Trailer loading – I Needed HELP!

April 23, 2015

Trailer loading. A necessary part of an active horse’s life when there are trails and competitions to reach and return from. Simon and Poe both came to me trailer competent, and load up all on their own. Over the years I have had a few horses that needed some encouragement and additional experience at loading, but they quickly fell into line like the others and were eager to jump on board.

Spike, although he loaded when I picked him up, and to go to and from one practice, each time was rougher than the time before. And on my next attempt, he won. I watched gobs of trailer loading videos, read some articles, and sent myself out armed with all the knowledge the internet could provide. Two hours later I came back into the house, defeated. I tried parking the trailer in a paddock, loaded with his food. Spike did not eat for two days. At this point, I accepted my failure. I needed help.

I contacted local rider and trainer, Laura, and told her my situation. We arranged for her to come out this past weekend and in preparation, I parked my truck and trailer in the nice big fenced in grass field.

*Not being a trainer myself, and with little (ie. almost none) natural horseman experience, I am probably going to miss some of the concepts and explanations of what an awesome and amazing job Laura did. I am also sure the terms and descriptions I use below are inadequate. She explained everything she was doing, although I am sure I was not able to retain all of it. In the end it felt like she came in with a magic wand and some fairy dust and sprinkled it on my trailer and pony and poofed him into the trailer. But in reality she left me with the tools to replicate some of her process, and with Spike and myself both having gained confidence to continue his training.

Laura arrived with a calm positive attitude and introduced herself to Spike. She sat nonchalantly on the open end of the trailer with Spike in hand, while I went over the situation and gave a briefing of Spike’s history. Next she walked him around, getting a feel for him, and explaining her approach. Her first goal was to approach the trailer straight. This took a small amount of work. Spike attempted to pop off to the left of the trailer, which Laura politely corrected with a driving whip, using it as an extension of her arm to help direct him. She explained this is greater detail, which makes sense in my head but is not something I can adequately relate in words. It boils down to making the only easy path for him is straight, facing the trailer. She said to think of the approach as, you are walking straight, and the trailer just happens to be in your path. After a few approaches, with him taking a step forward, and beginning to understand her approach, Spike actually stepped up into the trailer. Laura gave him a rub and let him stand there, licking and chewing, and then approached again. Shortly after he was loading up into the trailer and standing there quietly.

Of course there was a lot more to this than that little paragraph explains. Laura did all of this with no whipping, yelling, butt ropes, or any of the more ‘loud’ approaches. She did it all quietly, on her own, with only a whip to use as a hand extension (not to whip). She explained how she arranged her position in the trailer to leave it open and inviting. Stuff like that, but way too many little things for me to try and relay.

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Laura also stressed the importance of not allowing him to bolt off the trailer and she stood with Spike facing out of the trailer, and rubbed him and talked to him while he relaxed. Throughout the entire process Laura was calm and quiet and kept Spike on a loose rope. Much looser than I probably ever use. She went over walking around and keeping him out of my space and how to use the whip and my arms as extensions.

Next it was my turn. After a few walking circles, with me getting a feel for the longer loose line, and how politely Spike was walking with me, Laura instructed me to approach the trailer with the intent to stop facing it straight. “Eyes up like you are approaching a fence”. This specific instruction really clicked with me. So, eyes up, approaching the trailer, and before I could stop in front of it, Spike hopped in and loaded himself up like a pro. I followed him inside and proudly patted him.

But ah, patting, this is something else I learned. Laura came into the trailer with Spike and I, and while we rubbed Spike on the neck, shoulder and wither areas she explained that patting is like nipping from other horses. Ironically we were rubbing him all over the bite marks Simon had left behind. A rub is like a mare does to her foal, or companion horses grooming each other. I did a little googling on the subject later and read some tid bits about the horse’s skin being extremely sensitive (after all they can feel a fly). To think about it like using your hand to mimic the big upper lip of another horse. This has been difficult to remember, but something I am avidly working on, and Spike really seems to appreciate it.
Back to the trailer loading, I circled and reloaded him several times, each time with a stop in loaded position with some kind words and rubs. And then stopped again facing out of the trailer with some rubs and kind words. Laura pointed out toward the end of our session that Spike was completely relaxed and sniffing around, and nibbling back at me with his nose.

Blown away. New pony.

The next morning I was ready to do a solo session. I had left the trailer in the same spot and started off with some walking around, and remembered to keep calm. Laura told me not to expect him to bounce right on, but to have a goal of staying straight. Eyes up, I approached the trailer with the intent of stopping in front of it, straight. Spike choose to climb on in. So we did this a few times, Spike and I both beamed with confidence. I texted Laura. Big smiles.

Monday, we did nothing.

But Tuesday, now Tuesday I changed things up. I moved the trailer from the super welcoming grass field and parked it in the super scary gravel parking area by the house so I could get it cleaned out and prepped for the start of the competition season this weekend. I started Spike off with a short walk. He quickly relaxed as I employed the same loose line and calm demeanor Laura had shown me. The first approach to the trailer was perfectly straight. He stood at the step up and sniffed around. On the second approach he loaded up slowly, thinking as he went. Rubs and calm ‘good boys’ and big smiles again. After a few more successful loads, we went on a walk and then called it for the day.

I am so excited about this approach with Spike. He is extremely responsive to it and it fits his personality quite well. I am also super excited that I was able to retain some of what Laura went over, and am able to recreate some of it on my own. I am going to continue working on loading with Spike and try to emulate the calm patience Laura employed.

Very exciting!

*Please keep in mind, I am not a trainer, and I am not trying to instruct you how to teach loading. If you gather anything from this post it should be that admitting you need help is ok. And that a little help can go a long way. Not only did Laura teach Spike and myself about loading, she taught me a new approach to Spike. This one session has made a huge difference for both Spike and myself.

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