14 Jun Loading a Horse on a Trailer: Simple Step By Step Guide
How to Load a Horse Onto a Horse Trailer
At one point or another, you will likely have to travel with your horse by trailer. Some horses do fine loading into a trailer, while others panic and refuse to go in. I know how frustrating it can be when your horse resists all of your best efforts to get them to load, so I put together this information to help you avoid the same issue.
How can you get your horse to load on a trailer? You can get them to load by following these steps:
- take the proper safety measures when loading your horse (see article below)
- work on desensitizing your horse to tight spaces and other aspects of the trailer
- use basic groundwork to encourage the horse to get on the trailer
- give your horse a good experience once they’re in the trailer
- be consistent with getting your horse to practice getting on the trailer
Trailering your horse is a necessary activity if you want to compete, attend events, or even get your horse to the vet if need be. Ensuring that you can safely load your horse on a trailer will save you from a lot of frustration…believe me, I’ve been there. These are the steps I have repeatedly done to teach horses to load onto a trailer:
STEP 1: Take the Proper Safety Measures When Loading Your Horse
Be Aware Of Potentially Dangerous Situations That Could Occur
When you are working with a horse to load correctly on a trailer, there are some safety hazards that you should be aware of.
Always Have the Trailer Hooked Up to a Vehicle
First and foremost, make sure that the trailer is always hooked up to a parked vehicle before trying to put your horse on it. Horses weigh anywhere between 1000 lbs to 1 ton; their weight could easily cause a trailer to move if it’s not hooked up to a vehicle.
Be Aware of Your Space
When a horse is getting worked up over a task that you’re asking them to do, they can start to ignore any sense of personal space you may have. Knowing this beforehand will allow you to do groundwork exercises to get your horse to respect your space.
Avoid putting yourself in dangerous areas when working with your horse and a trailer. These areas can include between your horse and the trailer wall once your horse is in the trailer. I don’t ever recommend going into this area; your horse could easily squish you or freak out and seriously injure you.
Don’t stand directly behind a trailer that doesn’t have the horse secured inside; the horse could run back off the trailer and accidentally run you over. Always stand to the side and be aware of the horse’s location at all times.
Be Aware of How Your Horse May React in the Situation
Knowing how a horse that is wary of getting in a trailer may act can help you to prepare and be safe ahead of time. The most common action I see from horses working to get on a trailer is that they’ll run backward either off the trailer or away from it. Make sure that no one is ever standing behind the trailer as you work with your horse.
Be cautious as you lead your horse onto the trailer; your horse could jump on and accidentally hit you and knock you over. Teaching your horse to self-load will keep you out of harm’s way.
Always be sure to secure the panel or door to the trailer before you tie your horse in. If your horse is tied but there is no panel to stop them from stepping back and off the trailer, you are eliciting a very serious and dangerous situation. In order to avoid this, always secure that back panel or door before tying your horse in.
STEP 2: Work On Desensitizing Your Horse From Tight Spaces
Taking the time to prepare your horse for loading on the trailer can make the whole process easier on your horse. By preparing them ahead of time to tight spaces and stepping up and backing off of something, you will help the horse feel more confident when it comes to loading. Here are some exercises to try in preparation:
Set Up Tight Obstacles to Work Through
If your horse is reluctant to get onto a horse trailer, it could be because of the tight and claustrophobic space that the trailer presents. Horses are prey animals, so the feeling of being trapped, like in a trailer, can definitely trigger that flight mode. Desensitizing your horse from tight spaces will help to get your horse more comfortable with the trailer.
To begin with, set up obstacles that will challenge your horse with a tight space; I’ll usually set up two barrels side-by-side to walk through or a narrow chute using ground poles. The goal here is simply to get the horse used to these tight spaces by going through them repeatedly.
Work on Having Your Horse Step Onto and Back Off of a Ledge or Incline
I had a horse that would walk easily onto the trailer but when it came to backing out of it, it was a big ordeal. When I first got the horse, she had backed off the trailer and actually fallen off. This made her terrified of backing off the trailer from then on. Believe it or not, but there are many horses like this.
One great exercise I found to combat this is to practice backing your horse down a decline, like a small hill. This will mimic the feeling of backing down a ramp. If your trailer doesn’t have a ramp, practice backing off of small ledges or even poles on the ground. This way, the horse is prepared for the feeling of backing off the trailer. Once I worked on this for a while, I was able to easily back my horse off of the trailer.
If you’d like to know more about desensitizing training and how to make your horse bombproof, check out our article, Bombproof and Desensitize a Horse: The Ultimate Guide.
STEP 3: Use Basic Groundwork to Encourage Your Horse to Get On the Trailer
Before I get into this section, I want to mention that you should try and maintain a calm environment as you work with your horse and the trailer. If you start getting frustrated and create a stressful environment for your horse, the horse can come to view loading on the trailer in even more negative lights.
The simple groundwork you’ll use most often when loading your horse is pressure and release. Pressure and release is a training principle that teaches horses the correct response by the release of pressure. For example; if I want my horse to step forward, I’ll apply pressure to the lead. As soon as the horse responds correctly by stepping forward, I’ll release the pressure. If the horse ignores or fights the pressure, I’ll hold the pressure until the horse responds, even in the slightest. Next, I’ll walk you through how to incorporate this principle into getting your horse on the trailer.
