Published in the April 2008, edition of the Western Horse Review.
Josh Nichol answers a reader\’s question on a common trailer loading issue. Nichol, is a horse trainer and clinician who resides at Eagles Wing Ranch in Meanook Alberta near Edmonton. He once said: “Softness is the ultimate goal in everything we do with our horses, for only through softness can a horse be and give his best.” It’s been said of him that he understands the deeper way and greater way of horsemanship. Visit him online at www.joshnichol.com
Question: We have five horses at home. We purchased a 12-year-old mare two years ago and we used her regularly at gymkhana and team penning events. When we first got her, she would walk in our stock trailer by herself and out (moving forward), without any problems. Then one weekend last summer, we used a slant trailer. She walked in without a fuss but when we asked her to back up, she was out like a sling shot. Following this incident, she panicked at various competitions while being tied to the trailer and even broke three halters. In an attempt to avoid any more episodes, we purchased a pen that attached to our stock trailer. A couple of months ago, we had to use a slant trailer again and just like before she got in without a fuss, but on the back up, she moved out so fast it was dangerous. Now, she is at a point where she is uncomfortable and nervous even getting in our stock trailer. I’ve had to park the trailer at the entrance of the round pen where she would need to get in on her own to get her feed, hay and water. With a lot of probing she finally got in again, but I can sense that she is not like she used to be. What can we do? Teach her that it’s okay to be tied in/out of the stock/slant trailers, and back out without danger out of the slant trailer? Please note, there is no ramp, it’s a step up.
~ Josée Martel, Clarence Creek, ON
Answer: Most of the time when a horse worries as they back out of a trailer, they will hurry. As they hurry the lead rope soon tightens up amplifying the horse’s anxiety, seemingly giving them more to fight against. To fix this problem we must break it down and fix it in parts.
The first part we have to work on is the definition of the lead rope. Most horses will lightly respond to the lead rope when there is nothing to worry about but as soon as a greater worry shows up, the lead rope loses its effect. I would start by seeing if your horse has the ability to soften her head down to the lead. Apply a small amount of pressure to the lead and see what you feel. If there is a large amount of resistance, ease off a little but keep a question of pressure in the lead until she thinks to soften her head down. Remember that there is a difference between lightness and softness; she can quickly throw her head down but this does not mean she is soft.
Next it is extremely important to have your horse understand your space. Take a moment to engage the space making sure she is staying soft. Most often when the horse worries you will then see if they truly understand your leadership. Ask her to stop to your space, back her up with your space, softening her head each time you stop her. Pressure can also be used to help her understand forward is the answer, if that becomes a problem. As soon as she steps forward, stop your pressure. Once this is working, walk her up to the trailer. As you are leading her to the trailer, do you get a sense that the space is no longer clear and/or is she still soft on the lead?
Now that you have your basics you can work in the trailer. You can start in the stock or the slant, which ever you are more comfortable in, although it may be a smaller question for her to start in the stock. When you ask her to step into the trailer see that she brings only her front feet and stop her. At this point ask her to soften her head and wait, then back her out. From here ask her to bring in all four feet and stop her; ask her to soften her head and wait, then back her out. It’s at this stage that she may rush out. If she does, keep only a small amount of pressure on the lead and go with her and ask her to soften her head once she’s out, proceeding back into the trailer.
Often we do not earn each step, we take them the whole way into the trailer. Work towards breaking the problem down into small parts and help her stay soft each step of the way into the trailer. Take her into the trailer two steps and back her out, then three steps and back out. The back feet are usually the big struggle, so once you have gotten the back feet in stop her, get her soft then back out and let her take some time if she needs to figure out her feet.
Usually a pulling problem is a horse that does not understand to soften to the lead. It is the same reason she is pulling backwards in the horse trailer. If you can get her to soften to your lead and your space at each step of the way, as well as getting her to soften under pressure, you will be able to get ahead of this problem.