Even if you don’t show often ‒ or at all ‒ there will be times when you have to trailer your horse, whether to a riding clinic or even a vet clinic. Your horse should already be properly trained to lead quietly, halt and back up without a fuss before you ever attempt putting them on a trailer.
I’ll start with rear-load trailers. Some horses are pros and just walk on, no questions asked. For those that are apprehensive I have a routine. First, I always use a chain shank with the chain over the nose. Then I proceed to get the horse’s attention before approaching the trailer: I back it up and then lead it ahead. If it resists I keep the pressure on the chain shank until it responds, then immediately release the pressure as a reward. I repeat this exercise until the horse responds willingly.
The next step is to approach the trailer and if the horse resists, I just keep the pressure on the shank until it responds, then release.
One common mistake is the person leading the horse standing at the entrance of the trailer, essentially blocking it and leaving the horse no clear path. Instead, walk into the trailer and encourage the horse to follow with your voice (or a treat).
If the trailer has a removable chest bar, drop it down before you start loading and then you won’t have to duck under it when the horse is coming into the trailer.
Once the horse is loaded, have someone secure the butt bar before you tie the horse. This is very important.
If the horse is difficult I will unload/reload it three or four times until it gets the message (allowing it to stand calmly for a few minutes between each procedure).
Equally important when you’re unloading the horse is to go to its head and attach your shank, then untie the horse before anyone drops the butt bar. Once the butt bar is down, you will ask the horse to back out.
I always push the horse’s head slightly to the outside wall so the its haunches stay over the ramp and it doesn’t step off the side. Don’t try to control how fast it is backing out of the trailer because that might make it panic and go faster. You want the horse to relax when it is loading and unloading.
For side-load trailers the loading principle is basically the same. Walk into the trailer and let the horse follow. If you are backing the horse into a standing stall, make sure the stall is ready and then turn the horse in the right direction so it can’t back off the ramp, and gently back it into the stall.
Stay with the chain-over-the-nose plan, especially when unloading. When I lead the horse off the trailer I take complete control and make it take baby steps from the stall until it is off the ramp. Horses bolting off the trailer are very dangerous.
If you are unloading at night try to light the trailer and the ramp for safety and better visibility.
And finally, ride in the trailer with your horse just once; then when you are driving the trailer you will be very conscious of how fast you are cornering and stopping. Make their ride as comfortable as possible and they will be happy to hop aboard the next time.