Before I was an Animal Communicator, I spent 25 years training horses and people – everything from Western riding, to problem solving, to bio-mechanics. Trailer / float loading problems are super common, and I still get people now asking how I – as an Animal Communicator – can help them figure out what their horse’s problem is, or explain to him what to do.
Often, the people who are looking for help with their horse’s dodgy loading or anxiety place the blame squarely on their horse.
‘He’s being a …’
It’s rare that I hear someone say,
‘How can I help him…’
‘How do I teach him…’ or even
‘I’m obviously missing something…’
The reality is that either:
– your horse has had a bad experience, or
– he has never actually be properly taught to load / travel in the first place.
If your horse USED to load just fine, then your priority is to figure out what’s changed.
- Did he have a bad trip / experience last time you took him somewhere?
- Were you in hurry and maybe driving too fast?
- Was something different about that last trip?
- Do you only take him places he doesn’t like, or where he always has to work hard?
- Did someone force him in, or make the process unpleasant for him?
Try going back to basics, or to what you know worked previously, and see if that helps. Re-teach him how you’s like him to load and travel. If you know that he did have a bad experience and why, bear in mind that it may take some back tracking and a lot of reassurance to get him back to the place where he once again loads with no problems.
The main reasons that people have trouble loading their horse – or he has anxiety about traveling in a float or trailer – are:
He’s previously just walked on by himself and you assumed that meant he was ok with it.
The problem here is that he was never actually taught what to do – and therefore he doesn’t know what to do if something about the situation changes. He’s liable to get worried.
He walked right on no problem – then panicked about backing out.
I’d advise you never just let your horse walk all the way in to the float the very first time you introduce him to it! Stop him after a step or two, and ask him to back out.
Back in Scotland I had someone turn up to a clinic I’d organised, with her horse in the trailer – and she couldn’t get him out. She had never taught him how to unload… (We ended up leaving him in there overnight, with hay and water, and in the morning he decided by himself that he wanted to come out and manage to back out without too much drama.)
Every trip is to somewhere stressful.
If the only place you ever take your horse is to the vet, or to competitions where he has to work really hard, he might not see getting in the trailer as to his advantage / an enjoyable thing to do!
The float itself, or your driving.
- Some horses don’t like really dark floats (maybe you could paint the inside white, or install a light or a bigger window?)
- If the float is old and noisy they may not feel safe.
- Is the floor solid? I once watched a horse refuse point blank to get in to a trailer. Someone finally thought to have a look under the rubber matting – and saw that the floor had a rotten patch in it…
- Make sure you drive carefully, and slowly, especially around corners.
- Some horses prefer the back of the float to be completely closed, so that they don’t get worried by seeing traffic coming up behind them.
Consider too whether YOU are the problem.
Do you get worried and anxious about loading and traveling? Do you imagine all the awful things that could go wrong, and the terrible things that could happen? If so, it’s highly likely that you’re conveying that fearful energy to your horse, and he’s thinking, ‘if she’s this scared, there’s no WAY I’m going in there!’
It may be as simple as getting someone else to load and / or transport your horse – or, you need to do some work on your own fear before going anywhere near a float or trailer.
So, from my 30+ years experience with horses, and as an instructor and clinician, here’s my step by step process for teaching a horse from scratch (or re-teaching) how to load in the float or trailer.
The biggest thing about teaching your horse to load is that you need to chunk everything down. Take nothing for granted. Don’t assume that he knows what to do or what you’re thinking. Teach every individual step to him. He needs to be able to think about the process, not just react.
1. First the horse needs to be able to lead – not just follow a person, but consistently follow a feel on the rope. They should be able to walk on, halt, and backup in response to either the feel of the rope, or voice cues, reliably.
You can practice this in all sorts of ways away from the float / trailer; leading in and out of the paddock, through gates, over poles etc. Practice starting and stopping on your command, moving their feet forward or back the exact number of steps you want. Practice sending them past you, eg through gates etc, so that they can go past you and not just follow you.
It’s also extremely beneficial to the loading and traveling experience if your horse is fine about being tied up (another form of giving to pressure).
2. Teach them how to lower their head. When a horse’s head is up, their body is going to be tense and out of balance and it also affects their eyesight; they’re unlikely to be able to softly see and accept what you want them to focus on. They’re in a ‘reactive’ place. When their head is down – ie neck level or just a touch below horizontal – they are in a calm, thinking place.
