Let me start by saying that I am fully aware that the hands-down EASIEST way to get a horse to happily go into a trailer is to park the trailer in their pasture and put the horse’s hay, or even just their feed in there. And leave the trailer there for weeks. This makes the trailer a totally happy, relaxed, normal place to be (like going into a stall to eat hay) and the horse will go in and out with utmost ease.
Here’s the problem with that: You need to own a trailer and you need to have a field that isn’t half mud, so you can get the trailer in and out of the field!
I’m going to take you on a journey here – that spans about 2 years. And I’m going to share it in present-tense, real-time, as it unfolded for me. So don’t get confused when I say that Jax is 18 months old, when you know that he is actually 3! All that means, is that at the time the event occurred, Jax was 18 months old.
Alright, let’s start with a fantastic demonstration on how you can make tight, confined, unnatural spaces a positive experience for any animal! Watch the first 2 segments:
Now let’s rewind about a year and a half: I have neither trailer, nor access to the field, so I am having to invent other methods.
Sure, I know the pressure-release method. And I know the ‘making the wrong thing hard and the right thing easy’ method. I’ve seen it done with both flagging the air and whacking the horse with the flag – and the only place of peace or rest is the trailer, so that’s how you get the horse to go there.
I am not too interested in any of those methods, because whilst they certainly do work, they also damage the intimacy and trust level I’ve established in my relationship with my horses. Intimacy and trust are of utmost importance to me, because I don’t want a horse who will obey me, I want a horse who wants to get with me – a horse who’s got my back when things go South. Above all, I want to honor my horse’s wisdom and ability to think independently and to bring that perspective to our relationship.
And so, what method do I use? Hell if I know! Guess it’s Listen to your horse time…
Because whilst I want to honor my horses’ desire to never get into a trailer again, I also have 4 horses I need to move to new pastures by the end of the week. I can’t walk them there, so we have to go by trailer. Only 1 of my horses (Jax) will even get in the trailer willingly – but he is still pretty jumpy as he’s had a couple bad experiences now where he’s been locked in the trailer for 40-60 minutes waiting for the other horses who are refusing to load.
I will admit, trailering is one of those ‘sticky situations’ where I have allowed time and logistical pressures to dominate. Not because I consciously made that decision, but because I didn’t feel I had any choice. I don’t own a trailer and it is not possible to rent a Warmblood size trailer, so I just thought, “Well, I have to hire a hauler with a large trailer to haul my horses. I figured getting them box stalls was the best I could do, under the circumstances.
The Trailer Gong Show
Well, my horses tolerated that the first couple of times, before they really knew me. And then – when I needed to move them to their new pasture, after they’d been with me for two months – Montaro and Audelina said, “Forget it!!” When the hired hauler showed up to load them, my Belgian mare, Audelina, was so scared and filled with anxiety at the prospect of getting on the trailer that her bowels went into spasm when she got within 3 feet of the trailer.
Confession time: And that’s where I abdicated. I knew from her state there was no way I was going to be able to get her to willingly go into that trailer. So I handed her lead rope to the hauler and she used the natural horsemanship pressure-release method to try to get Audie on the trailer. I stood by and sent her love and communicated to her in thought-pictures and praised her whenever she took a step forward.
She proceeded to poop 5 times in the next 40 minutes. Her last trailer trip (the 2nd of her life) had been after I bought her and she was trailered 5 hours to me in the rain and cold, down twisty mountain roads. Very not fun.
I tried to communicate to her that this time was different; we were going only 10 minutes away, to 10 times the size of land, with a creek on it. I sent her pictures of our new pastures and asked her to please just get in the trailer.
But what I realized, is that even though her spirit self can hear me and understand me, her horse self is in bowel-spasming terror and she cannot override that.
So I called a stop to the attempts to load her and went to get my 2 year old, Fjord/Belgian gelding, Montaro. Keep in mind, by this time, my yearling Arab/Belgian, Jax, has already been on the trailer for half an hour. Now he is fed up and stamping, pawing, and kicking. The hauler shouts at him and jerks on his lead rope.
Montaro goes up to the trailer willingly, but when he senses the state Jax is in, decides there must be some bad shit happening in the trailer, so no way is he getting in! Did I mention it is blowing wind and bucketing with rain? Even though it is only 11 am it is dark from the nasty weather and the trailer is also dark and oppressive looking.
Once again, I abdicate after 5 minutes as I perceive clearly (after all, my horses are used to fluent communication with me) that there is no way he’s getting on that trailer, because Jax is showing him it is a bad place to be. Once again, I hand the lead rope to the hauler, who has no luck either. As I watch the extreme amount of pressure being applied to his head (after teaching my horses to lead with hand signals and zero pressure on their head), after the 3rd attempt, I can’t take my betrayal of them any longer and I call it a day.
