When your horse won’t load, your trailer can start to represent pure frustration. It reminds you of hours struggling to get a scared or stubborn animal to step on board. Over time, you start to skip fun events, shows, and outings because it’s just too much trouble.
But, it shouldn’t be this way! The reason your horse won’t load onto the trailer is likely because he is scared or unsure of himself. So here is a list of 10 ways to help build up your horse’s confidence so he can load onto the trailer safely and quickly the next time adventure calls.
Don’t make it about the trailer at first.
We once interviewed a Parelli Horse Professional who told us that every horse has a certain personality or “horsenality” that will help you predict how he’ll handle certain situations. They can be extroverted or introverted just like humans. To start the trailer training process, learn about your horse’s personality type and slowly introduce him to the trailer.
Remember, he’s a prey animal and he sees your trailer as a “scary metal cave.” It makes loud noises and feels unsteady under his hooves. Let him slowly approach and retreat around the trailer. He can graze on grass near the back ramp, but do not force him to go too close. Eventually, he’ll be more comfortable just standing beside it.
2. Wait for him to be curious.
Then, let his natural curiosity take over. He may reach over with his nose to sniff the doorway or take a good long look into the interior. Let him investigate the trailer. Accept and reward even the slightest try on his behalf as he gains confidence with the trailer.
3. Don’t make him stay on the trailer.
Once the back door is open and he steps on board, allow him the option of retreating off the back when he wants. Over time, you can slowly coax him to put both front hooves onto the trailer. At that time you can ask for him to back up. This will make you seem like the hero to him.
Now might be a good time to remind you that all of these steps should be done over time. Don’t expect this method to magically work an hour before you need to hit the road. Instead, think of it as a process and build up your horse’s trailer confidence over the course of a few weeks.
4. Gradually increase the time he can stay on the trailer.
Keep working with your horse until he is comfortable staying on the trailer for longer and longer periods of time. You may choose to start feeding him meals on the trailer so he can associate standing inside with his daily meal.
Then, if your trailer has a butt bar, start moving it around until he is comfortable having that positioned behind him. We recommend an extra helper and extra caution here. Butt bars are in the “kick zone” and horses that are new to loading tend to offload quickly when they become nervous.
5. Take a short test drive.
Again, slowly introduce the closure of the butt bar and door until your horse is comfortable with the whole process. Once he is fully inside the trailer, calm, and secured, take your first short drive around town. For that first ride, arrive back where you started so he can offload and see familiar surroundings.
The first five tips focus on behavior, while the second five focus a bit more on the type of trailer that you are using. You see, the type of trailer can have a huge impact on whether or not your horse will load calmly.
6. Do not use a trailer with a very narrow doorway.
Many straight load horse trailers create a narrow “hallway” through which your horse needs to load. This is especially a problem when the first horse is already on board and the second horse cannot have the divider shifted over.
In contrast, a conventional slant load horse trailer often has a very narrow doorway and a stationary tack storage area in the rear of the trailer. That doorway is like a black hole of uncertainty for your horse. He doesn’t want to go in. And, it’s a tight squeeze for the horse handler too! If anything were to spook your animal while he’s loading, there is a good chance you could get pinned against the door frame.
A much safer solution is to use a horse trailer like our SafeTack slant load trailers. The rear SafeTack compartment swings out like a second door to allow a wide open area for loading and unloading. Once the horse is in position, the dividers swing over and quietly lock into place. They are designed to fit snugly without rattling during the drive.
7. Don’t use chest and butt bars if you can avoid them.
The next feature that you can nix for your horse are those chest and butt bars that we discussed earlier. In order to put a butt bar into place, you need to walk directly behind your horse into his blind spot to secure the bar. Horses are naturally wary of things in that position and they use kicking as a way to protect themselves.
On the front end, the chest bars can represent a real safety risk for your horse. If he were to rear up, it would not be hard for him to hook a leg over that front chest bar and cause serious injury.
Our SafeTack slant load trailers have full dividers that separate each horse without the danger of chest or butt bars.
8. Use safe tying practices.
Before you ever try to tie your horse inside a trailer, make sure that he is safe tying outside of a trailer. He should understand that when he is tied, he should not pull back or struggle to back away.
It is also extremely important that you take steps in the right order when unloading your horse. For instance, you would never open the rear divider or release the rear butt bar before untying your horse’s head. Otherwise, they would feel that pressure release from behind and try to back before they are free to do so. When they feel the tie still holding them in the front, it is a ripe recipe for panic.
One way that our SafeTack trailer design helps this problem is through the installation of our final rear divider. Most slant load horse trailers only have a back door and butt bar behind their final horse rather than a full divider. On our trailer, you can open the back door, walk up to the horse’s head while the divider is still secured, release their halter tie, and then open the rear divider to carefully walk them off the trailer. It’s much safer all around. And your horse will feel more confident with the entire process.
9. Make sure the trailer is “horse friendly.”
There are a number of things that you should look for in a horse trailer to make sure that it is “horse friendly.” We recommend looking for the following features all available on our Double D Trailers:
- Quiet interior with “rivetless” design and “no rattle” partitions
- White interior and insulated walls and ceiling for temperature regulation during hot days
- Tubular head dividers for maximum visibility
- Overhead air vents and large windows for air flow
- No feed manger so the horse can comfortably lower his head to cough out dust
10. Don’t 'back' your horse if you don’t have to!
Finally, we recommend that you find a horse trailer that doesn’t require your horse to back up EVER. Since horses cannot see directly behind them, they often get very nervous when you ask them to back off a trailer. In fact, we’ve had clients say that their horse unloaded like a “rocket.” It’s very unsafe for both horse and handler.
Instead, we recommend a trailer where you can literally walk them on and walk them off the trailer without ever backing up. On a Double D Trailer, you can do this a few ways. With a regular SafeTack trailer, there is enough room to swing your horse around so that he can walk forward to offload from the rear of the trailer.
Or, if you decide to purchase a SafeTack reverse trailer, you can load from a side doorway and ramp into a rear-facing slanted stall. Then, when it’s time to offload, the double hinged dividers will swing open so you can walk your horse forwards off the rear of the trailer.
Hopefully, these 10 methods will spark some change for you and your horse. Remember to take things slow and try to remain patient. As for our SafeTack trailer design - we’ve seen this trailer design help many nervous loaders overcome their fear of horse trailers. If you would like to learn more about our SafeTack horse trailers or loading safety, please feel free to reach out to us.