then make them start working: Have them backing up, turn on haunches, trot in hand, etc for 3-4 minutes.
This shift from load refusal to work does two things: 1. tells the horse you are in charge, and 2. Gets them wondering how to avoid work (after a few cycles, loading on the trailer will start to sound like the easier option!)
After a few minutes work, immediately, walk them back up to the trailer and give them the opportunity to load. One try. If they refuse or try to walk off, back them up and start it all again.
Repeat this cycle as many times as it takes and try to make it increasingly difficult or physically exerting for them each time they refuse. For example, in hand work after the first few load refusals, then in-hand work with lots of backing up, then lunging at a trot for 2-3 minutes, then lunging at a trot for a longer period, then if you get to that point, cantering on a lunge, etc. Using a lunge helps prevent exhausting the handler, and makes it possible for you to keep your mind clear, sharp, and kind, but firm.
As soon as the horse loads, they get to rest- and most horses learn this lesson quickly. Most problem loaders take 15 minutes 45 minutes to load with this method the first time (horses that could take hours previously) but each time the pattern is reinforced, the method requires less and less time as they realize they can avoid work by walking in the trailer. There are many training methods that work to get a horse to walk into a trailer when they don’t want to, but this is one that has worked extremely well with our herd. The only trick to get a horse to load- with any trailer loading method – is keeping your cool. Prepare yourself to spend all day, if that’s what it takes. Relax, and adopt an “it’ll take as long as it takes” attitude. If you become frustrated, your horse will sense your anxiety and be more likely to refuse to load. More often than not, your attitude will help the horse decide to walk into a trailer more than any other factor.
Many trainers recommend parking a trailer in the horse’s turnout area. keep it hitched! Horses should not be allowed to load in an unhitched trailer because their weight can off-balance the trailer, potentially moving or tipping the trailer. If you let your horses experiment with self loading at liberty alone, try tying or clipping the doors open and feeding the horse out of the trailer. Start by placing feed at the loading ramp (or step), then eventually feeding in the farthest corner or manger of the trailer. This method allows the horse to familiarize themselves with the trailer on their own terms, and provides a reward (feed) for interacting with the trailer.