Training ~ Trailer Sense & Unloading ("Printer Friendly" version of this page)
The three biggest issues that people have with their horses when unloading are rushing out of the trailer, rearing, and turning to go out forwards in a slant load. I have seen many people with slant load trailers turn their horse around so that they can walk out forwards. Many of these same people tell me that "their horse cant back out of a trailer". I wonder how the horse told them this? This is a general rule about unloading, there are situations and horses that merit allowing to turn and unload. But, you have to train your horse to be able to walk backwards out of the trailer softly.
Trailering is one of the most difficult situations for a horse. This is not a natural thing for a horse to do. Hurtling down the highway in a metal box at 55 miles per hour is not something that horses learn to do in the wild. If they could see you try to eat lunch and read a map at the same time while youre driving, your horse would surely want to walk to the next horse show. Depending on the quality and style of your trailer, you may be subjecting your horse to a lot of stress by the time you get to your destination. You really need to make this as low stress and positive for the horse as possible.
Good Trailering Practices
One thing to consider is that it may not be the horses issue with loading or unloading. Hows your driving?
You may be contributing to your horses issues with the trailer if you do any of these -- evaluate your driving and consider changing your driving style. Have your ever shaken up a bee in a soda can and then let it out? Thats how your horse feels if you drive erratically.
When you get to your destination, dont immediately rush to let your horse get out of the trailer. Get them used to the idea that they may have to stand quietly for a bit before you let them out. If you always hurry to let your horse out of the trailer, youre training them to expect that theyll be released immediately when you get to your destination. If the trailer becomes a good place to be, whats wrong with hanging out there for a little while? We even open the doors and let the horse stand inside the trailer for a while. The horse can see out and doesn't think now that the door opened, he's going to get out immediately.
We dont believe in bribing our horses with food to get them into the trailer. But, theres nothing wrong with offering them hay while they are standing in the trailer. This is a positive thing to do for your horse, make it a good experience to be in the trailer. They will soon associate the trailer as a good place to be. Standing quietly in the trailer is a good thing to reinforce. We fill the hay bag and let them eat while they are in the trailer.
Check out your trailer:
Tie your horse in the trailer, don't leave the horse loose in the trailer. If you have hay bags or mangers, I can guarantee that some of that hay is going to hit the trailer floor and the horse is going after it. This is where the trouble begins.
Don't use your rope halter to tie your horse in the trailer. These are good training tools but lousy trailer ties. The rope halter can be very dangerous to a horse that gets into trouble in the trailer.
The time to train your horse to load or unload is before you go somewhere not at the horse show or trailhead. A day spent on trailer loading exercises will pay off more than the amount of time that you will spend here and there dealing with problems over the course of your horses trailering career.
There are a few things that seem to make all of the difference in the world when it comes to quality loading and unloading. All of these should be accomplished on the ground before you ever get to the trailer. You have some goals to work towards; your horse must be able to stand quietly and be able to back softly before you are ever going to get quality loading/unloading. All of these exercises are important for building a foundation for your horse. The by-product of this good foundation is good behavior, manners, attitude, and things like trailering.
Your horse must yield to you. You have to have the six basic yields working for you; forwards, backwards, hindquarters to the left, hindquarters to the right, shoulder to the left, shoulder to the right. In addition, the horse needs to be able to stop, and stand quietly.
Using backwards pressure in a confined area like a horse trailer can be a little difficult. Its easiest to teach your horse to move off of the pressure of your hand first and then move to the lead rope. There are a number of ways to teach this:
on the horses chest: Use you thumbs and press into the chest
muscle of the horse. Reward immediately when the horse begins to move backward.
Lower your posture and reward the horse.
Your horse also needs to move off of pressure from the lead rope and back away from you. To do this, stand about 10 feet in front of the horse. Wiggle the lead rope with a side to side motion. Start by asking with a small side to side motion with the rope, be prepared It may take some extreme motion with the lead rope in order to get this message to the horse. When your horse starts to move backward off of this pressure, quit moving the rope immediately, lower your posture and reward the horse. You will notice that the more you work with your horse on this exercise the smaller the motion (pressure) with the lead rope you have to use to get the horse to move.
For difficult horses, and by this we mean horses that are so braced and resistant that they may as well have their feet planted in concrete because they aren't going to yield. You need to take the pressure up a notch. We use a couple of different techniques in these situations.
Difficult Backwards Yield - Method 1:
This is kind of hard to describe, stand directly in front of the horse about 2 feet off of the nose. Use a hand motion similar to what the flight crew on an aircraft carrier does with both hands (this is hard to describe) to guide an airplane in. If you were an Atlanta Braves baseball fan I would tell you to do the "tomahawk chop" with both hands while holding the lead rope between your hands. You are asking your horse to back up with pressure from your hands and the lead rope. If the horse doesn't move, use the lead rope by rolling it over in a circular motion directed at the horses nose. If the horse still doesn't move, use this same rolling motion with your hands and the lead rope to make light contact with the horse's nose. Don't make contact with the horse unless you have to.
This may startle the horse, but it will move off the pressure. Try this again without making contact. You will quickly get the horse to learn to move off of pressure if you reward the appropriate behavior. What you are after is your horse moving backwards with you moving both hands directed at the horse's nose. You want to be able to do this very lightly.
Difficult Backwards Yield - Method 2:
In the case of a horse that simply will not budge, you will need to take the pressure up another notch. There's a couple of ways to do this. You can use your body & posture to physically get "bigger" by standing taller, throwing out your chest and walking assertively at the horse while wiggling the lead rope. Then work backwards to as little pressure as possible to get the horse to move. You may have to use a lot of energy with the lead at first while doing this. Don't walk into a horse that is rearing or striking out -- this is not only dangerous, but deadly.
