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Cynthia McFarland

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What’s Behind that Tough-to-Load Horse and How to Remedy the Situation

If you’ve been to any horse event, you’ve seen it: a horse steadfastly refusing to load into a trailer and a group of frustrated humans determined to change his mind. It’s the perfect recipe for someone to get hurt. At the very least, it’s going to leave a lasting negative impression on the horse.

It doesn't have to be this way.

To find out how to correct this all-too-common problem, we checked in with Dan James of Double Dan Horsemanship (www.doubledanhorsemanship.com), the partnership of trainers Dan James and Dan Steers, two Australian horsemen who have performed at every rodeo and show in Australia and regularly travel the U.S. teaching horsemanship clinics. U.S. horseman Colton Woods has joined the Double Dan team.

Woman loading horse into a trailer

"I think 90% of problems you see aren't trailer loading problems, but general obedience problems. When you see someone whose horse is reluctant to load or is hurried and anxious when loading, chances are that horse has trouble with more than just the trailer", says Dan James.

First Things First

Before you blame the horse for not wanting to load, jumping out before he's fully loaded, or rushing off the trailer, consider the trailer itself.

A too-small trailer, one that feels unsafe, or is dark and closed-in can make even a good horse anxious. In addition, it's crucial that you (or whoever is driving) is conscientious. This means gradual acceleration and braking, slowing down and taking turns easily.

"These are things that can make a horse upset and worried", James points out. It's no wonder horses don't want to be in a trailer when you see how some people drive or the trailers they try to put them in.

It All Starts on the Ground

Owners may think that if their horses seem insecure and anxious about the trailer, it's because the horses just need to "practice" loading and unloading more.

James agrees that horses need confidence, but again emphasizes that it probably doesn't have as much to do with the trailer as the owner thinks.

It's not so much a confidence problem as it is an obedience and control problem. If you have obedience and control, then both you and your horse will develop confidence, he says. Ground control is all about having obedience and control. This leads to a better relationship with the horse because he knows he can trust you.

Owners may think that if their horses seem insecure and anxious about the trailer, it's because the horses just need to "practice" loading and unloading more.

Basic ground control exercises include teaching "softness" in the halter, being able to move, control and direct the horse's hindquarters and shoulders, backing up and side-passing.

As James explains it, "virtually everything we do with the horse is based on being able to move the animal forwards and backwards and to "steer" or direct, him the way we want him to go."

"A horse needs to know obedience and control before the trailer ever comes into play" he says. You must be able to control his speed and direction. If you can control both of those, you'll be able to load him.

Before bringing a trailer into the equation, James strongly encourages owners to establish a solid foundation with ground control lessons that teach the horse to move off pressure and reward him when he does by releasing that pressure. Once a horse has learned these fundamental lessons and knows that you won't ask him to do something unsafe, he'll be willing to try anything you ask. Of course, this doesn't happen overnight, but it's essential if you want to effectively work with your horse.

James uses lightweight dressage and carriage whips in his training program to cue the horse. He recommends a 60-inch carriage whip and a 40-inch dressage whip with removable popper. Proper use of these whips allows you to communicate with the horse through clear cues.

When being urged to load, many horses go part way and then balk. They may also throw their heads up. James explains that this is common with a horse that hasn't learned the basic ground control lesson of giving to pressure on the halter.

"It's the #1 cause of horses hitting their heads on the trailer is because they're trying to avoid the pressure of the halter," he notes.

Obviously, such a horse needs more work on ground control lessons of giving to pressure, but if you must load him before you can do this, James says pulling on the lead rope is not going to work.

"I wouldn't put any pressure on his head and halter, but would use the dressage or carriage whip and teach the horse to come forward when tapped with the stick on his shoulder. Keep tapping until he takes even one step forward and then quit immediately. In this case, the pressure is the tapping of the stick and you release that pressure when he moves forward."

If the horse wants to drop his head and sniff the ramp or trailer, by all means, let him. This will also help him place his feet correctly to walk on in, something he can't do if you're pulling on the lead rope. Be patient, don't rush him and resist the instinct to pull.

Unloading Issues

If the horse tries to rush off the trailer backwards, this may also indicate that he has a problem with tying or giving to pressure on the halter. You'll need to take time to work with this on the ground away from the trailer. But you may also want to reconsider backing him off the trailer, and let him turn around to walk out.

"Some trainers will tell you to only back your horse off the trailer, but I'm not really sure why. If the trailer configuration allows it, I have no problem with a horse turning around in the trailer and walking off," says James. "If you're doing this because you think the horse won't unload if he can't turn around, then again, it goes back to training and it's about more than the trailer."

Make Trailer a Sanctuary

James routinely does "mark training" (also known as "sanctuary training"), with horses. This approach teaches the horse to go to a specific place, (or mark, such as a flat block of wood), and that once he does, he is free from all pressure and is allowed to stand quietly and rest. This is often the concept used to get horses in movies and commercials to run to a certain spot and stand still with no rope or line connecting them to a trainer.

"The thought process behind mark training is that the horse desires to go to this place, not that you can "make" him go there," explains James. "Many people are not familiar with this method, but the principal behind it is the same approach we can apply to trailer loading. It's more than a mechanical process of loading and unloading because the horse WANTS to be in the trailer. You're sending him to a place that he considers a sanctuary. "I've done demonstrations where I'd put the mark (block of wood) in a trailer and the horse would literally chase the trailer to get in."

Whether you choose to utilize mark training or not, you must have consistent control of your horse on the ground if you want to make trailer loading and unloading a drama-free experience.

The trailer shouldn't be frightening for the horse, frustrating for you, or potentially dangerous for either of you. You'll both be much safer-not to mention, happier-when you thoroughly prepare him with good ground control before you ever approach a trailer.

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