Horses · Lessons from a Mule

Trailer Loading the Slow, Gentle Way

Whenever I run into a training problem with my equines, it always bums me out. It’s like when your kid does something really stupid and you wonder what you could have done better as a parent to prevent it. But always on the other side of any training issue I realize that I learned something I otherwise wouldn’t have known. I’m trying to embrace these issues instead of beating myself up about them. This is going to be a long post. You’ve been warned.

Lately the issue has been trailer loading. Ever since the Christmas Parade from Hell, I hadn’t been able to get Ellie anywhere near a trailer. She was triggered something fierce about even having to walk near one because she was afraid I’d try and put her on it.

On Friday night I sold my little red trailer because, even though I love that trailer, it’s too small to put both of my big equines (16.2 mule and 16.1 ottb) in it together. They’re crammed in there like sardines in a can. By Saturday afternoon I had already bought another trailer.

The new trailer isn’t huge, but it’s a slant load so they have more room to stand. It’s also a stock, which is what Ellie’s last owner had and what she’s used to. I was hoping she would walk right on the new trailer, but of course that didn’t happen. That would be too easy. She wouldn’t get anywhere near the new one either. Don’t you love it when you buy a new trailer specifically for your huge mule and she won’t go within 30 feet of it? Yeah, me too.

When I have a goal or something I feel needs to be “conquered,” I’m like a dog with a bone. I tend to hyper-focus on that one thing to the exclusion of all others.  This is not always an asset in horse training, and I’m finally starting to let that sink in. Even though I wanted that mule on that trailer so bad I couldn’t stand it, I knew I had to approach it slowly and gently or I would make the trailer issue worse.

Let’s take a moment to talk about trailer loading advice that every amateur horse owner receives. The most common suggestion is to work the horse away from the trailer and let the horse rest near the trailer so that the trailer becomes the safe place. I tried this method with zero success in my early years of horse ownership. I was told that was the way to do it, so that’s what I did. I’ve come to think that for most amateurs, it creates more problems than it solves. The trailer isn’t seen by the horse as a safe place; it’s seen as the place he gets whipped up into a state of frenzy and then shoved into a tiny metal box against his will.

“Working the horse” quickly devolves into running the horse into the ground, because lunging is usually the chosen method. I’m not anti-lunging. Quite the opposite; I’m the lunging queen. I think lunging done methodically is the best way to improve topline on a horse and get them working correctly over their back. Running a horse in tiny circles while threatening him with a whip is not lunging. It’s not improving the horse physically or mentally like lunging should do, and therefore it is not lunging.

When I bought my thoroughbred, he was almost impossible to load. Once it took me THREE HOURS to get him back into the trailer after hauling off for a lesson. I thought I was going to have to leave him at the lesson barn and start paying board. I’m ashamed of this now, but we basically beat him onto the trailer. It took four of us all pressuring him, yelling, waving whips around and generally scaring the crap out of him.

Running in tiny circles never worked on him. He’s a thoroughbred. He was born to run. There is no tiring him out. He can go and go and go and go and go. All it accomplished with my thoroughbred was catapulting him into a state of panic, fear and confusion. I tried it once or twice and, after getting dragged around, watching him bolt back to the barn, kick out, rear and otherwise protest, I decided that this was ridiculous and there had to be a better way. I didn’t like how I felt when I was working him like that, I didn’t like how obviously frightened he became, and I didn’t like the general atmosphere of force and dominance. I didn’t buy a horse so I could beat him up.

So every day for about a month I fed my thoroughbred at the trailer, first on the ramp and later further and further back inside of it until eventually he walked on with no issue, ate his dinner and walked off. I’ve never had a major issue with him since then, never had a time where I couldn’t get him on a trailer. He’s sometimes slow and balky about it, and I’m sorry to admit I’ve gotten irritated and frustrated with him before, but I will never go back to lunging him and trying to force him into a trailer unless it’s an emergency and his life depends on being trailered. I’ve learned that if I let him go in and then back out 3 or 4 times, eventually he will realize he’s not trapped and he’ll stay in. I have to let him go at his own pace.

