Monday, October 31, 2011

Trailer Loading Horses: Does Free-Loading Float Your Boat?

At my barn, there is a lot of pressure to free-load or "float" your horse onto a trailer.  Years ago, a well-known Texas clinician, Chris Cox, visited our farm and demonstrated how to train an unloadable horse to walk onto a trailer by himself.  The horse was nervous and very resistant to enter the trailer, but after about thirty minutes of ground work and gradual steps up the ramp the horse was walking onto the trailer freely and standing quietly until he was asked to back up.  The demonstration was very impressive.  Mr. Cox's timing was what really got me.  He was always faster than the horse and always one step ahead of what the horse was about to do or think.  This Texan was brimming with experience and know-how.  Whether he was putting on the pressure or giving the release, he did both at precisely the right moment.  He also allowed the horse to determine the length of the training session.  This was not a fix-your-horse-in-thirty-minutes-or-your-money-back kind of clinic, but by the end of the training session, that horse just walked onto the trailer in a rope halter without any promise of hay or carrots and without a chain over his nose or a rope behind his hindquarters.  That got my attention.  I have always walked horses onto trailers by leading them and entering the trailer myself.  Mr. Cox insisted that walking onto the trailer with the horse was dangerous and unnecessary.  The barn owners were also impressed, so "floating" horses onto the trailer became the status quo.

When Harley entered my life, I taught him how to float.  Honestly, it was easy.  He was already good about walking onto a trailer, so I just taught him the cues to move forward and he walked onto the trailer.

Are we there yet?

Piece of cake.

Texas clinician: Eat your heart out!

I was actually born in Texas, so maybe some of the state's big britches and big talkin' has seeped into my blood for the short nine months of my life that were spent on Texas soil.

Free-loading or floating Harley into the trailer worked smashingly and was a crowd-pleasing trick.  However, on one occasion things did not go so smoothly.  I was trying to load Harley to go home after a show, but after he obediently walked into the trailer, he immediately backed down the ramp, stopping to stare at me at the bottom of the ramp.  I calmly repeated my request and he calmly repeated the yo-yo technique of entering and leaving the trailer.  After four or five yo-yo stunts, I became annoyed and was not in the mood to further entertain onlookers, so I took his halter and led him into the trailer by hand.  He walked on without objection and stood quietly while we raised the butt bar and snapped the emergency-release tie to his halter.  It was not until I walked around the trailer and went to close the last side door that I noticed him staring at me, following me with a forlorn expression.  I immediately worried that he was sick, but upon inspection of the hay cradle realized the problem.  Harley saw no reason to stand in a trailer with an empty hay cradle.  Oh.  There went my awesome trailer-training skills.  Looks like Harley had everything figured out, though.

Following the event, I spent some time re-schooling Harley to walk onto a trailer on his own, but I also never again forgot to check the hay cradle before giving my request.  Is that cheating?  The justification that I have developed for myself is that a 1000+ pound animal needs tangible motivation to walk into a narrow tin can.  I could use the strength of my will (and my whip) to motivate him, but I really do not want to.  Especially because I will never trailer him anywhere without hay and if he does need to enter the trailer in an emergency situation, I will most likely be walking him on anyway.  Okay, so there is my excuse.  Take it for what it is, I guess.

Excuse me!  Flight attendant?  I already finished my complimentary hay bag.
Can I have another?

Enter new step-up trailer.  I referred to this trailer in the post leading up to the October Dressage show.  All of the trailers which I had previously walked or "floated" Harley onto possessed a ramp.  I have heard many, many clinicians comment that horses prefer step-up trailers to ramps.  Something about the wobbly, angled nature of the ramp irks many horses.  They much prefer stepping up to the height of the trailer in one fell swoop.  I had this in mind as I walked Harley up to the new step-up.  The step-up was purchased for the barn owners to go camping with their horses, so we will probably rarely, if ever, need to load onto this trailer, but the barn owners are always willing to entertain a training opportunity, so I attempted to free-load Harley onto the step-up.

Harley marched up to the trailer with purpose and a raised neck.  I know my horse and he was looking for the telltale wisps of hay sticking out of the stuffed hay cradle.  Unfortunately for him, the trailer was brand-spanking new and had not yet seen the likes of hay, although a couple horses had practiced loading earlier in the day.  When Harley reached the step-up, his front legs gently bumped the foreboding step and he stopped, clearly perplexed.  He touched me with his nose and his eyes said,

"This thing is wrong.  I cannot walk."