There are all sorts of ways to teach a horse how to lower its head; I’d recommend Connected Riding cheek delineations and caterpillars, or TTOUCH back lifts, ear, mouth or tail work.
As with the leading, this step needs to be well established completely separately before expecting it consistently at the float or trailer.
3. You can get them used to the sounds and feels of a trailer / float (and confidence in maneuvering themselves and in tight spaces) by walking them over different surfaces (carpet, cardboard, wood, a tarp, random poles etc), and through alleys of raised poles.
Again, you should be able to start and stop them on your command at any point, and maneuver their feet forward or back in different combinations of steps.
4. When you actually introduce them to the float, initially take your time and just let them check it out, smell it, paw it etc. Have it opened right up, ie jockey door open too so that it looks less like a closed in box. You might start with the partition completely removed, or at least opened up to maximise the space.
The one thing you are not going to do straight off is let them walk right in, tempting though that is. Each step needs to be controlled, directed by you, so that you can be sure they are actually listening to you and doing what you are asking rather than it being just a fluke. You need them to be thinking about each cue, not just anticipating or reacting.
5. When they are ready, ask for them to put just one foot on the ramp, and stand. You want them to stand quietly there until you ask them to back the foot off. Repeat until they can quietly put one or both feet on the ramp, stand and wait, then quietly back off. At this point you can take them away for a break, nibble of grass or whatever as a reward.
6. Ultimately, you want your horse to walk on past you and load itself, so if you are loading them on the right hand side of the float, you will be standing on their left, on the ramp (reverse if you’re in the US). Your left hand will be directing their head forward into the float. Your right hand can, if necessary, be holding either the end of the rope or a wand, to use to back up your ‘walk on’ cue. The main thing to remember is that the head must keep facing towards the inside of the float. Don’t worry if they are swinging their butt away; you can still ask them to put their front feet on the ramp, and they will learn how to straighten themselves up.
7. Note that your feel on the lead rope should be soft, not a pull. Take a connection, direct their head towards the inside of the float, say ‘walk on’, and then back up with the wand or swinging rope if necessary. Continue clearly asking for just that one step (increasing the cue, eg rope swing, as necessary) until you feel the horse soften, even just shift its weight forward. Slide on the rope if you feel any tendency to pull. Gradually you will require them to do a little more and a little more for each ‘ask’. When you release the cue, ask them to ‘stand’, and tell them how good they are. By asking just a little more each time you are not over facing the horse, and they shouldn’t panic and rush backwards. You have to be super clear and consistent about what you are asking the horse to do, reasonable in your expectations, and generous with your praise when deserved.
I generally don’t use any food; if you do, make sure it is used as a reward, not a bribe.
8. Once they are quietly and consistently putting their front feet on the ramp, ask them to take another step up the ramp, ie ask for 2 steps not just one this time; they should start bringing their hind feet with them at this point. Take note of what they are actually offering; is it enough or do you need to ask for more? If they keep just giving their front feet and stretching out without moving their hinds, be clear that that isn’t enough, you need the back feet too. Repeat your ‘walk on’ cue until you get the number of steps you are actually asking for. Again, repeat until they can give you the steps you are asking for, stand quietly, then back off.
Tip – to keep them straight when they are backing off, turn their head in the same direction that they want to swing their bum.
NB Please remember that backing down a ramp is very tiring for the horse’s hind quarters, so be careful how often you do it in one session.
9. Gradually you are asking for a step more. Both front feet inside and back feet on the ramp; front feet half way in; all the way in. At any point you should be able to ask them to halt and stand, take one step forward or one step back without them panicking. Keep repeating – backing off in how far you are asking them to go in if necessary – until they can do that wherever they happen to be.
If you have the partition on a slant you may be able to stay at their side, or you may have to go up alongside them on the other side of the partition; ideally they should be walking on past you. (If you are staying at their head they are probably just following you, and therefore not actually confidently loading themselves.)
10. Once they can consistently go all the way in and stand, practice being alongside them or behind them. Scratch their favourite itchy place. You might even ask them to pick up and put down a foot. Remind them to ‘stand’ even if you are moving about. (If you have done the previous steps successfully and they start backing out before being asked, you should be able to reverse that by asking them to stop or to walk on.)
