One of the biggest difficulties for horse owners is to load their horses into the trailer when they are scared. In this article I would like to share my experience, accumulated in many years of working with difficult horses, and describe how I have solved this problem thanks to the concepts and principles of AsvaNara.
In the past I have seen many unpleasant and violent scenes when people tried to load their horses into the trailer. Also I before I got to know Natural HorseManShip had big problems with one of my horses. Every time I had to transport her somewhere, I had agonizing thoughts days before and the night before I slept with nightmares of what could all go wrong the next morning.
As far as I could observe, there are two different approaches when it comes to trailer loading; the carrot method and the whip method. In the beginning you try to persuade the horse and maybe even lure him with food into the trailer, trying to convince him that it is not dangerous in there.
But if that doesn’t work, the procedure changes after a short time; either you give up and stay at home or emotions come up and you get angry and try to load the horse onto the trailer with force and violence. I have often used the word “man” in this paragraph, obviously intentionally, because it is my observation that men are more likely to use the whip method than women.
At this moment two things can happen; the horse gets scared and jumps into the trailer or does nothing and after hours of sweat and frustration you still stay at home. None of these methods is really effective, with the carrot method it is difficult to get results and with the whip method we destroy our relationship with the horse.
“Many horses are afraid to get into a trailer because narrow and closed spaces by nature are a danger to them from which it is difficult to escape.”
There are four reasons why people cannot load their horses into the trailer
1. they are already late, the transporter is already waiting, they are in a hurry and have made no preparations to be able to load their horse without problems.
“However, if we want to load the horse in a natural way, without hesitation and without problems, then we must do exactly the opposite!”
1. take the time it takes to prepare the horse, even without a trailer. Let’s first develop a relationship on the ground and make the horse more courageous before we even approach the trailer. Before we transport the horse, we teach him to go into the trailer in a natural way. The key word here is “teach” instead of “force”. Let’s take two or three days for this work, because this is an investment in the future of our horse. Once the horse has learned not to be afraid of the trailer, loading takes only a few seconds.
2. when the horse tries to enter the trailer, we do not let ourselves be overwhelmed by haste or emotivity. The control of our emotions is fundamental and crucial. Horses immediately sense when we are nervous, angry or anxious, and this only makes things worse.
3. let the horse explore the trailer piece by piece. In our approach, we encourage the horse to go into the trailer only as far as it can go and let it get out whenever it wants. This getting in and out is an important factor for a flight animal and it gains a little more confidence each time.
4. when the horse is loaded, we do not immediately close the ramp and drive away, but let the horse get out again. This is very important for the horse, especially in the beginning, when it still has to get used to the trailer. We should see this as a game and not as a job.
Before we even go to the trailer, it is important to take away the general fear of objects. Therefore we do preparatory exercises with different obstacles and situations like walking over a plastic tarp, over logs or over and between barrels. Only when the horse can approach all these obstacles calm and relaxed, he is ready to tackle the real problem, the trailer …
Understanding the horse – many people still have not understood that horses are flight animals and that narrow, closed spaces, like the trailer, are a danger to them. They do not understand that horses are afraid, but they think that horses are stubborn, reluctant and stupid. But first we should understand that horses are born as flight animals, we need to learn equine psychology to know how they think, how they feel and why they do what they do.
This is the only way we can build the natural relationship and create the strong connection needed to get through such difficult moments without trauma. For thousands of years, horses have been an important part of our culture, they have been bred by us and live almost like pets, and yet the survival instinct of flight still persists in every horse.
We must not forget that the horse is and remains a flight animal, and therefore it will always try to avoid situations that could put it in danger or prevent it from escaping, such as getting into the narrow space of the trailer.
At the same time, however, horses have the incredible capacity to quickly get used to situations and things and to learn that objects and obstacles are not as dangerous as they first thought. Horses learn very quickly and can adapt in a very short time when they have the opportunity to think, consider and decide.
“Horses learn quick when they have the ability to think, consider and decide.”
