Trailer Loading
( Principles, Concepts, Theories…and Ramblings )


Trailer loading is always a good subject for debate. Should you tie a horse or leave their head free? Straight or slant load? Face forward or backward? Step up or ramp? Etc., etc.. and the debates go on and on.

Lately I have been asked to help trailer load several different horses for varying reasons. Usually it has been because the owner was moving the horse to a training facility.

First, trailer loading is NOT about the techniques used to load the horse. Nor is it about the trailer itself. At least, not primarily. First and foremost, if a horse will not load into a trailer, it is due to the horse’s innate quality of Self Preservation. Remember that all horse ‘problems’ fall into one of, or a combination of, four categories:

Trust - Respect - Communication

Horses having been created and born as a prey animal have this very important Self - Preservation hard wired into their DNA. This serves to ensure that they survive not only as individuals, but as a species as well. Being prey means that they are naturally wary of small confined areas which will limit their means of survival – flight. Some smaller trailers, mainly the small straight loading “shotgun” style trailer create a feeling o being claustrophobic.

If a horse refuses to load into a trailer it is because that everything in his being is warning of him if danger. So how do we change this claustrophobic animal and get them to load willingly?

Well, the first step is to go back to our table:

Trust – Respect – Communication

First we must get the horse to trust us. This doesn’t happen over night but we can do little things to ease the tension and make working with them a little easier. One of the best ways is to do some contact bonding to help the horse relax. Take some time, away from the trailer, and just spend it touching, rubbing, and relaxing your horse. Let your touch be a comfort to the horse. This will come in handy later during the loading process.

Second, do some preliminary groundwork. I AM NOT talking about lunging your horse in a round pen aimlessly in mindless circles to ‘knock the edge off of them’ before trailer loading. Rather, some groundwork in hand on a lead line. For those of you familiar with Parelli Natural Horsemanship, perhaps quietly playing the 7 Games. For others, make sure your horse will yield to forward pressure form the lead rope, disengage hindquarters, back smoothly, and move off to circle you while on line. By getting the horse to move willingly you are in effect being the dominate herd leader asking for, and expecting compliance and movement.

Regardless of which techniques we will be using to trailer load our horse, we must be clear in our communication and intention of what we are asking. We should break down everything into the smallest steps so that the horse can successfully progress and eventually load right into the trailer with minimal confusion or stress. One of the main reasons that horses won’t load in a trailer is due to human error. So we must be sure to communicate clearly when asking the horse to load.

Last, (this is the common sense stuff) we should be sure that the trailer is set up adequately for our horse’s size and that it is in good physical and mechanical condition. The flooring should be well braced, slip free and there should be no sharp protruding objects which could injure the horse or catch the halter and put the horse into a bind which will eventually lead to a wreck.

Besides Self Preservation, the next major obstacle in trailer loading is lack of forward movement or impulsion. This usually stems from Self Preservation taking over as discussed previously. It is imperative that during trailer loading, regardless of technique used, that you have forward movement. Without forward movement, your horse is where he is at and you will never succeed in trailer loading.

Me and the Russian Curly (appropriately named “Curly”) resting inside the trailer after a very good loading session

There are several natural horsemanship training principles involved in loading and nothing will test the validity of these principles like trailer loading. (please refer back to the 12 Principles of Natural Horsemanship page on this website for a quick reference).

Me and 'Copper' during our trailer loading session. At this point he is real curious about the inside of the trailer. I am just relaxing and rubbing his neckand withers. Tom Dorrance once said that you never knock the curiousity of a horse. So I am letting him smell it and size it up.


The very first training principle of trailer loading is TIME. Forget about your watch, schedules, timetables, etc. The absolute best time to work on trailer loading is when you have nowhere to go! This way you won’t feel pressured into just getting it done and over with. With young horses, trailer loading should be introduced at an early age as a regular part of their training and early learning.

“Time constraints often cause failed expectations. Be willing to devote ample time to this project at each session. Depending on your own skills and your horse, it may take only one session to make tremendous progress. Regardless, even after your horse is loading, plan for several ongoing developmental sessions, allowing time for setbacks, which occur in all phases of training.”
Marty Marten
“Problem Solving” page 84

Getting into a trailer is where the horse needs extra direction and support from a person and it’s important to prepare him for this real slow – a lot slower than a person might imagine.”
Bill Dorrance
“True Horsemanship Through Feel” page 249

'Copper' takes his first tentative steps into the trailer. At this point I am letting him rest and just get a feeling. I am rubbing his forehead
The second principle in trailer loading is Training Principle #2 – Make the Right Thing Easy and the Wrong Thing Difficult. We should only increase pressure relative to their responses. Going backwards, balking, sidestepping around the side of the trailer, are all products of Self Preservation and lack of forward movement. You should slowly but steadily increase pressure whenever these attempts are made to show that these maneuvers only increase the difficulty. Conversely, every time the horse faces forward and attempts even the most minute try at forward progress, he should be instantly rewarded with a release of pressure and a moments rest.

