There is nothing more frustrating or embarrassing than trying to load your normally well-behaved horse into a trailer and they refuse. They loaded perfect last time and now this? I have had my fair share of horse trailer negotiations.
Whether this is your first time loading a horse or you are looking for a better way to get the job done, there are proper techniques that are best for you and your horse. So, how do you load a difficult horse in a trailer?
There are two methods that will convince your stubborn horse to get into a trailer. The first utilizes a bowline hitch underneath their halter which increases your control when loading. If the hitch is not enough, working a horse in a tight circle before loading will make them realize that safely getting into the trailer is less work.
Every horse owner should have these tricks up their sleeve. All horses are unique and everyone’s situation is different. Keep reading to become an expert at loading your horse even if they are stubborn.
Tips for trailering stubborn horses
Stubborn horses that won’t load into a horse trailer should never have their lead rope tied off inside the trailer and be whipped from behind. This not only creates a dangerous situation for you and your horse, it also reinforces their fear of the trailer and now you.
Horses are extremely strong animals and will most likely break their halter, lead rope or the trailer ring they are tied to before they allow you to force them inside. In extreme cases, an agitated horse could slip and fall down, choking themself if you can’t get the knot undone.
There is no need for whipping, yelling or swatting them with a broom when you know how to properly use the following training methods to encourage your horse to load.
The first and easiest step to try when dealing with a horse that refuses to load is the bowline hitch. Adding a hitch rope underneath their halter with the bowline knot sitting over their facial nerve gives you firmer but still humane control. When you ask them to step forward, pressure from the knot encourages them to comply.
The bowline hitch is made from a regular rope that is similar in size to a standard lead rope but longer and without a metal clasp. The following steps will walk you through the simple process of arranging the rope and how to use it.
- Tie a small loop at the end of the rope with a bowline knot.
- With your horse standing calm and in a regular halter, bring the rope over their neck just behind the ears. Place the loose end of the rope through the small loop creating a closed loop around their neck.
- Remove the halter. The other rope is still around your horse’s neck so they can’t get away. Grab the portion of rope hanging underneath the knot and raise it up towards their neck behind the loop.
- Passing this portion of rope underneath the loop that is already around their neck creates a second loop that you stretch toward the front and around their nose. Pull the long end of the rope to tighten around their head.
- Maneuver the first loop behind their ears so the bowline knot is resting on the pressure point just below their right eye. The facial nerve runs along their cheek and the knot works by applying additional pressure when you pull on the rope.
- Place the halter back on over the rope hitch. Remove your standard lead rope from the halter and feed the end of the hitch rope through the bottom halter ring to keep everything in place and lead your horse with.
Now, when you pull on the lead they should feel a little pressure at the knot. With a well-trained horse, this may be all that’s required to entice them into the trailer. Other horses may need additional enforcing with the hitch.
Walk to the trailer and try loading. You should be ahead of your horse and if they stop and refuse to load, give steady pressure on the rope asking them to step forward. If they resist and start backing away, follow them out but then take charge and lead them back around toward the trailer. This may take several tries.
For really stubborn horses that don’t give in to the solid pressure of the hitch rope, try sending ‘zings’ up the rope. This extra pressure will entice most horses to give in and step up into the trailer. With your horse standing at the trailer opening, loop the end of the lead rope through a trailer ring or window bar two or three times and take up all the slack. Do not tie the rope off in case your horse suddenly pulls back.
With the rope tight, take your other hand and hit the rope firmly several times sending ‘zings’ up to the knot. Most horses will step forward to stop the uncomfortable pressure. Proper execution of this technique is not cruel, simply firm which some horses require.
It doesn’t normally take long with a hitch for a horse to learn they should load in a trailer. Once your horse loads, stand in the trailer a few seconds, praise them, then lead them back out. Repeat loading several times in a row until it’s a smooth process. If you are training a new horse or working out a problem, it’s a good idea to practice loading 2-3 times a day for the first week then daily for a few weeks after until you are confident they have mastered this behavior.
With stubborn horses that don’t seem to listen even with the bowline hitch, adding in circle work should change their mind. One of my horses required this additional method and let me tell you, it works. You may only have to do this 2 or 3 times or it may take 10. Eventually, your horse will get tired and will learn that getting in the trailer is actually his reward.
When your horse stops at the trailer entrance and refuses to load and the hitch method above doesn’t help, back them away from the trailer a few paces. Some horses get excited when they get led away from the trailer during this process and you want to make sure you are always in control of the situation.
Make your horse work in a circle around you two or three times. This is where the longer lead rope helps. You decide when they stop moving, not them. Then, immediately lead them back to the trailer for loading. If they go in all the way, great. If they stop shy at any point, back out and work them in circles again. Repeat this until they comply with loading.
Again, it is important to practice over and over. Maybe they will require circling for a few times, then only the hitch lead as a reminder. The more time you spend working with your horse, the better they will load into a trailer.
