Horses- Simple Trailer Loading

horse trailer training horse getting into open trailer using ramp

Annie asked if she could bring her mare over for a trailer-loading session. Getting Cassidy, her three-year-old mare, into a trailer was an irritating exercise in frustration. The only way to get her in reliably was to create a chute at the back of an open stock trailer and then push her stubborn ample butt in.

The little bay mare rode reasonably well, but Annie couldn’t take her anywhere because even if you got Cassidy loaded at home she wouldn’t get back in for the return trip.

Pretty and Stubborn

“Sure, Annie, bring her over.”

The day was Texas-gorgeous, clear, sunny and seventy degrees, the perfect temperature to mess around outside. Annie and I had met several times at a variety of events, but never when she had a horse with her. 

Annie and Cassidy arrived in a nice little stock trailer. After we chatted for a few minutes, Annie unloaded Cassidy without incident. 

“What a cutie!”

“I think she’s gorgeous. We’ve been working on getting in the trailer, but I haven’t been able to get her to load when I need to.”

Cassidy was dark bay with one white stocking on her right rear and a large star centered on her forehead. She was on the shorter side, about 14.2 hands, with a shiny My Pretty Pony black mane and tail. Cassidy was balanced and fit, with enough substance to do about anything Annie wanted her to. 

Except load.

“Show me how you work with her at home.”

Feet Move – Just Not into the Trailer

 For the next few minutes I watched Annie ask Cassidy to work back and forth on a short longe line as close to the back of the trailer as she could drag her. I don’t think anything worked the way Annie hoped. Cassidy paid little attention to what Annie asked and didn’t go anywhere near the trailer.

She’d sit back, pulling Annie off balance, or crowd her, forcing Annie to move to avoid getting pushed or stomped on. When Cassidy’s refusal was blatant, Annie yanked hard on the lead rope to let her know she’d done wrong.

“That’s good, Annie. Let’s take a break.”

Cassidy appeared spoiled, indifferent to Annie’s requests and unconcerned about any correction. Annie didn’t have a chance because the mare was the boss.

“Do you mind if I mess with her a bit?”

“I hoped you would. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. I’ve watched several clinicians teach horses to get into the trailer, but it’s not working for me.”

Imitating Trainers Doesn’t Always Work

Of course, Annie wasn’t doing what the trainers did. She tried to imitate the generalities of what she saw them do without understanding how the parts of the exercises fit together.

After Annie handed me Cassidy’s longe line I introduced myself to her. We’d never met and it’s only polite to get to know one another before getting to work. Cassidy wasn’t a little spoiled, she was stinkin’ rotten spoiled, worse than the dozen gag-me-breathless-putrid eggs I broke when cleaning out my soon-to-be-husband’s refrigerator thirty-five years ago.  This cute little bay mare thought she could run over me the same way she did her owner.

She couldn’t, but it took twice as long to earn her focus as I figured. 

Spoiled Horses Are Fearless

Spoiled horses are fearless. They don’t believe anything will hurt them because they’ve heard it all; bluster, brandished whips, yelling, threats, and yanked ropes that never turn into anything more. I called Cassidy’s bluff and won, because I wasn’t bluffing. She put a few dozen divots in my freshly mowed coastal Bermuda grass, but I earned her attention.

Cassidy wasn’t just giving me the time of day, she was laser-locked on. Curious and a trifle wary, she was in unfamiliar territory where her tricks didn’t work. I owned her attention.

It was time to begin trailer training. Which, in my book, has little to do with trailers. My goal is to teach the horse to take one step forward. That’s it. Simple stuff. If trailers are an issue, we begin a long way from the trailer. That’s the last step, not the first or necessarily even the tenth.

One Step Forward – Anywhere

Think about it, if you know your horse will always, in every circumstance, take one step forward, where can’t you ask your horse to go? You can cross, go over, under, or through anything, and getting into a trailer is just another collection of one-steps.

Make it simple and keep it simple. When little failures stay little, minor successes add up to great achievements. Even for horses who refuse to get into trailers.

Within thirty minutes Cassidy repeatedly walked into the trailer without taking the slack out of the lead rope. No dust, no drama, no tantrums.

And Annie understood the concept. One step at a time. 

Related post: 7 Simple Rules for Success With a Horse

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Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber

Lynn Baber is a best-selling Christian author, speaker, and coach who helps people accomplish God's unique purpose for them and advance His kingdom on earth. She's also a retired World and National Champion horse trainer and breeder.

11 Responses

  1. okay. thanks!

    Just two questions repeated from above…best answer if it were your horse from what I have told you so far…

    Do I continue to load and trailer her with buddies, when the are available… or do I continue the crusade of trying to get her on alone first? Yes or no.

    Should I try to do loading and unloading exercises with her and one of her resident buddies here together? yes or no.

    Thanks just trying t formulate a strategy going forward. She is exhausting me. thanks!