I am soaked through 3 layers (my rain gear is over at the new barn), my hair is streaming water. The hauler nearly cancelled on me the day before due to illness – so had arrived in a sub-par state, the trailer had 2 big piles of other horse’s poop in it (which I couldn’t even shovel out as my shovel was at the new barn)… can you see the confluence of pressures and negative elements?
All these negative pressures piled on top of horses who were already feeling that ‘bad things happen when you get in a trailer’.
Well, I am forced to confront my abdication of trailering and re-think possible solutions for my herd.
Why Step? When you can Jump!
I have another complicating issue with my Andalusian mare, Zorra, because although she loads willingly onto a trailer with a ramp, she has thus far been unable to step up onto, or over, anything. She just jumps it instead. And the only rental trailers available have no ramp. They are all step trailers.
But I have 1 week maximum to vacate our current pastures as the owner has a new horse arriving and there is literally no room left. So the next morning I rent the only trailer I can find – a regular size (not Warmblood or Draft) 2-horse step trailer. I figure I’ll just have to trailer them over one by one – although Jax and Montaro might be able to go together, as it’s a short journey.
I rent it for 1 week – but I can take it back early and get a refund if miracles happen and I get them moved sooner.
Day 1 of Trailer Training-By-Feel
I decide to start with Zorra. I park the trailer where all the horses can watch what’s happening. I put hay in nets inside the trailer and also a feed dish. I put a handful of feed at the halfway point. In order to get to it, Zorra would have to step at least one leg up into the trailer. I put another sprinkling of feed right at the opening ledge.
Zorra comes right up the door of the trailer and gobbles up the first bit of feed. She spends the next 10 minutes intensely sniffing and exploring everything she can reach – the sides, the floor, the roof. She is olfactorily mapping the space and reading the history.
Whenever I ask to her to lift a leg up into the trailer, she freezes with resistance and tension. I mime lifting my leg and then tap on the upper part of her leg. I come off the trailer and stand next to her, tapping the top of her leg as I lift my foot and place it on the trailer floor. I repeat these actions over and over, saying “Step” to link it to a verbal cue. Nothing happens.
But I’m tuned in, I’m listening to Zorra. I’m feeling into what she needs next, or where her difficulties or resistance lies.
We go for a walk, she eats a bit of grass.
Mime & Song
We come back to the trailer and I STEP! up inside and show her the hay bag. I pull some hay out and come give it to her. She has too much anxiety to chew, so she takes the hay and it just sits in her lips.
So I start singing to her. I sing – of all things – Amazing Grace! I spend 20 minutes singing to Zorra as she stands at the door and gradually relaxes. As I’m singing, I also realize that I am clearing all the manky energetic residue from the trailer and it’s past inhabitants as well.
Can you imagine ANY hired hauler standing there, tapping his watch, as I SING my horse into the trailer?? This is one of the reasons why my herd has insisted I stop abdicating this piece and get in the driver’s seat (literally!).
After the singing, I go back to miming STEP and tapping her on the leg. I alternate one leg, then the other. Then I think, “You know what would really help her out, is to SEE someone stepping up into the trailer.” I feel Montaro would be a good candidate for this job.
So I unclip Zorra’s lead rope and leave her to eat grass around the yard while I go get Montaro. I tell Montaro that I promise I will not be applying any pressure to his head as I know that really hurt yesterday and I know he’s completely fed up with that.
He eats grass as we meander our way up to the trailer. I hop in the trailer and show him the hay – and feed him a few mouthfuls. Then I let him have some feed out of the tub and then do the same as I did with Zorra. He watches me pour some feed in the middle of the trailer and then I put the feed tub in the far corner, under the hay net.
Interestingly, Zorra has come to stand right beside him. She is actually giving up the opportunity to graze in order to watch Montaro’s trailer session up-close!
Within 5 minutes – with zero pressure on the lead rope, I am squatted down, just beckoning with my hand and pointing at the feed mound on the floor – Montaro steps with 2 feet into the trailer. Effusive praise from me as I give him the handful of feed. He then pulls back and gets off – I am careful to not let him feel any resistance from the rope as he pulls back and off.
I feel, “Yep. We’re done. That’s enough for today.” I let him eat a bit of grass on the way back to the field. But I figure I shouldn’t make trailer training sessions about eating grass, so I let him stop only a few times.
Is There a Place for Pressure?