You might be thinking that people get horses onto trailers ALL THE TIME using the Run Him Around in Circles method. I know they do. I’ve seen the YouTube videos just like you have. But I can’t get it to work for me. I think the methods of demanding respect, lunging, whipping the horse’s head around to face the trainer, and otherwise dominating the horse only work for people who are both very skilled horse handlers and able to convey a powerful, dominant energy. If we’re being honest, most of those YouTube trainers are men. They have a size and weight advantage over me, and they’re more used to waving that carrot stick thingy around, and so it works for them. When they yank on the rope halter, it stings a lot more than when I yank on it. Their timing is also spot on, and mine is not. Plus, I don’t WANT to dominate the horse, to demand his respect. I want to earn it and I want him to still like me once I get him on the trailer!

When I started having problems loading Miss Mule, I knew I didn’t want to use any of the traditional methods. She’s way too sensitive for that stuff and she finds it offensive. I tried using a lunge whip doing groundwork with her and she HATED it. All I have to do is pick it up and she starts backing away from me. It takes her up 3 or 4 notches on the energy scale, from “I wonder what nonsense this chick has planned for me today” to “If you so much as point that thing in my direction, I will bolt back to the barn!” She feels about it the way a teenager might feel about spanking as a punishment- completely unnecessary and inappropriate. She understands what I’m asking her to do without the stupid stick, thank you very much.

The first time I tried to walk Miss Mule to the new trailer, she wouldn’t go anywhere near it. I mean, 20 feet away she was already balking. We would approach and then she would throw it in reverse. For every 2 steps forward, I would get 8 or 10 steps back. I tried grain in a bucket, treats, petting her- nope, nope, nope. Not having it.

At one point I got super irritated and impatient and tried making her circle me, move her feet, move her haunches, and back up. In a moment of impatience, I reverted back to the dominance based training. She bolted back to the barn. One for the mule, zero for the trailer-obsessed crazy lady. Lesson learned.

There’s a point I reach when I’m trying to get a horse to do something and it’s not working where I say to myself, “This is going nowhere. What would someone better than me do? How can I break this into smaller pieces so this becomes a positive situation and she will cooperate with me?”

All the backing up she was doing made me realize that what I needed to focus on was forward. Forget the trailer, just get the mule to come with me. Instead of focusing on the 30 steps it would take to get next to the trailer, ask for one step. Eat the elephant one bite at a time, as the old saying goes. I started asking for one step forward, moving an animal with a 12 foot stride about 6 inches at a time. One foot moves, then another. A slight shift in her weight toward me. Baby steps. Relaxation as she was praised for each effort.

That first day she didn’t get on the trailer. She got close to it, but always backed up. I couldn’t lead her onto it or send her forward into it. I realized I didn’t have a solid forward command and I wasn’t good at sending her over obstacles. The trailer is just another obstacle. We didn’t have the groundwork established to be able to send her over an obstacle while I directed her. I wanted to be able to send her onto the trailer as well as lead her into it.

The next day I worked on raising the arm holding the lead rope and motioning with my other hand toward her hind quarters. She started to understand and we worked on sending her over logs until we had it down. I did two sessions that day, one morning and one afternoon. I started sending her in and out of her stall instead of leading her in. Instead of opening the door and letting her come out on her own, I made sure I was sending her out by motioning my hand. I started directing both of those activities, even though she was going to do them anyway. Now I was sending instead of just allowing her to enter her stall to be fed. It didn’t take many repetitions before we had a common, very specific language for “come with me” and “you go first.”

Once we went back to the trailer, I used that same body language. When she backed up, I would raise the lead rope to ask for forward. If she didn’t come, I would use one finger of my other hand to motion her. ONE FINGER. That’s all it took. If I used more than one finger, if I waved my hand, stepped toward her, flicked the lead rope at her, she would back up even more. She was letting me know it was too much pressure. She already didn’t want to be there and if I was going to be pushy, she was out.

This was ENORMOUSLY significant for me as a student of the horse. She was teaching me that she could only handle the tiniest bit of pressure. She was capable of understanding and responding to one single finger motioning her forward. Anything more than that was too much. She was in a heightened state of fear about the trailer and she didn’t need me adding to it with my demands, my stupid lunge whip, and my running her around. She didn’t even need a whole hand, just one finger. She was willing to come forward if I was willing to ask calmly and peacefully. The quieter I became, the more willing she became.