Approaching the Trailer
First, You’ll lead the horse up to the trailer; you should do this with confidence and assertiveness. If you’re confident, the horse will be more confident. If the horse balks, encourage them forward; if the horse starts to back up, plant your feet where you are and ask them to step back up and to you. Hold the pressure and gradually increase until they do so.
Reward the Smallest Steps in the Right Direction
If the horse has a bit more surety about approaching the trailer, you can let them rest and stand for a moment. In the beginning, this may not look like the horse actually getting on the trailer. It simply may look like the horse putting one front foot in the trailer. As soon as they do this, release all pressure you may be applying and praise your horse. If you have a horse that is more cautious about approaching the trailer, remember to reward even the slightest step forward.
Give Your Horse Regular Breaks
To make this a good experience for your horse, be sure to give regular breaks and don’t overwork them when it comes to getting them on the trailer. Horses can only focus for about 20 seconds at a time, so making them focus for long periods of time on something they may get frustrated with can be taxing. Instead, as you work your horse with the trailer, give them a break every few minutes. This can also act as a reward for approaching or getting on the trailer.
To me, a break looks like walking away from the trailer for a minute and just leading the horse around. I only ever do this after the horse has responded correctly to pressure. If you take a break when the horse is fighting you and fighting pressure, this will actually reward the horse for responding that way.
Groundwork is considered the foundation of horse training. If you’d like to learn some basic groundwork techniques, check out our article, 5 Best Groundwork Exercises for Your Horse.
Step 4: Give Your Horse a Good Experience Once They’re In the Tailer
In order to help your horse have a positive association with the trailer, it’s vital that you make sure that anytime they are in the trailer they have an enjoyable experience.
Let Them Rest From Work in the Trailer
You want your horse to think of getting on the horse trailer in a positive light. This means you should want to emphasize that getting on the trailer means rest and a job well done. Once the horse is on the trailer, I’m going to give them all the praise I can and let the horse know that it’s doing good.
Remember, if your horse is particularly wary about getting on the trailer, then this is a huge improvement. Don’t do anything that may quickly dash that improvement and make you start back at square one. Don’t rush your horse or be annoyed with them just because they were scared of the trailer in the first place.
Let Them See That Being on the Trailer is a Good Time
I once had this pony that would get so excited when she learned that she would be getting on the trailer. She would start pulling to go towards the trailer and she’d hop right on all by herself and walk into her spot. Why did she do this? She knew that there was a nice full hay net waiting for her inside.
Horses love to eat and they are usually more fond of the places where they are given food. By just letting your horse stand on the trailer and eat hay, you are helping them feel right at home.
Give Your Horse a Trailer Buddy
Horses are herd animals, meaning that they naturally rather be with other horses. To help your horse have a positive association with the trailer, stick another horse on the trailer with them. Choose a horse that is a seasoned pro at being in the trailer and one that won’t throw a fuss. Their calm demeanor will help to keep your horse calm.
Step 5: Be Consistent With the Practice of Getting On the Trailer
Horses learn by repetition, so it’s only natural for them to get used to the trailer if you work consistently with it. This may seem like a hassle, but it’s more fun than you realize. Once you can get your horse on the trailer that means that you can start going to shows, activities, and off-site trail rides. You’ll want to trailer your horse off the property every weekend!
Always remember that horses need consistency to be able to understand what you’re asking of them. Be consistent in your training methods and the way you ask the horse to do something. This will help your horse to become more susceptible to your cues.
Frequently Asked Questions
What If I Can’t Get My Horse Off the Trailer?
In some trailer styles, like stock trailers, the horses can usually turn around to walk off the trailer; however, in some straight-load and slant-load trailers, the horse is required to back off of the trailer. That means that the horse is going to have to take a big step down to the ground with its back legs.
If a horse refuses to back off of a trailer, it’s usually because they’re scared since they can’t see or feel where their hind legs are going. If this is the case, there is a very simple exercise you can do to help your horse.
On the ground, away from the trailer, simply ask your horse to back up over a ground pole. This will create an obstacle for them to maneuver over with their hind legs. Once they get comfortable, look for other things to back them over; it can be the small concrete step into the barn or anything that can pose the challenge of backing off something.
When your horse can confidently do this, put them on the trailer and practice backing them off. Remember to apply the pressure until your horse takes a step in the right direction, then praise them.
What Kind of Trailer Should I Get?
There are mainly three different kinds of trailers. A straight-load trailer is a two-horse trailer where the horse loads directly on and directly off. A slant load trailer is where the horse loads and is tied off and shut in on a slant. A Stock trailer is a wide-open trailer where the horse can be tied off or simply loaded on and let go.
Each trailer has its pros and cons; I personally like stock trailers because they’re open and usually have good ventilation. You as the horse handler have more room to maneuver in the trailer while loading horses. Before you buy a trailer, take time to research and inspect the different types to see what would best suit your needs.
Having the ability to travel with your horse opens up so many more doors for adventures and fun! If you’d like to know some tips for traveling long-distance with your horse, check out our article, Horse Travel Made Easy: 20 Essential Travel Tips.
I’m a lifelong horse trainer and horseback rider who’s passionate about teaching others about the things I’ve learned. I grew up competing in numerous English horseback riding disciplines and am now a certified equine massage therapist. I currently own three horses.