I then clip the lead rope back onto Zorra’s halter and bring her over to the trailer again. As I ask her to STEP, I now feel I need to add a bit more ‘ask’ (what? pressure??!). I question my motivation – am I really feeling correctly into what Zorra needs, or am I just impatient or fed up?
I ponder, how can I add the tiniest amount of pressure possible that is still a clear ‘ask’? So – believe it or not – I move to the pressure-release technique. If I were to guess, I would estimate I’m adding about 1 lb of pressure to the lead rope. Only enough to ask her to come forward, not enough to stop her from pulling back. If she moves to pull back I tell her – going firmly against the dictates of the pressure-release method – that I will release the rope immediately.
She does not pull back at any time and over the next 10 minutes I use the pressure-release method (well, my variation of it) to ask her to step up with one leg. I am holding the rope in one hand and with the other hand I am beckoning to her to come forward. I ask her from one side, and then the other. I am also miming stepping up with my legs, first one and then the other, while laser beaming my gaze at her leg and visualizing her stepping up onto the trailer deck.
She takes a step forward, I release the lead rope and praise her verbally and with scratches. Now she has both legs right up against the lip of the trailer deck. She cannot go any further without stepping up onto the trailer deck. She lifts her foot up off the ground and I release the rope, praise her effusively, and give her a mouthful of feed.
And then everything stalls. I’m ‘asking’ via the rope, beckoning with my hand, visualizing her stepping up into the trailer… nothing works.
In desperation, I close my eyes (I’m still maintaining the ‘ask’ on the lead rope) and I say “Zorra, please, please help me out here.” I stand there in defeat, with my eyes closed and just breathing big breaths – which is what I do when I’m frustrated, or stressed, or tired out. And she takes a step, with one leg, onto the trailer bed.
I erupt into joy and praise and grab the nearest handful of feed and give it to her, rubbing her crest (one of her favorite spots). Oh my gosh, I am SO proud of her!! What an amazing accomplishment. She then takes the foot off and puts it back down on the ground. I spend a few more minutes being thrilled, grinning from ear to ear and praising her.
My mind thinks, “Well, that’s a great result for today! Let’s end on this high note.” But my feel, my gut says, “Ask again.”
So I do. I add the ‘ask’ to the lead rope again, beckoning with my other hand, I laser beam stare at the closest leg, and I say “step”. And 2 minutes later, she steps with BOTH feet up onto the deck of the trailer. Oh my goodness!! I erupt in joy again and I grab the big handful of feed from the center of the trailer and feed it to her in 3 lots as I praise her profusely. When she’s finished all the feed I can scrape off the floor, she steps back down.
NOW we are finished for the day.
I unclip the lead rope and leave her to eat grass around the yard (she is reliable to do this without trying to take off through the forest as one of the younger ones might). And I go to get Audelina.
The entire time – over 2 hours – that I’ve been working with Zorra and Montaro, Audelina has stood right beside the gate – intensely interested. Occasionally clanging on the bars of the gate with her big elephant feet, asking to be let out too.
I open the gate and beckon to her and she comes around it and over to me where I can clip on the lead rope. After I close the gate, she lowers her head to eat grass and then veers to the side, away from the trailer. I am listening to my horse and going entirely by feel.
So we eat grass on the lawn far away from the trailer for the next 10 minutes. Then I ask her to walk towards it. I can feel how resistant she is, how it is such a fear, such a big deal for her. I talk to her soothingly and I tell her that I’m right here and I just want to show her the trailer. I don’t want her to get scared. I decide that if she starts pooping (bowel spasming) then we’ll instantly move away.
At the same time, I am doing some EFT Tapping for her:
– Even though I’m terribly afraid of trailers
– And even though bad things happen in trailers
– And I was so frightened yesterday
– And Jini let that girl pull on my head really hard and it really hurt
and so on…
And then big Aude manages to walk around the side of the trailer and I reach in the window and pull some hay out of the hay bag and feed her a few mouthfuls. She stands 10 feet back from the open door and looks at it for a few moments. And then we’re done. That’s enough for today because even that was HUGE for her. I let her eat a bit of grass on the way back to the field.
I am exhausted! No wonder I abdicated trailering for so long! Part of me knew how difficult this would be. Montaro and Jax have only been halter-trained for 3 months. Audelina has had 2 months of halter training – previously she would bolt if she even saw a person carrying a lead rope.
Montaro has only been led out on the roads twice. And Audelina and Jax have only been out on the road once – for 5 minutes. Now I’m attempting to get all of them peacefully loading into a trailer so I can take them one by one to their new home – in one week.
And yet, for this to have any chance of working, I must not take on that pressure! I must stay in relaxation and surrender – to the horses and the Divine – that whatever is meant to be, will be. And if not, then there is a good reason, or something better coming.