I firmly grasped his halter and gave a supportive upward tug as I clucked, the cue which means, without a doubt, that he had not arrived at the correct answer to my request.  Having perched his front legs on pedestals before, he obediently stepped up into the trailer with both front legs.

"Goooddd Booyy", I cooed trying to ignore the lurking feeling that my attempts to float him onto the step-up were going to fall flat.

I allowed him to calmly step back down and then I repeated my request.  Harley stepped into the trailer and immediately stepped back down.  I praised him and immediately repeated my request.  He repeated his yo-yo stunt, but this time I did not praise him, instead I continued to cluck and swing the lead line at his hindquarters which meant "no backing up, Mister Harley."  He made a series of pathetic faces, sidestepped infront of the trailer, tried to pull back a few times and nearly forgot his manners by almost walking on top of me.  I responded to the last mistake by smartly swinging my line at his shoulder and muzzle which was enough to convince him that a "door" had not opened up between my shoulders.  We danced like this for a long minute, as the barn owner watched and I waited on bated breath for advice and suggestions to begin to fly.  Thankfully, none came and since I did not release the pressure or change my request, Harley plopped both front feet into the trailer and rested as I immediately silenced my body.

"Goooddd Booyy", I stroked his shoulder and looked at his face.  He was not licking and chewing and his expression said nothing short of "this sucks".

We stood there together for several minutes, me caressing and praising him, hoping to see him soften a hair and my horse waiting motionless, like a frozen circus pony glued to his post with a bad case of stage fright.

Like an obedient horse, Harley only stepped down when I gave his halter a little tug and clucked.  He freely stepped onto the trailer a second time, without any dancing, and assumed the circus pose until I requested that he come down.  When it felt like he knew the deal, I increased the pressure hoping to persuade him to continue walking forward and step up with his hindlegs.  He refused to budge forward.  I tried walking him from a distance to give him some momentum, but as soon as his front feet hit the trailer floor he froze.  My horse was decidedly confused and still had not changed his expression:

"This thing is wrong.  I cannot walk.  And this SUCKS."

To my relief, the barn owner chimed in that maybe I should walk on with him, so that he understood that he could step up with his back legs.  I was very happy to hear those words.  I felt like I needed permission to walk him on, since I was using the barn owner's equipment and working on their property.  Such is the case when you do not own your own farm.  Of course, there are many, many conveniences regarding not owning your own farm, so I am not complaining!

I eagerly bounced into the trailer and encouraged Harley to follow me.  At first he resisted, pulling back and giving me the most heartwrenching look imaginable.  You would think that I was asking him to walk the plank, but after I clucked and gave him my most willful expression he walked forward and climbed into the trailer with all four feet.

"What a Good, Good Boy, Harley.  That's it.  That's all I wanted."

Realizing that he had finally achieved my request, Harley looked relieved and softened his expression, although he also realized that this "wrong trailer" lacked a hay cradle and curbed his salivation and chewing.  I, too, was relieved until I realized that I had to back Harley down the step to get him out of the trailer.  I had just completely failed at explaining to him that he needed to step up with his hind legs.  How on Earth was I going to explain to him that he needed to step down?  He was barely able to absorb the first lesson and now he was going to be hit with another that would potentially be more alarming and even dangerous.  What if he moved too quickly and fell backward?

I decided to stay in the trailer a little longer, so that he could rest and remember the good step up he had just accomplished.  I needed to muster the confidence to back him off the trailer.  I heard one of the barn owners asking where Harley went.  The other answered that he was in the trailer.  Time to go, Harley.  We are being missed.

Very cautiously, I walked him backwards.  As we approached the step down I halted him and stroked his neck.  He looked at me innocently.  He had no idea.  To comfort myself, I told him in English that he was going to step down and that he must move slowly.  He calmly stepped back and found no ground beneath him as his hind leg and quarters dropped like a rock.  His ears darted back and he grimaced with bulging eyes.  His look screamed,


Poor Harley.  I praised him and stroked his neck encouraging him to continue walking backward.  He obliged and finally licked and chewed, shaking his mane from side to side as we exited the dreadful trailer.  After a break, I walked with him onto the step-up trailer two more times.  By the second time, he was taking tiny, little baby steps backward until he found the edge of the trailer and then stepped down.  He still did not look happy, but at least he did not scare his socks off like the first time.  It will take some creative-thinking and practice for me to train him to float onto this trailer.  I am not sure that I even want him to free-load onto this trailer.

