When a horse won’t load in a trailer, it can be a stressful experience for both the horse and handler.
In this article, I’ll be discussing the problem and describing specific training interventions you can use right now or gradually over a few days or weeks to get a resistant horse loaded on a trailer ASAP. Click on the links to jump to the “what to do” portion of this post.
Is any problem more frustrating than packing up for a show or trail ride- usually running a bit behind- and rushing to load your horse just to find the horse won’t walk into the trailer?
Why Horses Refuse to Load
Understanding any problem is an important part of fixing it. When we think about getting horses loading on trailers- it actually makes sense that they’d hesitate. Loading into a trailer is a difficult task for an animal that has every instinct telling them to flee from cave-like spaces.
In the wild, caves are home to bears and mountain lions. Wild horses had every reason to stay far away from caves. When you ask your horse to step into a trailer- especially a dark one- you are asking them to go against instinct. Ignoring their instinct takes a motivated horse who trusts you and your ability to keep them safe.
There are two reasons that a horse will not walk into a trailer: fear or challenging you. Some horses legitimately find trailer loading terrifying. Other horses refuse to walk in a trailer simply because they believe that if they refuse long enough or with enough force, they won’t have to. But how do you tell which state your horse is in? With attuned attention, you can make a pretty good guess about whether your horse’s trailer refusal is because of fear or challenging you for alpha status.
What scared horses look like: A horse truly afraid to load onto a trailer will appear tense and distraught, the whites of his eyes may be showing, he may appear to be ready to bolt, and he may poop as soon as he sees the trailer (passing manure can be a sign of anxiety in horses). If your horse is legitimately afraid, give them a chance to get familiar with a trailer.
What challenging horses look like: A horse who is simply testing boundaries will appear calmer. These horses are likely to stand calmly outside the trailer in between attempts to load. They may carelessly barge over or around you during loading attempts as a way to avoid stepping into the trailer.
What to Do To Get your Horse to Load onto a Trailer
Long term solutions are ideal, but sometimes you just need to get a horse on a trailer right this minute! ⌚ In this next section, you’ll find quick fixes and then some long-term solutions for hard-to-load horses.
For the willful horse, we prefer a simple exercise. It’s not a quick fix to get your horse on the trailer instantly, but if you take a few deep breaths and keep your cool, this method will get your horse to step onto the trailer.
If you are attempting to load your horse in shipping boots and extra equipment, remove the boots. Getting the horse the trailer may be more easily accomplished without additional equipment.
Method: Simply make being outside the trailer the more uncomfortable place! Prepare your trailer- get it ready and open, prepare the horse to load, walk them up to the trailer, and give the horse an opportunity to load themselves.
If they refuse or try to turn away as you walk them up to the trailer, stop the horse (a stud chain may be appropriate for this), BACK them up about 10 steps (never turn them away from the trailer), then make them start working. This work might include: backing up, turning on haunches, trotting in hand, lunging, etc for 3-4 minutes.
This chestnut mare is my Curly Horse herd’s least-loadable horse. In this photo, she’s tied during a trailer loading session while I take a breather to calm down.
If you start to lose your cool while loading, STOP, tie your horse to the trailer (with enough play in the rope to self load if they choose) and take a break.
As our anxiety rises, a horse’s loading refusal is likely to get worse, not better.
This shift from load refusal to work does two things:
- It tells the horse you are in charge, and
- It gets the horse wondering how to avoid work. After a few cycles, loading on the trailer will start to sound like the easier option!
After a few minutes of work, immediately, walk the horse back up to the trailer and give them the opportunity to load. One try.
If they refuse or try to walk off, back them up and start it all again.
Repeat this cycle as many times as it takes and try to make it increasingly difficult or physically exerting for them each time they refuse. For example, do in-hand work after the first few load refusals, then in-hand work with lots of backing up, then lunging at a trot for 2-3 minutes, then lunging at a trot for a longer period, then if you get to that point, cantering on a lunge, etc. Using a lunge line helps prevent exhausting the handler. This makes it easier for you to keep your mind clear, sharp, and kind, but firm.
As soon as the horse loads on to the trailer, they get to rest- and most horses learn this lesson quickly.
Most problem loaders take 15 minutes to 45 minutes to load with this method the first time (horses that could take hours previously) but each time the pattern is reinforced, the method requires less and less time. Eventually the horse learns that they can avoid work by calmly walking in the trailer.
There are many training methods that work to get a horse to walk into a trailer when they don’t want to, but this is one that has worked extremely well with our herd. The main trick to get a horse to load- with any trailer loading method – is keeping your cool.
- 🌞🌚 Mentally prepare yourself to spend all day, if that’s what it takes.
- ⏳ Relax, and adopt an “it’ll take as long as it takes” attitude.
- 🧘🏽♀️ If you become frustrated, your horse will sense your anxiety and be more likely to refuse to load.
- 🚫😠 More often than not, your attitude will help the horse decide to walk into a trailer more than any other factor.
LONG TERM FIXES: Working with Scared Horses
Many horse trainers recommend parking a trailer in the horse’s turnout area. This allows horses to be curious (or at least, bored) around the trailer. If you’ve read my articles on things to do with a foal, or yearling training, you know that I believe encouraging curiosity and play is the best way to create a confident horse that doesn’t shy.
In the video above, you can see the previously-identified problem-loader horse from our herd loading herself while I cheer her on from a distance.
Here are some basic tips for letting horses with trailer-fear overcome the fear of loading on a trailer through free loading:
1. Keep the trailer hitched. Horses should not be allowed to load in an unhitched trailer because their weight can off-balance the trailer, potentially moving or tipping the trailer. Use portable electric fencing to make the truck off limits to horses (trust me, I lost a wiper blade to a curious horse while parked in a pasture once. 😂)
2. Keep doors securely open. If you let your horses experiment with self loading at liberty, try tying or clipping the doors open. A door slamming closed in the wind might add trauma to a trailer-fearful horse.
3. Place feed in the trailer. Feeding a horse out of the trailer is a great way to create positive associations. Start by placing feed at the loading ramp (or step), then eventually feeding in the farthest corner (or the manger) of the trailer. This method allows the horse to familiarize themselves with the trailer on their own terms, and provides a reward (feed) for interacting with the trailer.
Final Thoughts on Trailer Loading Reluctant Horses
In conclusion, overcoming trailer loading refusal in horses requires patience, understanding, and the right approach. By determining if your horse’s refusal stems from fear or a challenge for dominance, you can apply the appropriate training interventions for a stress-free and successful loading experience.
In any case, whether you’re dealing with a scared horse or one testing boundaries, maintaining your calm and managing your emotions will go a long way in building a bond with your horse and ultimately getting them to load onto the trailer.
Thursday 29th of November 2018
I found it really interesting how you bring up making the outside of the trailer a more uncomfortable place. That way, the horse will want to walk into your trailer. My wife told me that our daughter wants to try and raise a horse for the state fair this year. I will be sure to get a horse trailer to help out our daughter and use this trick when we have to load the horse!
Sunday 21st of October 2018
how do you think a horse should be tied when traveling without a partition? I was thinking cross tieing but I’m not sure how tight.
Sunday 21st of October 2018
There are definitely lots of different opinions on this, but if I'm hauling one horse in a two-horse straight load trailer with no divider I just tie the horse like I would if there was a divider- enough play in the rope to eat and move their head but not enough slack to get into trouble. My horses usually move their hindquarters and end up riding at a slant when trailered this way