Trailer Loading Lessons

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Q. I've had my yearling filly all of her life. I trained her from week one to trailer load, and she was fine with getting in and out. However, this was with a four-horse slant load trailer that steps up. Now I need to load her into a two-horse trailer with a ramp and a divider.  When I tried to load her into the two-horse trailer, she would not load and tried many evasive tactics (rearing, biting, even kicked out once--which is not typical for her). We did manage to get her in the trailer once, but she rushed out almost immediately, ducking underneath the butt bar. I tried tapping and using pressure and release, which seems to be a very successful method for many. With this method she would back up and get really frustrated. However, away from a trailer she knows that tapping her means forward motion, or sideways motion depending on how and where the tap is given. When my helper and I realized she was just frustrated, we ended on a good note with her standing quietly on the ramp.

We came back the next day to start fresh, going slowly and not pushing her.  We did not use any tapping.  Therefore, we did not have any rearing, kicking, or biting.  We tried to let her make up her own mind to go in, but she was hesitant and stubborn. I imagine she is scared or unsure of the confined space.  We tried letting her watch an older horse get in, and she still would not go farther than the ramp. Finally, the other horse got antsy and we had to take him out of the trailer. I even went back to a rope looped around her butt in the hope that she would remember her early training as a foal and respond; however, this frustrated her again. She is normally very well-mannered, friendly, and responsive, but she's made up her mind about this two-horse trailer. So I've made arrangements for her to stay at her current barn for the time being until she is trained to this trailer.

We parked the trailer in the paddock with her and put her food in it; we'll just let her live with it awhile and get used to it while feeding her on the trailer. I figure she will get on in her own time with no people around and realize that it will not hurt her, eventually considering it a good place since her food is on there.  This technique worked for a friend of mine. Have you known it to be successful? So far she has been exploring the trailer on the outside.

I wanted to ask you exactly what techniques I should do while doing a trailer lesson. I don't want her to end up frustrated, rebellious, or scared, and I want to make sure that I do this right the first time since this will affect her the rest of her life.


A.I agree with your decision to back off on the pressure techniques and to take it more slowly and carefully for the lifelong compliance of this filly. Pushing such animals that are effectively avoiding the task can only provoke stronger resistance and aggression, teaching them that aggression and aversive maneuvers are the solution to their confusion.

What you have done with placing the trailer in her pasture and feeding her from it is an excellent choice of options. In my experience (usually with horses with histories of great difficulty), it will work, especially if that is the only place she is getting food and water--first, near the trailer, then off the ramp, then farther inside the trailer. 

Make sure to check the trailer over for any safety issues (i.e., sharp objects) and correct these before leaving the horse alone with it. I would remove the divider to open up the trailer and allow the horse to turn around if she should become frightened.

In addition, it is best not to have other horses in the paddock so that fights over food are not an issue.  You could also hand-lead her at feeding time. Go to each session with no expectations for ever getting all the way into the trailer, just that you need to lead her nearer and nearer the trailer with all positive experiences.

Further work to build her trust for all situations would include some obstacle course work--leading her through new and mildly scary places, getting her to "follow you anywhere," including up ramps, through chutes, over bridges, over hoses, through water, near umbrellas, over tarps on the ground, past radios, vacuum cleaners, tractors, etc.

Use an intermittent reinforcement of a treat or even an occasional bribe treat to get her to follow you calmly.  At the end of the obstacle course, give her a treat. It might be fun and useful to have a solid "go anywhere, do anything" herdmate lead the way.

One technique that is fun and very effective is the systematic method known as clicker or target training. It boils down to positive reinforcement of the animal for following a specific hand-held "target."

The animal focuses on that task and the anticipated positive reinforcement and will learn to go just about anywhere you ask.

Follow-Up from Sarah

Here is my filly's progress. Sunday was the day that I left food (hay and grain) in the trailer with a large water tank outside of the trailer.  Monday she spent nosing the trailer and nibbling at it.  The barn owner called to let me know that my filly did not go in the trailer but kept walking around it and tossing her head like she does when she is irritated.

Tuesday I went out and she had not eaten or been in the trailer, although she would walk across the ramp. I grabbed an apple and got in the trailer and tried to entice her in. She made it half way, got to eat the apple, and even snatched some of the hay.  Then I asked her to enter at my request using a halter and lead rope. She would still go halfway in, which I was very happy with, and we quit for the day.

On Wednesday she still had not eaten any more, but after some persuasion and another apple, she would get all the way in. She would take a bite of hay and back off (she was free of any equipment, halter, etc.). Each time she walked in she would stay a little longer. Finally, I got the halter and lead rope again and asked her to get in because I was requesting it. She did this several times with me getting her in, then backing her out, and repeating five to seven times.  She would pause some, and I would just stand there and tug and release, tug and release, until she made some effort.  At every effort, I praised her and patted her head, sometimes giving her a handful of grain.  Then we quit.

The next morning the barn owner went out to sit in the trailer with her. She said that my horse would get in as long as the barn owner was in the trailer. I went that afternoon, and could not see my filly so I figured she was behind the barn. I was relieved to find that she was in the trailer, contentedly munching hay. I patted her and started to make some noise. She didn't care.  Then I proceeded to bang on metal, jump up and down, and slam doors to get her used to the noise.  She could have cared less. Now this was my horse--mellow, laid-back, and cooperative. I proceeded to put the halter on her and lead her in and out about 10 times. She wasn't perfect. She'd pause a little, but with a few tugs she would come right in.

Saturday morning, we hitched up the trailer and left it right in the paddock. I got my horse and she walked right in and stayed there as if she had done it a thousand times. I'll try the obstacle course idea and keep exposing her to new things. 

About the Author

Sue McDonnell, PhD, Certified AAB

Sue M. McDonnell, PhD, is a certified applied animal behaviorist and the founding head of the equine behavior program at the University of Pennsylvania's School of Veterinary Medicine. She is also the author of numerous books and articles about horse behavior and management.

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