In the grand scheme of things, will the time and stress of training him to float onto the step-up be worthwhile?  Was Harley really confused or scared or were his theatrics a well-acted ploy?  Will he negotiate the step-up without a hitch (pun intended) if I fill the hay cradle?

What do you think?

*innocent face*

Speaking of Trailering: Need Some Advice or Tips?

Then stop by Karen's Dressage Blog, the story of a lifetime horsewomen switching gears from the Endurance World to the Dressage World.  As an endurance rider, Karen logged thousands of miles and hauled her horses to every event.  She regularly trailers her two beautiful horses to lessons and dressage shows, often completely on her own.  Since I do not own my own trailer and have never driven a truck pulling horses, I am extremely impressed by her expertise and resolve.  She is generously sharing her knowledge in a blog post series entitled "Trailering" where she discusses everything from safety to handy "gizmos" with lots of "how to".

Karen also regularly writes about the lovely grey Arabian, Speedy, and the tall, dark, and handsome New Zealand Thoroughbred, Sydney, as they explore the discipline of dressage in lessons, shows, and at home.


  1. Val - holy guacamole - thanks for the kind words. We sound far more accomplished than we really are.

    I love your approach to self-loading. The back off can be quite startling to horses who have never stepped down before. I feel Harley's pain. Speedy will step off Taz's Mom's trailer, but not mine. My trailer is really high so the step down is bit much for many horses. I am okay with letting him turn around inside. I have a three-horse with the last diver removed so there's plenty of room to do that.

    Sydney, on the other hand, has to step down. He does the same thing Harley did. Teeny tiny steps until he find the edge. It still bothers him, but I just back him until we get to the edge. I halt him and repeat gently but firmly, step, step, step as i push backwards on the halter and his chest. I never ask him to go faster than he wants to. he's getting better at it, although those final steps are faster than I like.

    One trick you can try is to get harley to put three feet on the trailer and stop him before he gets the last leg up. Or, get two on, back off, get two on, back off. This shows them that the step is manageable and that they won't fall off.

    I would say that teaching him to step on and off a step up is a worthwhile project. You just never know how your circumstances, or his, may change. A well-trained pony is an asset to everyone.

  2. We've had both a ramp and a step up trailer. We much prefer the step up -- no worrying about a horse going sideways off the thing. When I load, and especially unload, Jackson I always give verbal cues for his feet "step up" or "step down" which seems to help his confidence. Do you self load in a slant or a straight trailer? We have a slant and I think Jackson would load okay -- and then turn around and walk back out...

  3. I don't know much about trailering but here's my two cents: If you use a ramp load, and the step up is for training purposes only, then I wouldn't be too concerned over his reluctance. As far as the hay bribe, there may be a time when you need to load him and don't have hay to offer or just can't feed him. I take my horses to the vet and sometimes they get a sedative for a procedure. They'll still be druggy when I'm ready to take them home again. The vet says NO FOOD for a while yet, until the sedative wears off. Of course, I've had to wait for some of the sedative to wear off enough so that the horse can walk properly but I don't want to stand around waiting an additional 20 minutes more until they can eat. Besides, what if they ate all the hay on the way over and I forgot to bring more? He really should be willing to load with an empty trailer and then get rewarded with hay once inside. Just my thoughts...

  4. Karen- Thanks for the three feet on stop suggestion. Although, we were stuck with two feet on. I hope we do not get stuck at three! ;)

    Annette- Straight trailer with a ramp. Harley cannot turn around unless he squeezes himself pretty good. I like the idea of using verbal cues.

    Fantastyk Voyager- That is a very good point about the possibility of not being able to feed him for medical procedures. He will walk on with me (no hay), it is just floating that seems to be a problem. I never intended for the hay to be a bribe. The trailer that I practiced in always had hay and I just never thought about it until one day the hay was gone! I agree that he should load into an empty trailer.

  5. Fantastic Post! I am so excited to find your blog and will be back to scour it thoroughly. I am having an issue trailer loading right now and the trainer is working with my horse, Oberon. It was all my fault and I'm sure everything will be fine soon. I am a new follower. Your buckskin seems like a very special horse.

  6. Welcome Margaret!

    Thank you for the kind words. Good luck with the trailer training!


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