Last time we talked about beginning trailer-loading training with the change-of-direction ground work exercise to develop a strong go-forward cue with your horse. The horse must go-forward on your cue, stop his feet and change direction. Change-of-direction line work is a gymnastic as well as mental exercise for your horse. Indications to measure the success of your line work include focus, balance and relaxation. Your horse should be focused on you. The nose should always be in toward you, even if just slightly. Look for a slight arc through the body of your horse while he is moving around you. With proper balance your horse will neither be pulling on you nor dropping his shoulder inward. Finally, a key sign that your horse is showing respect and looking to you for leadership is when your horse is performing the exercise well in a relaxed posture. Signs of relaxation are a consistent gait, lowered head, licking and chewing, tail swinging.
Before we go on to the next phase, a word about treats being used to lure a horse into a trailer. I have heard it said, “my horse will go anywhere for food.” This is really not a true statement. When food is used as a lure, instead of proper training using a go-forward cue, a horse will probably load about 50% of the time. If, for any reason, the horse’s emotions are high, food will likely not be sufficient to get the horse into the trailer. For a horse that is spooked, in pain and needing to go to the vet, or just having a bad day, food may very well be of no consequence. The real beauty of the change-of-direction exercise is that once it is well established, where your horse truly understands the cues, you will be able to use this as a fundamental tool to calm him down and get his attention any time and place you have that need. Whether for trail riding, shows, anything new or spooky, this will become a reliable way to calm your horse and center his mind back on you.
The next phase in trailer-loading is to add the crossing of objects into the exercise. A folded tarp, poles or anything you have handy may be used. Start the change-of-direction exercise asking the horse to go over the object as well. Make sure the horse is completely comfortable crossing the object, stopping, reversing and also standing on the object. Once your horse is consistently performing this exercise, you can start incorporating the trailer into the picture.
If you have not done so already, you need to make sure that your horse has solid ground manners. Your horse needs to respond well when asked to move his shoulders and hips over, and he must have a very healthy respect for your space and not crowd you at all. This is important prior to asking the horse to load because horses understand respect and leadership through controlling space and direction. When they look to us for that direction, they naturally become more willing.
The next step is an important area for your skills in the evaluation of your horse. You need to determine where your horse is comfortable around the trailer. Some horses get nervous with a trailer 100 feet away, some at 5 feet or not at all. You need to start doing the change-of-direction exercise, preferably with the objects, with the trailer in sight, at a point where your horse is comfortable. Really take the time to watch your horse’s body language and let him tell you where he is truly relaxed and confident. Again, this is not a timed event. Our goal is to school the horse for a lifetime of happy trailering. Take it slow and do it right. If your horse is a 100 footer, that’s fine. And if you’re not sure, then err on the side of caution and put more space between you and the trailer.
Once you have your starting point, begin your line work. Just like you would with any scary object, when you begin the exercise ask the horse for the “whoa” when he is at the furthest point from the object (trailer) to allow him to be the most comfortable. As you continue the exercise and he relaxes, you can ask him to stop and stand closer and closer to the trailer.
When your horse is solid at 100 feet from the trailer, you can move to 90 feet – again – let your horse tell you where it is comfortable. Some people may stop for the day at 90 feet and move closer the next day. You should only stop when you have seen that your horse has made significant progress, but depending on how fearful of the trailer your horse is, the timing and distance will vary. The goal is to progress right up until you are doing the change-of-direction line work right next to the back of the open trailer. Once you are doing that consistently and your horse is relaxed, you can start asking the horse to enter the trailer.