The closer she got to the trailer, the more sensitive she became. It was like trying to approach a wild animal. You do it slowly, calmly, with deep breath and quiet energy. One wrong move on my part and I would send her backward away from me and the trailer. If I raised the hand holding the lead rope, backward she would go. Too much pressure. If I raised the other hand to motion with my finger, backward she would go.

I noticed that she would look away a lot as well. This is when the YouTube trainers will tell you to pull her head around and make her face you. I disagree. Miss Mule looking away from the trailer is no different than a kid covering his eyes during a scary movie. It’s a coping mechanism for fear. Refusing to look at the scary thing won’t make it go away, but it makes us feel better. (I covered my eyes during “The Conjuring.” That movie was scary as hell.) If we’re clever enough to listen, the equine is communicating fear, not disrespect. She turns away because she needs a mental break, just like we do in a scary movie.

I let her look away when she needed to. I gave her a moment of peace. I would put the tiniest bit of pressure on the lead rope and she would turn toward me and the trailer again.

I discovered that she didn’t want me looking at her either. I turned my back to her, stood quietly and gave tiny tugs on the lead rope while she continued to take tiny steps toward me. When I turned around to look at her, she backed up. Too much pressure.

Finally, I got her up to the edge of the trailer where she could reach the bucket of grain I had placed inside, and I gave her lots of calm, quiet praise. Later that day we repeated that same process with much less backing up and she ate a snack with her head in the trailer. She had her feet as close to it as possible without having to make that step up into it. It was what she was willing to offer that day and I took it. Tomorrow I would get another try.

The next night I went out to feed her, led her to the trailer, and she was trying to get in before I could even get the door fully open. She put her front feet in and shoved her head in her bucket as soon as it hit the floor. She stayed in like that, with 2 feet out and 2 feet in, until she finished.

The next day she got all 4 feet on but backed in and out so many times I lost count. Once she got in and stayed calm, I closed the divider and let her eat her grain.

Once she was done, I let her out immediately. It’s not about trapping them in the trailer and forcing them to deal with their anxiety alone. They’re herd animals. That is misery for them. It’s about exposing them in small steps so that they gain confidence.

In my view that was a pretty successful training session. I think we will have less problems going forward because I allowed her to go at her own pace. She is already a kind, respectful mule. I don’t need to whip her head around, make her move her feet, make her stand in one exact spot, or any of the stuff you see people doing to establish leadership (i.e. dominance). She is already well behaved and extremely willing, but she had a bad experience in the trailer and she didn’t want to do it again. Equines are allowed to have feelings, preferences, fears and anxieties. Our job is to help them work through those fears so that they can be solid partners for us. Teaching them that we can help them work through fear is more powerful than teaching them that we can force them to do what we want. Helping an animal process a frightening situation is a totally different game than forcing an animal to perform a certain task. I know which game I want to play.

This has been an eye-opening experience for me. As amateurs we’re always told to up the pressure when the animal doesn’t respond. What if less pressure is the answer? Less impatience, less feeling disrespected, less anger at not getting our way. Less flailing our arms, less intimidation, less lunge whips and butt ropes. What if we took our time and let the horse take his time? What if we acknowledged the animal’s fear and let him work through it? What if we let go of the ego trip we get when we say we got the horse in the trailer in a small enough amount of time to make a catchy YouTube video?

I know a lot of people will read this and think it’s garbage. People way more talented than me have plenty to say about trailer loading. But if you’re like me and you don’t get results with traditional trailer loading methods, or you don’t like how you feel when you’re implementing them, then try going the slow, gentle way. You have nothing to lose. It took me 3 days to get Miss Mule on the trailer. It took me about 3 weeks with my thoroughbred. It took 5 minutes with my donkey and my first mini. For me, it’s not about the time it takes. It’s about doing it in a way that preserves the dignity of the horse.

I’m a very practical person, so here are some tips you can actually implement to help get your horse in the trailer.

