You've heard it. Maybe you've even said it: "He'll load. He just doesn't want to right now!" And with that, your balky horse has saved himself the trouble of traveling to wherever it was you planned to go. He was rewarded for his disobedience by going back to his stall or paddock and doing his favorite thing-nothing.
Letting the issue of loading go unresolved violates one of the fundamentals of dealing with horses: if you ask, the horse must respond correctly. Any less, and you've taught him a bad habit.
That's true when you ride him, when you work with him in his stall and when you invite him to go traveling.
Not all horses are bad loaders all the time, of course.
Some horses load easily by one of several common methods.
Some can be led on. This is fine if it woks all the time ... although there are some drawbacks. If you are using a trailer with either no escape door or a half-door, he might try to keep following, smashing you painfully up against the metal wall or door.
If he's being loaded into a slantload or stock trailer next to other horses of unknown temperament or habits, it could be dangerous for you.
You also won't want him to rush in and shove you against the breast bar. You won't want anyone getting tangled up in ropes or lines, or stepped on, kicked or dragged.
Some horses can be backed in. This could be a problem on a step-up trailer, or for a long-distance haul where his assigned place is riding facing forward.
Others can be bribed in with food ... the obvious failing being times you are lacking treats, or when they have just eaten. Some horses would starve rather than load.
Some horses can be loaded by rigging lunge lines around their rumps and using trailer fittings as pulleys to pull them on. But it seldom works and is dangerous. People have been tangled in the ropes, stepped on kicked and dragged.
Some horses go on and back right off, which is no better than not going on, and possibly even more dangerous for you or bystanders, as well as the horse as he shoots back out, possibly hurting himself in the process.
Worst of all, if a horse learns he can avoid hauling by evading loading, or making it so painful for you that you avoid it, he owns you rather than vice versa.
What we need is a way of teaching the horse - any horse - to load on cue, anytime. Promptly. Willingly. Safely. And calmly, ready to stand while we fasten the butt bar or chain, ready to haul quietly and unload calmly, and ready to turn in an excellent performance, whether in the hunt field, at a show or on a simple pleasure ride.
Fortunately, there is a system that always works, and is safe 99 percent of the time. It can be taught to a horse of any age, breed, or gender.
Who's the boss?
Teaching a horse to load reliably every time is almost as simple as knowing his relatively simple psychology. The horse wants to know where he fits in the pecking order. He is most comfortable knowing whether he is the boss or not, and he pretty much doesn't care which it is as long as he knows. In the wild or feral condition, he will either dominate or be dominated.
That doesn't mean we shouldn't be considerate and patient; we must be patient enough to teach him by steps the things he needs to know. In fact, we know the horse will do anything he is physically and mentally capable of doing if he understands what we are asking, and if he thinks it pays. Payment for a horse means pleasant work or not working, primarily and secondarily getting treats such as a carrot, apply or kind words or caresses, or other signals of approval.
The object of my system is not just to get him to load, but to show him that it pays.
How to start
Begin by teaching your horse to walk forward on command and to whoa. Do this by using a long lead rope. I use an 82-inch rope or leather lead with a 32-inch chain, passing the chain over his nose and running up his off-side cheek. Stand on the near side, with a dressage whip in your right hand, the lead in your left.
Hold the lead loosely, and say" Walk." Simultaneously, tap the horse on the rump. After he takes several steps, say "Whoa" and pull on the lead with enough force to bring him quickly to a halt, but not so much that he backs up again. The instant he starts to walk, say "Good," and rub his neck. (If he fails to walk on cue, the tap needs to be more authoritative.)
Rearing, wheeling in front of you or bumping you as he passes are not acceptable responses, and you will have to start over until he can walk forward without doing these things.
Work and reward
Once he is reliably walking forward, increase the intervals between rewards. Once he has learned any portion of the loading process, cut back on the rewards for that part, concentrating work and rewards on what he has yet to master.
Do the walk and Whoa exercise in a large open space so that you can start your horse and stop him a number of times until he walks forward with no more than a light touch of the whip (or even at the command), and stops with a spoken "Whoa."
Once he has learned those two commands, lead him toward the trailer until he stops. It is now as simple as asking him to walk forward until he enters the trailer. (For teaching, it is preferable to use a trailer with a ramp, saving the slightly more intimidating step-up type as advanced training once he has learned the basics.)
It is now as simple as asking your horse to walk forward until he enters the trailer.
At this point, your horse will have his eye on the big dark hole of the trailer and may begin to balk or even back up. If you ask him to walk forward and he stops, let him stop, but then back him up until he stops, then ask him to go forward again, always facing the trailer.
Use the dressage whip to tap him forward and up the ramp. The objective is to make him walk forward on command onto the trailer, not to lead him on. In general, try not to hit him when he is inside the trailer or complying with your request.
During the walking forward process, you should be standing at your horse's shoulder, except when he walks past you into the trailer.
Once he is on, you'll need to teach him to stay there. If he starts to back off, let him. Reload him with reinforcing words and maybe with your hand on his hip. If he backs off a third time, say "Whoa" the instant he starts back, and add a sharp tap of the dressage whip on his rump. He must learn that the trailer is the safest, most pleasant place to be.
When he is standing quietly and not moving backward, then, and only then, go around to the front of the horse and tie his head.
With this system, you can easily teach your horse to load, preferably without help, and you can continue loading him that way any time you want to travel. His cue to load will be the laying of the lead shank over his neck. You will have a calm animal standing in place while you lock up behind him. You'll have the time to go up front to tie his head without wondering where he is, or endangering a helper to push on his rump.
This is a training procedure, not a quick fix or a gimmick. So, you will have to spend some time, possibly two or three or more sessions, training your horse.
A young horse just starting training may even learn this whole process in one session, although reinforcing it with a couple more is a good idea.
An older horse may not do it perfectly the first time. If your horse has had awful experiences with trailers, such as an accident or an injury in transit or has been brutally loaded or hauled in the past, you may have to break your training into several parts.
You may get only as far as Walk and Whoa the first day, or simply making him face the trailer ready to walk without bolting or backing up.
It is best to plan short sessions covering parts of the process so that you can reward him when he accomplishes the task you've set. Then move on to the next part.
Don't overdo it. One of the best rewards is letting the horse rest.
But if you persist calmly, and give your horse the greatest reward - permission to stop - when he accomplishes each lesson's objective, he will load willingly and calmly, and never have to "be loaded" with abuse and flying tempers.
When he has learned to lead into one side of the trailer, teach him to load into the other, ramp or step-up, day or night.
Then drive with care and consideration, especially around curves and turns.
While every horse is different, your ability to "read" the horse and respond correctly will determine how quickly and easily he learns each lesson. The more lessons he learns, the more he will enjoy learning.