The key lies in preparation. Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said “if I had to chop down a tree, I would spend most of the day grinding the axe”. This principle also applies to trailer loading. We can prepare the horse on the ground, at the beginning even without a trailer.
In fact, the first step is to get him used to many different obstacles and bottlenecks, such as plastic tarps on the ground, wooden poles and jumps, metal barrels or plastic curtains blowing in the wind. It is about finding out how the horse behaves and how its personality is “knitted”. Is it curious or anxious, is it a daredevil, cheeky and naughty, or is it shy and reserved, or maybe just a lazy one?
Our leadership position is very important in this work. We lead the horse into the obstacles, both forwards and backwards, let it
jump over it or stop it in the middle of it, but in doing so, we absolutely must maintain a neutral position. This is the so-called position at the “Drive Line”, an imaginary line at the horse’s withers, or even a little behind it.
It is very important not to stand too far forward, at the horse’s neck or head. It makes a big difference to the horse if he follows us when we are in front or if he has to decide for himself to go into the obstacle, and this happens when I stand behind and send the horse forward.
It is also very helpful and useful when we teach the horse to walk backwards over or through obstacles. This will give him a lot of confidence to get out of the trailer without hesitation, because he is no longer afraid to go backwards, even if his hooves touch something.
If we have prepared our horse well, trailer loading itself should not be such a big problem anymore. When I walk with the horse on the trailer for the first time, I just try to get his nose close to the trailer on the long rope. I observe his reactions; is he anxious and just wants to get away or is he curious? Because curiosity is the first step to overcome fear.
Then I send the horse a few times between me and the trailer, into a kind of a narrow passage, from one side to the other, while the ramp is still closed. Then I open the ramp and ask the horse to walk from one side to the other over the open ramp.
I have noticed that many horses are more afraid of the ramp than of the trailer itself. Maybe it is the noise when passing over it, or the inclination or the black colour of the rubber floor. This way, however, the horse can get used to the ramp without having to enter the trailer.
It is very important that the horse walks calmly over the ramp and does not jump over it, because this would mean that he is still afraid and emotive. When the horse has mastered this first test well, the time has come to go to the real trailer loading. First of all I place myself and the horse in the right position; myself next to the ramp at the end of the trailer and the horse just in front of the ramp.
After the first important preparation phase I take the horse to the trailer, the ramp is still closed, and observe its reaction, whether it approaches curiously or runs away anxiously.
I let the horse go back and forth between me and the trailer, like in a bottleneck, from one side to the other. This should allow him to do it calmly and at a walk, equally well on both sides.
Then I do the same with the ramp open and let the horse walk over it from one side to the other. Often horses are intimidated by the ramp, but this way they can get used to it without having to go into the trailer right away.
Instead, stay next to the ramp. This is the starting position to which we will always return. For me it is very important for various reasons not to go into the trailer in front of the horse, as is normally done.
First of all, it can be very dangerous to be in this narrow space with a horse that might get scared. Secondly, because I want to teach the horse to go into the trailer on his own, because he has to find the courage and decide to go in by himself.
Last but not least, this way of loading makes me completely independent, because I can load two horses at the same time without any help and without problems.
When I bring the horse into its starting position in front of the ramp, it is very important that I do not move, but can send it there from my position. Always think of the fundamental question in the horse world; who moves whom? If I can stand next to the ramp and move the horse into its position, it will trust and respect me.
From this position we can now start to move the horse forward onto the ramp and into the trailer. I guide and point with pressure on the rope at the front and support from behind with the carrot stick, to which a plastic bag is attached, so that the stimulus for the horse is somewhat greater.
Now the real learning phase for the horse begins. Every time the horse goes to the front of the ramp, or later with one or more hooves into the trailer, I immediately release the pressure and reward it with comfort. This is called positive reinforcement. The more enthusiasm the horse puts into the action, the longer and more extensively I take the break. This also means that the less the horse exerts or even refuses, the less rest and comfort it gets. This is negative reinforcement.
If I am constant in this approach, the horse will soon find that it is responsible for its own well-being, in other words; if it tries to go into the trailer, it gets comfort, if it tries to leave the trailer, it gets no comfort.