Why has my horse stopped loading
Sometimes a well-behaved horse suddenly stops wanting to load in a trailer. We obviously can’t ask a horse why they are behaving this way but there are several things worth looking into that may cause this annoying behavior.
- It’s been awhile. A horse that hasn’t been trailered in a long time may need a small reminder with the hitch rope but will probably respond with the first or second pull on the lead. Also, they may just be lazy and are seeing if they can get away with not listening to you.
- Distractions. Distractions from other horses, animals or people can keep your horse from loading. If something is going on, especially if you are in a new place and there is a lot of noise, your horse may want to see what’s going on instead of getting into a view-obstructing trailer.
- Pain or illness. Feeling poorly causes animals to act differently, just like people. Make sure your horse isn’t nursing any injuries, especially in their legs and feet. Standing in a moving trailer takes balance and a hurting horse won’t willingly get into a trailer.
- Other horses. If you are trailering multiple horses, one may not like another for a number of reasons. A submissive horse may not want to load next to a dominate horse already in the trailer.
- Bad experience. Horses have good memories and if your horse had a bad experience the last time they were in a trailer, they may be remembering that time and don’t want to repeat it.
- A new trailer. Some horses will load into any trailer whenever you ask. Others are more wary and are more comfortable with a trailer they are used to. Give yourself some extra time when introducing your horse to a new trailer instead of expecting them to simply jump in right away.
Your trailer might be the problem
If you’ve tried all the tricks above and you’ve ruled out all possible reasons why your horse has stopped loading, then maybe it’s not an issue with your horse after all. Your horse trailer may be causing all the problems.
Horses like wide, open spaces and most horses will balk when you ask them to go inside a small, dark trailer. The trailer may not be small but can appear that way because of closed windows and a door bar. Try opening all appropriate doors and windows to allow more light in so your horse can see exactly where they are expected to go.
It is mainly double horse straight-load trailers that have this issue. The dividing bar and door pole makes each side appear smaller than it is. I was given this type of trailer and my large quarter horse wouldn’t even enter until I removed the center divider. He still had to squeeze past the door pole but at least he had room to stand once inside. This trick only works if you have one horse in a straight-load trailer. With two horses, leave the center divider.
In my opinion, slant load trailers are better and safer than straight load trailers. There are multiple types and features of horse trailers but for this article we are going to focus on the back loading portion of the trailer only. This is the main area where your horse will freeze up and refuse to enter.
Regardless of all other features, if you have the ability to pick out your own horse trailer, get a slant load with a single back door and no ramp.
This type of loading system is by far the best for you and your horse. There is enough space, no obstructions and the most natural step up for both you and your horse.
Slant load means that once your horse is in the trailer, their heads are tied on the left side and their rump naturally swings to the right side of the trailer and they stand at an angle to the road, not straight on. The trailer itself is not slanted. The term refers to the position of the horse. These trailers can be completely open or have dividers between multiple horses.
A single back door latches on one side and leaves the back opening completely unobstructed. With most double door trailers, a pole stands in the center of the doorway for the doors to latch too and many horses don’t like the idea of squeezing past it. Some double door trailers latch at the top and bottom of the door and don’t have the middle pole.
Trailers with ramps can become slippery when wet and short ramps are more awkward for a horse to walk up. My horses always pause on the ramp for some reason and it’s hard to get them to continue forward. Save yourself the trouble and get a step-up trailer. When the door opens, your horse just has to step up into the back of the trailer.
5 Simple tricks for safer loading
Loading a horse into a trailer should not be difficult or scary when you have a good, well-trained horse. The following 5 tricks are small things to consider doing that will help make loading that much quicker and easier.
- Both you and your horse should be calm. A worked up or agitated horse has a hard time listening to any task. They can also read your body language so make sure you aren’t afraid or nervous.
- Wear a helmet. If you have to be inside the trailer to tie up your horse, consider wearing a helmet to protect yourself from being squished. Your horse may be a gentle giant but when it comes to trailering, he might get a little nervous and accidentally bump into you, especially in smaller trailers.
- Know how you are going to get out of the trailer. Are you required to come out the back door or is there a side man door that you need to unlatch first?
- Reward with hay or treats. Sometimes having something to nibble on is all it takes to calm down your horse and take their mind off being inside a trailer. They are less likely to back out before you have time to secure them if a tasty treat is distracting them. A simple hay bag can be attached near their head if a built in hay shelf isn’t included.
- Load your horse last. They will have to learn to be content standing in a trailer while on the road or at an event but don’t make them wait too long. Have everything ready to go and loaded in your truck and trailer before loading your horse.
With consistent and proper training it’s easy to reform your stubborn horse. The bowline hitch and circling works wonders on most horses. If you find that these techniques aren’t helping or your horse is extremely resistant to loading in a trailer, seek a professional horse trainer’s help so neither you or your horse gets injured.