    1. Amy, I can’t give you a yes or no. But here’s a question that may simplify the issue: Are you willing to not trailer anywhere until your mare is ready, even if it takes a long time?
      If the answer is no, then I suggest regular trailer rides with buddies, making the experience as pleasant and rewarding for her as possible.
      When Plan A done correctly, it isn’t difficult nor exhausting. If it is, then it isn’t really Plan A.
      If you’d like to chat on the phone, send me an email using the Contact Form and we’ll schedule a call.

  2. Thanks Lynn. I like and agree with your strategy. However, I am not sure the time it takes will work with my life. I am very dedicated horsewoman and mom and willing to put time in, but I do work a ton of hours, have a property to care for, and have two other horses on my property. And of course, like everyone else, many family and social engagements. Many hours (5?) and several attempts with her since our last communication and I do not feel we are any further ahead. When using plan B, pressure and force, she becomes very unmanageable. She got on this way for a friend who was way to aggressive before communication with you started and I think that has made it harder. I did not know she was going to use that much aggression or I would not have allowed it. SO, do I continue to load and trailer her with buddies, when the are available… or do I continue the crusade of trying to get her on alone. I am afraid if she has more experiences with buddies, that will make it even harder to get her on alone? Also, she does not even go on for meals. Right now, I have the trailer parked very close to the barn in a small paddock and am attempting to feed her on the trailer. This worked in the past when this thing first started (about 1 year ago) but it is not working yet. Since I do have other horses on the property, one loads well, she has been getting on the last couple days to eat hay, should I try to do loading and unloading exercises with the two of them together? Should I back the other one off and actually go around the block? I feel like if I did this, my mare would have a melt down and never trusts me again, because this is tricking her. As always, thanks for your thoughts! Blessing to you as well, Amy

    1. Amy, I understand that what’s best and what’s practical isn’t always the same. This is a decision you have to make. I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong choice. It is what it is. The biggest consideration is this: Consider what you promise. They keep it. If you can only promise 70% (and keep it) of what might be possible with unlimited time and limitless commitment, then don’t promise more than 70%. Horses know the difference.

      If you choose Plan A, the quiet long road, don’t deviate to pressure. All that does is prove that your earlier efforts were a lie. There’s no eternal moral issue about what you do except this: do not abuse your mare and do not lie to your mare. What you put in determines what you get out.

      Be honest with yourself. Be honest with your mare. Be honest with yourself. Offer what you can give and give it.

      Please realize that it will take longer for you to change your mare than someone new. Why? Because you and she have history. That’s true whether we’re talking horses or people. The kicker is that some other person has to be the right one. Someone who knows how to keep it simple, honest, direct, and safe. No dust, no drama.

      I’m glad you recognize that the effort your friend put in only made the problem worse. I know you won’t make that mistake again. If someone begins to work with your girl and you see emotions elevate – your mare’s or the person’s – put a stop to it. Frustrated trainers are terrible trainers. Everyone loses.

      Decide what you can do. What you can promise. Then do that. Be sure to have a heart-to-heart with your mare and explain it. Out loud. She’ll know what you mean. Eventually, if you follow through, she’ll begin to believe you, leaving the door open for something more later.

  3. Hi Lynn,
    Thank you so much for the reply. It is very helpful! I think I do know the turning point for my mare with her trailer loading. She was good until last August, 2018. I took her away for three days to the Endless Mountains in PA. 2.5 hours from our home. I keep her at home and have for the last 5 years or so. Her trailer partner was her mother. My friend and neighbor bred my mare and still owned her mom at the time. She never weaned my mare until I purchased her when she was five years old. We spent a nice weekend riding. But she loaded with a little resistance up there going about to different trails, my first inclination that it might be her partner that was her concern. The ride home was longer than she was used to and it was a pretty hot day. Not unbearable but warm. Ever since then she has been difficult to load. We have been working on it with practice. The time I spend with her has been about the same. The times out on the trailer probably increased slightly but not too drastic. I purchased my own trailer in Jan, 2018. I was worried that she would not want to load alone or go on the ramp. Previously, she mostly loaded on step ups and loaded second to her buddy. However, we went out in our new trailer very successfully many times just her and I. We went to local parks to meet friends. She was a champ all spring. Then this August trip came, and since then she has not been the same. I loaded her two Sundays ago with tons of resistance after almost 1.5 hours she got on, alone. We picked up another horse and went for a short drive (1/2 hour) rode for two hours and came home. She resisted loading first so we loaded the other horse and she got right on. Yesterday, I had a friend pick me up, loaded her on her trailer with her horse already on. She hesitated a few min. sniffed him a couple times and the ramp and then got on. No issues. I am thinking this is at least partially, a herd bound issue. She lives at home with me with two other horses. The other two horses are not ridden and never go anywhere. I mean they do not step one foot out of the barn, paddock, or pasture. I do not own them, and I am too busy to work with them. I really appreciate your time and input. I hope this long explanation gives you a better sense of what is happening with us. Thank you!