Here I deliberately do not use the word “punishment”, because horses do not understand punishment. The negative reinforcement is quite simply that I ask the horse to go back to the front of the ramp, applying pressure in increasing strength. Just as running water finds the way of least resistance, horses also find the easiest and most comfortable way, i.e. comfort.
So if the horse stops on the ramp or in the trailer after a good try, we give him comfort. If it stops and doesn’t go backwards by itself, I ask it back to the starting point after a certain time. This is very important for the horse, because if he knows that he can go backwards again at any time, this gives him the necessary courage for the next attempt.
I stand next to the ramp and send the horse to its starting position in front of the ramp. Then I send him forward and support him from behind with the Carrot Stick, to which I have attached a plastic bag to create more stimulus.
The horse has taken a few steps on the ramp and I reward it with a positive reinforcement by taking a break. It is important to take your time here and reward the horse extensively. However, I do not recommend any treats at this moment.
Then I send the horse back to its original position where it can relax and find the courage to try again. In this way the horse notices that it can always move away from the trailer.
This procedure of “send forward, reward, send backward and then start again” is repeated until the horse goes all the way forward into the trailer by itself. Here it is important not to lose courage and patience. A good saying that I say to my students at this moment is: “it has never lasted longer than two days”. In fact, it has never taken me more than two hours to teach a horse to get into a trailer in this way.
Obviously, it plays a big role in how well I can communicate with the horse. The better my timing, my feeling and the more experience I bring along, the faster the horse can understand me, trust me and thus overcome this big obstacle, the trailer.
This learning phase can of course also be divided into different sections and completed in a few days. On the first day, for example, we get the horse used to simply standing on the ramp with four legs. On the second day he can already put two legs in the trailer. On the third day it is halfway in and on the fourth day it is completely loaded. Take all the time it needs now, so it will be quick and easy to get in the trailer when you really have to leave later.
When the horse is all alone in the trailer, we leave him to rest for a moment, then take him out and move away from the trailer for a few minutes. This way the horse can relax a bit and we take the pressure and attention away from the trailer. It’s not our goal to load the horse and drive it somewhere, but our intention should be to teach it something difficult and make it more courageous and intelligent … and strengthen our relationship.
If the horse has gone completely into the trailer a few times and stayed inside for 2-3 minutes, it means that it has mastered this task mentally, emotionally and physically and will never be afraid of the trailer or the loading again. It is often the case that many horses are physically loaded, but with their head and heart they just want to escape from this trap as quickly as possible.
However, if horses are loaded in our way and can stand in the trailer without being tied up and with an open ramp, then this means that they are doing well in the trailer and are loaded, so to speak, with heart and soul. In the academy AsvaNara in Tuscany we have an old trailer standing on the “playground”, and sometimes we can observe how the horses fight for their place in the trailer … a picture that is not seen often.
The secret is to repeat this process of “send forward, let it rest, send it back, let it rest and start again” until the horse is standing with its whole body in the trailer. It is important to adapt the pause to his effort, i.e. if he makes an effort, he gets more comfort, but if he does not make an effort or even refuses, he gets no reward. Remember that there is no hurry and that we can divide the work over several days. It is better to invest a lot of time now than later when we have to go somewhere.
“We don’t want to force the horse into the trailer but teach him to do it alone, calmly and in peace. It’s a good investment in the horse’s future and we don’t have to rush into it.”
In case the horse goes into the trailer but stops there for a few seconds and then shoots out again, we can fall back on the concept of comfort and inconvenience. We let the horse “work” a little outside the trailer and then offer him to rest inside the trailer. In this way the trailer quickly becomes a valued and comfortable place. However, we may only use this concept when the horse has already overcome its fear of the trailer and has gone in on its own several times.
I hope you enjoyed this article and that you found many useful hints and tips in it. Feel free to leave your comment below.
If you have any questions about this topic, contact me and I will answer you in the forum.
I wish you much success, fun and joy with your horse … and remember, it has never lasted longer than two days.
With kind regards, Edwin