Ask anyone who works with horses, "What's your least favorite problem to fix?" and I'm sure trailer issues will be on the shortlist. It's where the basic nature of the horse is in direct conflict with the needs of the human. Asking a large, highly claustrophobic flight animal, which relies on sight, hearing and smell to evaluate danger, to get into a very small space with no way to escape is something that makes absolutely no sense to a horse. We expect them to feel safe, no matter what the quality of our equipment or the skill of our driving, and to believe all other drivers on the road are sane and respectful of someone pulling a horse trailer. Even we don't believe that!
Studying the psychology of the horse, I'm truly amazed they will do this for us. If you've ever ridden in a horse trailer, you know it is a pretty awful experience. If you suffer from any of the many phobias associated with everyday life, you know how hard it is to do something when all your instincts say you shouldn't. I know plenty of people who are uneasy about getting in a crowded elevator, a subway car or a plane. Maybe fear of being trapped in a small space with no escape is universal for all living things. Rational thought may get us over our fears, in some cases, but rational thought doesn't guide the behavior of horses and most other creatures.
One of my first students saw her trailer problem like this: "He should just go in — it's what horses are supposed to do. I want to go for a ride. He should look forward to that and know he'll be safe." Back then, I let that one roll off my back. Today, I'd probably advise her to consider an activity that didn't require working with another living being. I don't think in 50 million years there has ever been a horse who said to itself, "Hey, I'm willing to be trapped in that little metal can because it will be fun afterward!"
When I first started with horses, I didn't even own a trailer. We had direct access to miles of trails with extraordinary beauty and a wide variety of riding challenges. But I noted that in every clinic I attended, trailer loading was a central piece of the program and the subject of many participant questions. In addition, every trailer loading demo I saw involved a nice trailer parked in an arena with perfect footing, allowing the clinician to work in relative safety to quickly accomplish the task using the approach of making the trailer the "good place to rest" and everywhere else a place to work. It made perfect sense based on the psychology of the horse. But I saw the techniques were hard for some people to master and I knew many of the horses did not load when they went home with their owners.
I got pretty good at this task myself and was able to load almost any horse. To get my Horseman level certification from Dennis Reis, I even had to load my own horse at liberty from the other side of the arena, maybe 75 feet away, without any rope, using only my body language, voice and training stick. Try that at home sometime and you'll get a sense of how much a horse really wants to get in a trailer if he is free to make other choices and there are no treats involved!
When I started my training business, a funny thing happened. In 10 years I've never been called to help with a trailer-loading problem where I arrived to find a high-quality, bright, modern trailer parked in a arena with great footing where it would be easy and safe to work. Typically there is a trailer parked in a driveway or field with lousy footing. The trailer, kept together with twine, rope or bungee cords, had seen better days. A quick look around the area would show evidence of damage or struggles from previous attempts to "fix" the problem. Sometimes, the horse would show evidence of injury from those attempts.
After this heavy dose of reality, I thought differently about the problem. I saw this as a foundation training problem, similar to other behavioral issues tied to lack of solid foundation between the horse and owner. I believe you need to build that foundation before you specialize, and that trailer loading is really a form of specialization — like developing your horse for a specific riding discipline. Before you try to do something like reining, dressage or even trailer loading, put the foundation in place first.
It was also obvious I had to be able to help people and their horses in less than perfect working conditions, perhaps with safer techniques requiring less movement and leaving the trailer until the end of a process.
Three foundation principles have to be in place to make the trailer less stressful for a horse. First, the horse has to believe that yielding softly and willingly to pressure, especially a forward or backward request, is a safe and correct response. Second, he has to learn patience and to wait for your direction. Third, he must have experienced some sensory challenges, presented progressively and with success, that help him deal with his claustrophobic nature. If all of this is put in place without using a trailer, I think you'd be surprised at how quickly the trailer itself becomes a non-issue.
I do this with the basic tools of natural horsemanship and some simple "toys" and homemade equipment. The first goal is get the basic yields in place so the horse responds willingly and softly. Reward the slightest give or a single step by releasing the pressure, making the horse's success clear and obvious to him. Once you can send your horse anywhere, bring him to a stop where he is focused only on you, waiting for your next request, you're ready to move on.
I use barrels (plastic, not metal), ground poles, tarps, plywood and similar things to reinforce that going over, under or through things based on my direction will always be OK and will lead to rest, reward and praise. You can simulate a trailer with barrels and ground poles to set up an alley and even a slanted space and gate. Send your horse into this space and back him out, gradually making the space tighter and closer to your trailer dimensions. You can add some plywood or a homemade "bridge" to simulate what a horse experiences stepping into or out of a trailer. Sometimes I hang my "carwash" over my simulated trailer. Any horse that will walk calmly through my carwash while going over my bridge, and back through it as well, will go in a trailer with few problems. The beauty of this approach is that you can do it with a much greater margin of safety for you and your horse. Knocking over a plastic barrel is a far better option than rearing up in a trailer.
The point of all this is simple. The trailer is just a specific sensory challenge for a horse. Any good horseman knows that to get a horse comfortable and relaxed with a situation, you first need the horse to respect your leadership, give softly to pressure and follow your direction. From there, you can tackle any issue by gradually moving to it in progressive small steps, rewarding success at each step. Forget the trailer at first and build your foundation instead; then when you do get to it you'll find your horse will approach it as just another part of the exercise. It won't be about jamming him in there, shutting the door and hoping everything is OK. Like just about everything we ask our horses to do, if he is emotionally invested in the process rather than being focused on the thing, it will just be one other exercise the two of you do together as a partnership, even if it doesn't make any sense to him.
Scott Thomson lives in Silver City and teaches natural horsemanship and foundation training. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or (575) 388-1830.