Training Principle #3 – Reward the Slightest Try and the Smallest Change.
This is so important in trailer loading and goes hand in hand with training principle #2. It is simply, releasing any, and all, pressure at the most minute try offered by the horse in the direction of the trailer. Give them a reward, a soft rub and a moments rest and you will get farther with less effort.
Removing the mental and emotional pressure by walking 'Copper' away from the trailer for a quick reward of rest for making some really good efforts. This is Training Principles #3 and #8 in action.
Training Principle #5 – Be Clear and Concise About What You Are Asking and Be Sure That The Horse Clearly Understands.
This is important. Just asking him to move forward, or to go into the box, has absolutely no logical meaning. We must break down the entire process so that every small progressive step can be accomplished in a quiet and successful manner by the horse.

Training Principle #6 – Set the Horse Up To Succeed and You Take Responsibility If He Does Not.
This is the hardest pill to swallow. If your horse isn’t loading, it is entirely your fault. Remember what Ray Hunt has always said, “The horse is never wrong. You can’t blame the horse for being a horse.”. If after a few minutes you are not getting progress at all, then you aren’t communicating effectively. You need to rethink about what you are asking and how you are asking and begin again. As stated earlier, think smaller and smaller increments until you can get a “yes” from the horse every time.

Training Principle #7 – Adjust To Fit the Situation.
Do not change the principles or ignore them. Remember, it is the principles and concepts that load the horse, not the techniques…but sometimes you will have to adjust your thinking and techniques a bit to get the horse to free up his mind and his feet and move progressively forward.

Training Principle #8 - Have hands that Close Slowly and Open Quickly.
Remember, this not only describes the slow increasing of the physical pressure on the lead rope or other tool you may be using and then releasing it very quickly at the first sign of a try, but it also conceptualizes the same idea in regards to applying and releasing mental and emotional pressure as well. There will be times when you should remove the horse from the mental and emotional pressures of the trailer for a release and reward. At times, it can be as simple as taking the horse a few yards from the trailer, face them with their back to the trailer and perhaps let them graze or just stand quietly as you softly rub them. Give them about 3 minutes to soak let it soak in and then return and begin again. You will find that the horse responds much easier and a little more willing each time.

Training Principle #9 – Be As Gentle As Possible But As Firm As Necessary – This is important. at first we will be as soft and as giving as possible, always trying to offer the horse a good deal. There will come a time when you will have to increase the pressure and ask for more than what you have asked for previously or more than what the horse is giving to you at the time. Do not fret abut this. Be fair and increase the pressure slowly and be ready for the slightest try and smallest change and release to that try. (training principles #3 & #8).

Training Principle #10 – Always Use Approach and Retreat.
Trailer loading is nothing more than constant and consistent approach and retreat physically AND mentally. That is why I will remove a horse away form the trailer, even if they have only given me one foot inside the trailer. By removing them and walking away from the trailer for a few moments, I am applying training principles #'s 3, 8, 10, and 12.

Training Principle #11 – Less IS More –
Okay, this should be a given. Need I say more?

Training Principle #12 – Know When To Walk Away –
This is important. No, contrary to some trainers’ beliefs, you don’t have to finish trailer loading in an hour…or in a day…or even in a week. This is a two-part principle here. When things are going wrong. Your horse is breaking too much of a sweat and is staying far too long in a right brain/ flight mode, then it is time to walk away. Put the horse up for a few minutes. Take a short break, come back and do something positive that you know that your horse CAN do well and end the day on that note. Remember Training Principle #1 – TIME. Conversely, when things are going very well and the horse has given so much to you physically – and more importantly, mentally – than it is time to call it a day. Leave it on that good note and the horse will be better for it and further along the next time you come back to the trailer be it the next day or three days later.

'Jasmine' the Arabian mare and I work through a couple of trailer loading issues during a lunch break at one of my clinics.
Here I am removing 'Jasmine' from the trailer to relieve the mental pressure. Just a quick walk and a few minutes of rest is all it usually takes.


I walk 'Jasmine' back to the trailer and she immediately walks in further than she had been previously going in. She is relaxed and comfortable with the way that I am presenting the trailer to her.I widen and tighten the parition against her body over and over using approach and retreat. (Training Principle #10)

Note the curiousity of the other horse "Andie" standing on thesidelines.

Remember: never knock the curiosity out of a horse!

The following pics are of 'Sizzle' a young 2 1/2 year old quarterhorse filly. She had not been trailered before and needed to be loaded so that she could be moved to another facility for training. To her credit, she has a great disposition and temperment and has a nice soft eye.
Sizzle's first tentative steps into the trailer. I am giving her plenty of room and rubbing her forehead.
So I quickly remove her and face her away form the trailer relieving hte pressure and offering some rubs of praise and comfort.
After she loads completely, I give her some more rubs of comfort and praise and let her soak it in. I allowed her to turn around but not leave the trailer. I am attempting to begin to build a 'wait' in her so there is no hurry for her to exit.
Notice how I am patiently asking and waiting for her to exit. There is slack in the lead rope, she is quiet inside the trailer and not she is bolting out the door. Her trust and respect is growing and she is trusting me as her leader

Now I am just directing her forward and into the trailer. I am also beginning to add the command, "Load Up!" She is moving and loading on her own at this point.

Here we are just working on closing and locking the partition in place with Sizzle facing forwards AND backwards. Letting her get used to this 'confinement'.


Our final unloading of the day.

Please note how quiet and easy she is unloading. The soft look. This is all proof that following the principles and concepts of natural horsemanship will work on every horse, every single time.

The techniques do not really matter as long as the principles and concepts are adhered to.