Every day that I come to work with them, to heal their trailer trauma and establish a new, positive experience of trailering, I must rest solely in feel and be guided, led, solely by feel. Not by anxiety, or pressure, or striving for a goal, or agenda.
Listening to your horse… it’s a spiritual path for sure! And this herd just keeps calling me further.
Day 2 of Trailer Training-By-Feel
Today I expect to have both Zorra and Montaro putting their front feet in the trailer and probably coming in to munch on carrots, eat from the feed dish and have some hay. I am looking forward to them experiencing just hanging out in the trailer.
Instead, today is a total fail. Neither Zorra or Montaro will even put their front feet in the trailer and Audelina won’t come within 10 feet of it. So basically, all 3 of them are more resistant to the trailer than yesterday.
I feel completely overwhelmed, inadequate and just plain exhausted – and cold, really cold from being outside for that long in November. The only positive thing that happens is it does not rain!
I honestly cannot see how I’m going to conquer their conviction that, “Bad things happen when you get in a trailer” without using pressure and dominance to basically force them in there.
I call my friend Jen Snow, energy healer and animal communicator, to see if she has any insight that could help me and she texts me back:
“You need to clear the new space and infuse it with your energy that it is safe and welcoming. Ground the land, once you’ve done that, take some dirt from the new place and let them smell it. And grab some grass too so they get a taste. This came to me in flashes, so I am passing it on.”
I do as she suggests.
I’m now thinking it would be good for baby Jax Moonlight to have an experience of trailering where he is not locked in and left standing while he waits for an anxious, afraid herd member to also get on the trailer. What if he can just be in the trailer, with the door wide open and just munch on hay and have some feed? And then come off again – as soon as he wants.
Of course I could just load him in and drive him over to the new place. But as he is still very much the baby (18 months) I need to have another horse either go first, or go with him.
WHY is Jax so much easier to load? Because the woman who kept him after the auction for a few months had a big 3-horse trailer parked in his field. And he would walk in there every night – unhaltered – to have his evening feed. After he was comfortable doing that, she would then close the door, and he had hay and water in there for the night. In the morning, she would open the door and he would come out.
I’m also juggling the fact that Audelina gets very anxious if her herd members leave. So I certainly can’t move the other 3 and leave her to go last – she would be so jacked I probably wouldn’t even be able to lead her out of the field without her bolting, if I did that.
After another day of bringing them out one-by-one to the small trailer I’ve rented (standard 2-horse trailer, 6’6″ high), with no progress, I begin to lose hope. I also realize that I myself do not like getting in that small, dark trailer either!!
I ask around on Facebook and someone refers me to Janice Foley. Janice has plenty of experience hauling wildies from auction who’ve never been handled, so we have a longish phone conversation and she tells me about a chute loading method she uses that’s never failed. I honestly don’t see how I’ll be able to implement her method on my own (I kind of understand what she’s saying, but not really), so I hire her to come out and help me and bring her trailer, which is a bit taller. And I go buy the equipment she’s told me to get.
Wildie Trailer Loading – Chute Method
Janice’s method is brilliant because it uses minimal pressure – and no pressure on the head/face. And if I ever had to load a horse in a hurry it is hands-down the first method I’d use.
These pictures give you a rough idea of what this method looks like:
This photo is a bit closer to Janice’s method – but for my horses, we had the near side arena panel covered with a sheet of plywood and the trailer gate (side hinge swing gate) was on the other side as shown:
Okay, now that you have a rough idea of what this method looks like, here’s what we did differently: Because mine were already trained to wear a halter, Janice attached my 25-foot lunge line to Zorra’s halter. I decided to take Zorra and Jax first (together), then Audelina, then Montaro. She passed the end of the lunge line through the slats at the front left of the trailer and dropped it to the ground outside the trailer, while she held the line (standing at the front left) with enough tension to keep the lunge line from dropping on the ground, but not so much as to pull on Zorra’s head. She had her son manning the trailer swing gate, so he could gradually close it (like a squeeze chute) as Zorra moved closer to the end (step up) of the trailer. The plywood-lined arena panel on the other side was attached to another arena panel. She also had 2 more arena panels on the other side extending out from the trailer gate.
So the arena panels formed about 20 feet of chute and then right before the trailer entrance there was a ‘solid’ panel on one side (plywood resting against the arena panel) and the solid trailer door on the other side. Janice said that if horses can’t see through the panels, they don’t think of escaping or rushing through that panel, for them it is like a solid wall.