    1. Amy, it sounds like you have most of it figured out already. The goal is to get your mare to be so connected to you that she isn’t as concerned about whether or not there’s another horse around. It’s difficult to imagine your girl’s emotions after being reunited with her mother after so many years together. Whenever I want to re-introduce the trailer, I begin a session with in-hand exercises my horse knows and will earn a bouquet of “Well done”s. My goal is set horses up so that I constantly tell them they did the right thing. Telling a horse it did the wrong thing usually means we set them up to fail. (There’s a lot of nuance here, but just go with the general concept.)

      Once we’ve stacked up a bunch of right moves I head to the trailer. My goal is to work through the process successfully, one little bit at a time. Can I lead my horse within 10 feet of the trailer door without resistance? If I can, great. Say “Well done” then take a short walk to graze, do another short exercise, or something else. If I can’t, then I stop and redirect our work somewhere else in another exercise. Mark where the resistance first appears.

      If your mare balks at 10 feet, the next time stop at 15 feet so you can honestly say, good job! Then go elsewhere for a bit.
      Come back and stop at 12 feet. The idea is that every time you get near the trailer you ask for something she can easily and willingly do. Say thank you.
      You’re changing her expectation and habits. If you want to fix this, take as much time as it takes without forcing her or getting emotional.
      Eventually ask her to go to the door of the trailer, step in, but don’t ask her in. Pet her. Say, “good job”, then leave again.
      Repeat until she walks up to the trailer calmly, expecting to hear that she’s a star.
      When you’re ready to move forward, change your intention, walk deeper into the trailer, and ask if she WANTS to come in with her front feet. This is an invitation, not a command. Give her plenty of time to think about it if she doesn’t get in. You can take the slack out, but don’t pull. If she doesn’t WANT to come in, pet her and leave to do something else. Try again.

      Eventually she’s going to offer to get in because she’s learning that nothing bad or stressful even happens at the trailer. Invite her. When I get to this point the only thing I ask for is that the horse look pretty much into the trailer. If it doesn’t, I’ll back it up without making a big deal of it and go ask for something I get a “yes” to.

      The idea is to always ask for something that’s easy, get a yes, and make it UNUSUAL for your horse to say no. If she’s smart she may not believe you for quite a while. Stick with it. If you slowly make progress over days, you’re moving forward. Remember, forward is a direction, not a speed.

      When she finally gets in the trailer on her own, pet her and have a SHORT chat. Then get out and leave. Go do something else. Come back and see if she wants to get in again. Always get a yes. Set up each request so you WILL get an easy yes. And she wins!

      Once she gets in the trailer without thinking about it, close the divider or whatever for a minute. Then let her out and end the lesson.
      Add one more little bit at a time until you get to the point of taking a quick drive around the block.

      All of that will eventually make her a willing and easy trailer pony again. But it may take time.
      There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but it’s important to consider — are you willing to take as long as it takes? If not, then I’d suggest Plan B which would involve increasing pressure until she complies. That’s not a wrong choice, Amy, but it will impact your relationship with her going forward.

      Horses have limited ways to communicate with us. Your mare is communicating with you. Try to tell you that you hear her, respect her feelings, and will work to resolve her issue.

      Hope that made sense…

  4. Nice article. But one question… HOW did you call her bluff and win? HOW did you earn this respect? HOW did you earn her attention??

    ” I called Cassidy’s bluff and won, because I wasn’t bluffing. She put a few dozen divots in my freshly mowed coastal Bermuda grass, but I earned her attention.”

    I have a very stubborn mare. She seems to respect me with other things but not trailer loading!! She used to load perfectly for me. ..alone, with buddies, ramps, step ups,,, did not matter. Now, it is a different story. Thank you in advance for the reply.

    1. Thanks for the question, Amy. This topic comes up in the horse world a thousand or more times a day. What varies is what the horse says “no” to. In your case, it’s trailer loading. Something happened to change her from a willing and bold trailer girl into one who refuses to play. Was there a particular incident? A change in how often you hauled her? A change in how often the two of you spend quality time together? Have you changed barns? When did you first realize that there was a difference? Please tell me as much as you can about an incident or what else changed in your relationship. The trailer issue may be a symptom of something else.

      Here’s something to consider in the meantime; the first time your horse says “no” is the time to address it. If you don’t have time or don’t know how, stop, ask for something you know you can get a “yes” to, then ask for help or talk to someone who can help you figure out the path forward. The more times a horse says “no” the less they trust you because they know your power is limited. It’s not so much disrespect as horse sense. If you don’t have the power to protect a horse, it knows that it must be watchful and make decisions. If a horse can get the best of us, then the horse can’t trust us in everything.

      What I did with Cassidy was hear her “no” and immediately get a “yes.” Then another yes, and another. My practice is to stack up obediences, not refusals. Eventually Cassidy realized that yes was the only answer that made sense and it was easy. Nothing I asked her was difficult. “His commands are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)

      I always get a yes – even if I have to change what I ask.


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