When they are ok with standing there with you moving around, you can play with moving the partition around – do they worry when they feel it against them? – and the bum bar. Are they worried about any of the rattling noises? Play with the pins, chains or whatever; show them there is nothing to be worried about. Remind them to ‘stand’; ask them to walk on a step or back a step if necessary. Make sure you can distinguish between ‘back’ a step or two, and ‘back’ all the way out.
11. If you have been practicing with the partition on a slant, once they are going in reliably you might start asking them to go in with the partition in place. Is this a problem? Are they happier having the partition open then moved into place? Practice until you can do either.
At this stage you might also start asking them to load in the other (left) side of the float. You can either stay on their left (this will really challenge whether they can walk on past you and right in, as you won’t be able to stay by their side), or you can do it from their right.
You should be able to load your horse in either side, from either side (you may not want to be in the hind feet range of a horse that has been loaded first for instance), first or second if going with another horse, and with the partition in place or not.
12. When they are going in quietly, standing, and comfortable with you being behind them, it’s time to close the bum bar. They may back into it to check it out; that’s ok, but ask them to walk forward off of it again. There should be enough room front to back to practice shifting their feet forward and back a little with the bum bar done up. Let them stand and chill, give them a scratch, tell them how clever they are. When they are quiet, undo the bar; ask them to ‘stand’ until you ask them to back out.
Ideally, have them stand again for a bit, maybe with you moving around a bit, before you ask them to back out, so that they don’t get in the habit of bombing straight out.
13. When they can load quietly, stand, and have the bum bar done up, you can practice lifting the ramp. The first time, make sure you have swept off any loose debris that might rattle down as you lift it. (Note: something else you can practice in advance away from the float is making sure your horse is ok with things happening behind him. If you know he’s not, then he’s probably going to have an issue with the ramp.) You might like to have someone just standing at their head until you know they are ok with what is going on behind them.
Let them stand closed in for a few seconds or a minute, maybe with a haynet. When they are quiet, bring the ramp down. Vary whether you undo the bum bar straight away or not / unload them straight away or not. If you are practising with 2 horses, vary who unloads first.
14. Other things: can you load with the jockey door closed? Are they ok about having the door closed or opened when they are inside?
15. Your first trip should be short and easy, just round the block or paddock. Unload them when they are quiet. Make sure some of your trips are to nice places – in the beginning you might just take them somewhere close for a bite to eat, and then home – not always to the vet or a stressful show.
16. Make sure that you stay calm and consistent throughout. Keep your breathing even, and your hands soft on the rope (let it slide if necessary, even if they happen to pull or rush back). Stop and do some TTouches, Caterpillars, Cheek Delineations, wand stroking, lifting feet and putting them down, mouth and ear work; anything that keeps you both calm and relaxed.
17. From an Animal Communication point of view, try calmly and clearly verbalising what you want your horse to do. ‘I’d like you to pick up your right foot and place it on the ramp’, for instance. This conveys a very clear picture to the horse – and also clarifies for you whether your words and actions actually match up. You can also do this in advance, eg ‘This afternoon we’re going to do some loading practice. All I want today is your front feet on the ramp. We aren’t going anywhere, just practicing.’
Another thing you can practice in advance is visualising the exact process, step by step, going smoothly and easily. Top sports people use visualisation to practice their perfect match / round / game; it teaches your body and mind the pattern associated with completing the task in the ideal way.
And how can I help you as an Animal Communicator?
If you still can’t figure out what’s going on or need me to explain something to your horse, get in touch. (I was once asked to explain to a horse that if a bush fire is coming and their owner asks them to get on the float, they need to do it RIGHT NOW!) An Energy Balance session may also help, by making sure they are in balance, calm, and able to think things through.
Grab this free 6 page pdf, ‘What’s wrong with my horse‘, for more insights on what might be going on.
Trisha Wren has been an equine professional for most of her adult life. She rode, competed, and taught Western Riding for 15 years in Scotland, then taught horse and rider bio-mechanics in New Zealand and Australia for 10 years. She’s been a full time horse and animal communicator since April 2016, and also runs regular Animal Communication online workshops. Find out more about Trisha here.