Janice is holding the lunge line attached to Zorra’s halter, her son is manning the trailer swing gate and I am standing behind Zorra with a long quirt. Janice instructs me to encourage Zorra to move forward (drive from behind, rather than pulling on the head) using as little pressure as possible. I raise the quirt and wiggle it a bit, about 2 feet from the ground, and Zorra moves forward.
As Zorra moves forward, Janice takes up the slack in the line and her son moves the gate in a bit – the trailer swing gate is used to gradually close the gap behind Zorra’s bum. It is a delicate feel between needing to close in, yet not so close that it panics the horse and causes her to back up to escape. If she does scramble backwards, Janice instructs us to let her back up a bit, but then for me to apply pressure from behind so she doesn’t completely leave the arena panel chute. So the horse is allowed to back away from the trailer if she needs to, but not to bolt off completely.
As the Wild Horse Mentors organization instructs:
“…care must be used to control the amount of energy being directed at the horse and rescuers have to observe how the horse is responding or reacting to this energy. A confined horse that is unfamiliar with loading and that has not had a chance to recognize that he can proceed forward can become extremely volatile. Set up the loading configuration to be successful, then watch for the most opportune time to send the horse forward.
Statisticaly the most reliable approach with a gentle, domestic horse is for the handler on the lead line to suggest that the horse move forward while one or two people in safe positions discourage the horse from backing away. The balancing point here involves generating movement from the horse without triggering an opposition reflex. Countless times lead-in loads that appeared doomed to fail became successful when the person on the lead simply stopped puling on the horse!“
I have hay (alfalfa!) in the trailer and a feed dish with feed and carrots at the front of the trailer too – Zorra can see that she gets both if she gets in. When Zorra gets right up to the step entrance, I take the quirt and just tap a few times on her bum and she gets in. Done! Janice says the tapping on the bum doesn’t hurt, or scare the horse, but it’s annoying enough that they’ll want to move away from it – and into the trailer. It took 10 minutes total to load Zorra!
Jax – who is good at trailer loading anyway – takes about 5 minutes. And we’re off! All goes smoothly at the other end and we head back to load Audelina next.
My poor frightened Belgian lass has to get into yet another trailer that’s not big enough for her (in my and her opinion). I explain everything to her before and during, sending her images and pictures. I notice that I only have to raise the quirt about 1.5 inches off the ground and that’s enough pressure to move her forward. When she’s at the trailer entrance, I don’t even have to tap her bum (that would probably scare the crap outta her), instead I just raise the quirt about 18 inches off the ground – and she’s in. It takes about 20 minutes to load Aude as we let her take her time to sniff around and look at everything.
Unfortunately, Janice insists on tying her head as she’s worried Audelina will damage her trailer. I apologize to Aude, telling her (yet again) that there’s nothing I can do. When we arrive at the new place – a 10 minute drive away – Aude is actually dripping sweat. It plops on the trailer floor in big droplets and she is wet from head to flank. That is how frightening, stressful and traumatic being in a trailer is for her. Someday, I promise her, someday I will have my own trailer and it will be the biggest one I can get. And we will practice until getting in a trailer is easy and – god forbid – maybe even fun!
Montaro is pretty jazzed when we get back, since he’s the last horse left. But I tell him what’s going on and that he has no choice now, or he’ll be left behind on his own. He fights me a little bit coming out of the field, but my energy is very calm, yet resolute, this must happen. It just IS. He’s settled down by the time we walk into the arena panel chute and like Zorra, he goes in pretty easy too with just a tap or two.
I am GOBSMACKED!!
After SO much trauma, so much despair, anguish, guilt… and this chute loading method loads them on with NO pulling on their head, or fighting the lead rope, in less than half an hour for even a severely frightened wildie?! WHY doesn’t every hauler know this method?? The first time a professional hauler tried to load Audelina (to bring her to me) onto a huge air-ride trailer with box stalls, he drugged her – at double the dosage – and still couldn’t get her on.
I am ridiculously grateful to Janice for coming to my rescue and for sharing her expertise.
The chute method is still a pressure-based method and does nothing to address the underlying fear, trauma and resistance/aversion to trailering. And now that I have bought myself some time, I vow to begin the process of ‘trailer training’ from a place of choice and empowerment.
Field Trailer – Doing Nothing
Since I do not have my own trailer yet, I hire Kevan Garecki (who hauled Kesia’s horses 16 hours drive up to her ranch) to simply drive his trailer out into my field and do nothing.
I explain their history and that I simply want them to have some time with a trailer nearby, where they don’t have to get in, they don’t even have to go near it, and then it drives away after an hour – with nothing being asked of them.
I feel this is the best place to start – ground zero.
Of course, what I expect to happen, is not what actually happens…
PART 2 coming soon!