Training your horse to load

Trailer loading. If you ever thought there must be a better and easier way to train your horse, this new training series by Kate Fenner is designed for you! 

Kate’s gentle and no-fuss approach will provide you with the tools and confidence you need to educate your own horse.  

This series walks you through specific lessons and how to teach them. From stress-free trailer loading, to handling head-shy horses, to safe mounting. 

Last month, it was hips to the fence for safe mounting. This month, it’s…

Training your horse to load – easily!

Does the thought of trailer loading your horse keep you up at night? Do you plan to leave an hour earlier than necessary, just in case your horse won’t load? Would you go to more shows, clinics or trail rides with friends, if this wasn’t a problem with your horse?

If you answered a resounding YES to any of those questions then you are not alone, but if you follow these 10 simple steps, your loading nightmares can be a thing of the past.

Something I hear a lot is: “My horse is perfect, but he won’t load on the trailer”. So, let’s understand this – you were able to teach your horse flying changes, to slide to a stop, to canter through puddles and to jump a log, but not to walk onto the trailer?

When you think about it like that it doesn’t make much sense. So, where’s the disconnect?

I think the problem arises because we often neglect to teach trailer loading. By that I mean breaking it down to the simplest steps and building on each one progressively. Giving the horse time to gain confidence with each step.

We go through this progressive training process with other things. For example, with flying changes, we first get shoulder control and then independent hindquarter control, and only then do we ask for the next step. If we attempt to teach flying changes without independent hindquarter control, it will probably result in a disunited canter – a change in the front end, but not the back end of the horse.

So, how do we break down trailer loading for the horse? The horse is very big, and the trailer is small and dark! Just thinking about getting that whole big horse onto that tiny trailer can make your palms sweat, right?

Okay, so let’s start by making the trailer bigger – open it up by opening the front door and moving the central barrier across to the side. Now, how do we make the horse smaller?

If we only concentrate on ONE foot, the horse becomes smaller. We’re not going to try to get the whole horse on to the trailer, just the left front foot, okay?

I have found that if we can get the left front foot all the way to the front of the trailer, and slowly and carefully off again, the rest of the horse will follow – magic!

Step 1:

Teaching forwards and backwards.

The first thing to do is establish good cues for walk forwards and step backwards. Do this away from the trailer.

Stand on the left hand side of the horse and hold the lead rope about six inches from the bit. Face the back of the horse, standing near the head. The whip, in your right hand, can cue the horse forward from the hip.

In order to get and keep the horse in the Engagement Zone, we need to offer the horse the opportunity to respond to minimal amounts of pressure. Ultimately, we want the horse to lock-on to the trailer from the bottom of the ramp, self-load and stand quietly while you do the back up, but we don’t start there. Each horse is different in how much pressure they require at the start of the lesso,n but all will quickly begin to respond to less pressure as the lesson progresses as long as our release is well-timed and we have set up a good pattern.

Now is the time to install your clear cues. Your horse may respond to a verbal ‘cluck’ to walk forward, a raise of the whip or a tap of the whip, but remember this is your pattern – start with the ‘cluck’ or least amount of pressure, wait a second and then increase the pressure by raising the whip, and so on.

As soon as the horse walks forward, stop cueing and reward the horse with praise and a rub on the wither.

Next, install the step back cue. Again, it’s a good idea to have a verbal ‘back’ cue first. This can be followed by a touch on the chest, a tap on the chest with your hand and then, finally, some backwards pressure on the bit. Unlike with the forward movement, when teaching backing, reward after just one step.

Step 2:

Start where the horse is comfortable.

Trailer loading is simply asking your horse to go forwards and backwards, slowly and calmly – the trailer just happens to be there. Begin the lesson as far from the trailer as the horse is comfortable.

If you’re a long way from the trailer, then ask your horse for more forward steps and fewer backwards steps – perhaps five forward and two back. This will get you to the trailer more quickly, and reinforce both your forward and back cues.

Step 3:

Now at the base of the ramp, we simply continue the forwards and backwards steps. We are going to teach ‘one-foot-on, one-foot-off’. This way, we teach the horse to load and unload at the same time in training.

As soon as the horse puts one foot on the ramp, release the forward pressure (voice and whip) and praise the horse.

Try to cue the horse to back, just one step off before you think the horse is going to do it – this way, you can use your back-up cue and it looks like your idea!

Step 4:

Repeat Step 3, but now ask for two feet on the ramp. Just concentrate on the front feet, not worrying too much about the hind legs. Reward forward movement or a thought of forward movement. Try to lengthen the amount of time the horse stands and rests with two feet on the ramp, and be sure to cue the horse to back off so the horse learns to wait for that cue.

Step 5:

Once the horse is comfortable with two feet on the ramp and is backing off slowly when cued, it’s time to move to three-feet-on. You should be standing about halfway down the ramp and your main job is keeping the horse’s head in the centre of the ramp.

Step 6: 

Now it’s time to cue all four feet on to the ramp. Your horse will start walking further into the trailer now and you can begin rewarding with a scratch further down the horse’s back. Try to think of it as your horse bringing their hindquarter to you so you can scratch it – the horse moves past you, stands and rests, while you scratch the hindquarters.

Some horses, like the one photographed here, will feel more comfortable if you walk in a little with them. Simply walk back to the hindquarters and reward the horse before moving to the front to ask for the back-up.

Step 7:

Each time your horse loads, they will move further up and into the trailer. Make the resting on the trailer periods longer, and soon your horse will be eager to get to the front of the trailer and receive a hindquarter scratch.

Step 8:

Once your horse is loading well, standing quietly and waiting for the cue to back off, it’s time to remove the bridle. The bridle was only needed to make it easier to keep the horse’s head in the middle of the trailer and now the horse has learned the pattern (walk up, rest, back off when cued), you no longer need it.

Step 9:

Be sure to move about as you scratch the horse on the hindquarter because you don’t want your moving to the front of the horse to back it up to become the cue itself. We never really know what the horse thinks the pattern is – for us, it might be walk on, stand, wait to be cued to back up, but the horse may take your movement as a sign you are about to ask for back-up and thoughtfully save you the trouble. This is another reason you want the back-up cue to be very clear.

Step 10:

It’s time to do the back-up now. Never tie your horse up before you have done the back-up and, of course, be sure the bridle has been removed by this stage.

Check out Dr Kate Fenner’s podcast for more step-by-step, ethical and sustainable horse training courses.