  1. Don’t focus on getting in the trailer at first. Focus on getting near the trailer, smelling the trailer, sticking her head inside the trailer, maybe putting a foot on. And then stop. That’s right, I said stop. Quit while you’re ahead. If it’s been a low stress experience and you got close to the trailer, or got a foot on, or maybe even the whole body but then the horse backed out, be happy with that for the day. Maybe since you didn’t scare the crap out of the horse and make it a stressful experience, he’ll give you even more tomorrow.
  2. Treats are okay, but not constantly. I like treats because I feel like there should be something in it for the horse, but you have to be careful that the horse is doing it because they trust you, not because they’re hyper focused on the food. If you take the treat away, can you still get the horse on the trailer? Use other rewards like rest, praise, and petting to tell the horse he’s doing a good job. I do think feeding them their regular meal on the trailer is a good idea because they associate the trailer with something good. They know when they get on there’s a bucket of grain waiting. It doesn’t have to be much, just enough to make it worth their while.
  3. Focus on saying “Good try!” instead of “No!” Reward the tiniest bit of effort. One step forward and you praise them. Shifting their weight toward you, looking at the trailer, sniffing it, putting their head inside, checking it out in a curious manner- all of these things are exactly what we want and they deserve to be praised. Ignore the backing up, rearing, pawing or whatever they’re doing that’s undesirable, which brings me to my next tip…
  4. If you’re doing it slowly enough, it should never get to the point where the horse is flipping out and rearing. If you’re using very little pressure and making slow, calm steps forward, it shouldn’t escalate to the point that the horse tries to get away from you forcefully. You do not want a horse that’s threatening to kick, rearing, trying to haul ass toward the barn. If it’s getting to that point, slow down. Whatever you’re doing is too much pressure and you need to back off.
  5. The trailer is just an obstacle. You should treat it no differently than stepping over a log or going through a narrow gate. Depending on what kind of trailer you have, you’re going to either walk on with the horse and tie him, or send him on and then tie him through the window or the escape door. If you’re walking your horse on, then he needs to be willing to follow you. Will your horse follow you over an obstacle? Through a creek? Over a pedestal? You need to work on following you anywhere and everywhere. If you’re going to have to send the horse on, then work on sending. I find this a little more difficult, because the horse has to go first and go alone, but it can be done. Send the horse over and through everything- gates, stall doors, crossrails, logs, whatever you have at your barn that you can practice with. Get your sending command rock solid, and then the trailer is just another thing you send him onto.
  6. Don’t lock the horse in the trailer the second he steps on for the first time. I know this is tempting, because you’re afraid you’ll never get the horse back on if you let him off. If you trap him though, you just confirmed all of his worst fears. You were tricking him all along, you are locking him up, and he never had a choice in the matter, although you pretended he did. If the horse needs to get on and off 73 times, let him. Don’t slam that door shut until he’s calm. Tomorrow it will only take 56 times, and then 35, and then eventually he’ll get on and it won’t be a big deal and you can shut the door and go on your merry way.
  7. Different horses can handle different amounts of pressure. My quarter horses were both hard to upset. I could use the dominance training style and they would typically comply. It was easier to get on the trailer than to deal with my shenanigans. My mule and my thoroughbred are Sensitive Suzies and they need a lighter touch. You will fine tune your horse handling skills as you handle different horses, and for me that has been extremely rewarding. You’ll learn that you can accomplish more with less. Once an animal trusts you, really trusts you, the sky’s the limit.
  8. There is no “one size fits all” trailer loading method. There is no special stick, no magic halter, no method that works perfectly all the time on every horse. There are many ways of getting a horse onto a trailer. I choose the slow, gentle way and it’s based on the horse accepting the trailer because I say it’s okay. The horse ultimately trusts me, not the trailer. I find that it’s slow in the beginning and faster in the end. Once we go through this painstaking process of convincing the horse that I’m trustworthy, then we don’t have issues every single time we have to trailer load. The horse takes my word for it that this trailer is okay, even if it’s different than the last one. In the end it’s really not about the trailer at all. It’s about me and the horse.

One thought on “Trailer Loading the Slow, Gentle Way

  1. Loved that. I have, very successfully, used the “work the horse away from the trailer and let the horse rest near the trailer so that the trailer becomes the safe place” method of getting horses to load. But just because something works doesn’t make it the right or best way of doing things. It certainly isn’t what I use now. Love the way you broke it down and made it easier for both of you.

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