If you really get stuck you may have to use a pretty severe energy check with the lead rope. If you have ever worked cattle with a lariat, it would be similar to throwing the lariat with a backhand loop. Direct the energy of the rope at the jawbone or cheek of the horse. The horse will think that the rope ran into them. They don't think that this is something that you did to them, but they will move off of the pressure.
The important thing to remember with any of these methods is that you need to meet the resistance of the horse with a corresponding correction. By this I mean that if the horse is standing still and putting 100 pounds of pressure into you, you will need to respond with 101 pounds of pressure. The trick is not to get mad, but to stay focused on the task of backing up.
You need to be able to longe your horse over obstacles and onto different surfaces. Longeing is used to teach a horse direction, posture, power, yielding and to move off of pressure. For this exercise, we assume that you have already worked through the basics of longeing on the ground. Practice longeing your horse on good footing i.e. dirt, sand, shavings etc. then move on to concrete or pavement. Once you have that working for you, practice longeing over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood.
You also need to be able to drive your horse from the ground. You cant ask your horse to ground drive until you have taught him the concept of longeing. The reasons are simple, unless your horse understands direction and power, youll be wasting a lot of time. And its easier to teach those concepts with longeing than it is by ground driving first.
Practice driving your horse on good footing i.e. dirt, sand, shavings etc. Move on to concrete or pavement. Once you have that working for you, practice driving over a tarp. Then move onto a piece of plywood. We have made a bridge that we use for training. The bridge is two feet wide and eight feet long. We drive the horse over the bridge, ask him to stop, back up, stand quietly for a while and then walk off. Once the horse has this under control, we add a piece of wood under the center of the bridge to turn it into a teeter-totter. This adds the effect of motion to the exercise which is very similar to the horse trailer giving under the weight of the horse. This is one of the best exercises to build confidence and bravery into a horse.
Backing over and through objects
Practice backing your horse over obstacles on the ground. We like to back our horses over ground poles. This does two things at once; it gets them used to picking up their feet and they are going backwards at the same time. We repeat this exercise until the horse will softly pick up its feet and step backwards over the ground poles. This can be a time consuming exercise for some horses.
Another exercise that you can do is to practice going through gates both frontwards and backwards. We added the tarp to our gate opening to make it even scarier to the horse. Many horses will rush through a gate because they dont like being in a confined area. This is a real good clue that your horse will probably rush into and out of the trailer. Try to use a gate or area with a 4-6 foot opening . Drive your horse through the gate, ask the horse to stop at the gate. Ask the horse to stand quietly. When you can do this with your horse responding quietly, ask your horse to back through the gate. Then ask the horse to stand quietly. Remember to reward your horse for appropriate behavior.
This may sound very strange, we also like to ask our horses to load into our trailer backwards. It's not really important that the horse actually backs itself into the trailer. The concept is that it's difficult enough for a horse to go in forwards, but if they have to back towards that big scary box then they are really working through their fear and flight responses. Start by asking the horse to take a few steps backwards towards the trailer and work up to where they are just touching it. This can be very difficult and you may wonder what in the world that this has to do with trailer loading and unloading. When you do turn the horse around to go in forward, they seem to be eager to attack this problem from the front. You are working on a couple of issues at once with this technique, backing up softly and going into the trailer (you just happen to be doing it backwards). Its tough for a horse that hasnt been exposed to these situations to accept being asked to back into a confined area. This is a very realistic exercise for both you and the horse to learn. We have done this in both straight and slant load trailers with and without ramps.
If you follow through with your groundwork exercises, trailer loading and unloading will not be issues to either you or your horse.
Assuming that you didn't just skip down to this section and you've actually done some of the exercises, and you have a horse in a trailer... Your objective is to ask your horse to calmly back out of the trailer.
At some point in time you are going to have to get into the trailer with your horse. No matter how well trained you think your horse is, you should minimize the amount of time that YOU spend in the trailer with your horse when loading and unloading. This is the time where most of the accidents happen with the horse and/or rider getting hurt.
We like to practice loading and unloading at home with the trailer connected to our truck. We don't go anywhere, but we may load and unload 2-3 horses at a time. Why not get more than one working at a time? You can work on patience and the expectations of the trailering process with the horses. Mix it up and load them in different order, tie them outside your trailer and let them see what's happening with the other horses. If you only have one horse to work, mix it up with him too. Tie him to the trailer for a few minutes in between loading and unloading sessions.
Hopefully, your horse is tied in the trailer with either quick release trailer ties or a quick release knot on the lead rope. Unhook your horse from the trailer and use the backing techniques that you learned in the groundwork exercises. Take your time and don't worry about getting everything right.
For training to load and unload, we use a rope halter and lead rope. This is the only time that we can recommend using a rope halter in a trailer. Never use one when you are moving down the road.
When the door opens, your horse is naturally going to try to get out of the trailer. You should use the forward yield to correct the tendency for the horse to drift or rush out of the trailer immediately. This is the point where you will see if your horse will stand still and your groundwork has paid off. Use your yielding skills to ask the horse to stand quietly by yielding at the poll. You should be rewarding your horse by petting or scratching, whatever reward method you have worked out.
Ask the horse for a step backwards and then release. Reward the horse and ask the horse to stand quietly for a few seconds. Ask for another step backwards. You should also ask for an occasional step forwards. You don't want the horse to anticipate your next move and it's easy to get stuck in this rut when you're in a hurry to get out and get ready for a show or go riding.
You have to be flexible, some horses will step back and seem to get "stuck" and some may want out of the trailer as soon as possible. Those of you who have spent the time to build a relationship and a foundation for your horses will be rewarded with quality loading and unloading from your horses. Find out where you are in this contiuum and work with your horse to get to the goal of loading and unloading quietly and softly.