Train Your Horse To Do ?His Job,? Especially Trailer Training

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A few weeks ago, our farrier told me how much he appreciates that our horses stand kindly to be trimmed and shod. He especially appreciates the young horses, recalling how well our several 3- and 4-year-olds have stood when He's put shoes on them for the first time.

The farrier, Mike Piro, recalled several times He's tried to trim or shoe horses whose feet he could barely pick up, who acted as if he were a devil sent to steal their feet as he chased them around the aisle or stall. He opined that he considered our young horses? behavior to be indicative of the regular handling they get in the barn and that they've ?got a job. they're not just standing around half-wild, until I have to do something with their feet.?

I responded with the observation that I've been lucky in my life to learn from a handful of real horsemen, people who believed in truly training horses to be useful members of society. They each believed that it's essential to thoroughly prepare horses for what you want them to do. They believed that you have to teach horses the tools they need to give you the answer you want. They each believed that it was unfair to ask a horse to do something that he has no idea how to do.

This attitude included the obvious training issues of jumping, doing dressage, foxhunting or performing the demands of any discipline. But it also included the less obvious day-to-day things like grooming, bathing, clipping or standing kindly while the farrier works on them.

Their point of view?and, thus, my point of view?was, generally, that if the horse isn?t doing what you want him to do and offering resistance, it's probably your fault. It probably means that you probably haven't thoroughly taught him how to give you the right answer.

Sure, there are exceptions?horses who?ve been poorly handled or mishandled or horses that have some kind of mental or emotional (sometimes even physical) issue with a certain task. But I've found that with patience, determination and time, almost all of these horses can be taught to answer, and behave, correctly.

A prime example is teaching horses to load, and ride, in trailers. Mike and I recalled numerous times We've seen people who are amazed that they can't get their horses into a trailer or that he doesn't ride quietly in it. Ninety or more percent of the time that's because those people didn't teach their horses how to load or ship?they just went to throw them in the trailer on the day they had to do something with him.

As TV show host Mike Rowe says on his signature ?Dirty Jobs? program, ?What could possibly go wrong'?

The simple fact is that the wrong time to ask a young, green or uncertain horse to get in the trailer is the day you have to go somewhere with him. The pressure of time??I've got to be there by 10 o?clock!??is the worst incentive to getting a horse who's an inexperienced (or difficult) shipper to go in a trailer.

If your goal or intention is to take your young or green horse to his first show, on his first trail ride away from home, or to move him to a new barn, start weeks or even months ahead of time. Your goal is to make getting on the trailer and driving away a routine event, nothing at all.

Last winter, we were starting our three just-turning 4-year-olds under saddle and into serious work. One of them was to go to her first show in January, and the other two were to go to be started under saddle on Feb. 1. So in December I started working with them on trailering.

We began with a basic introduction to the trailer. I put an experienced shipper in our two-horse straight-load first, and then I brought out the mare, Tiny, who was to go her first show. (She?d been in a trailer once before, to come to our farm as a weanling, but she?d been basically carried on the trailer with her dam.) Tiny actually walked in after just a moment?s hesitation. We fed her some grain as a reward and to help her believe that the trailer was a nice place, and then we loaded her once again.

We repeated this ritual on two or three more days, and then we closed the trailer up and went for a slow, 15-minute trip. I repeated that short journey twice more, and then we took her on a five-hour ride (in that trailer) to her first schooling event. (I'd have preferred to have taken her to something closer first, but we had no other choice.) She shipped to the show without incident.

The other two 4-year-olds, Bella and Piper, were to ship together to another trainer about two hours away. I wanted them to be accompanied by an experienced shipper, so we used our barn manager?s three-horse slant-load for their introduction. We put the experienced horse on first, to give them an incentive to get in, and I put them in the stalls in which they?d be riding for this trip, to keep it simple and, thus, increase the odds of success. (Neither horse had ever been in a trailer, as they were each born on this farm and had never left.)

Bella was to ride in the No. 2 slot, so she was the first to meet the trailer. It probably took five or six minutes of patiently enticing her with grain and making it clear to her that she wasn?t allowed to leave before she went in. Once in, we rewarded her with some grain and repeated the procedure.

We did run into one issue with Bella, though?she wouldn?t back up to then step down out of the trailer. At first, I just let her turn around to step out going forward?largely because, at that time, I really didn't have another option if I wanted to get her out of the trailer.

And so I went back to the basics with Bella, teaching her to react by backing up to a tug on the halter and tapping her front legs or shoulder with a dressage whip. I also used the voice command, ?And back, and back?? She wasn?t yet backing out of the trailer by the time we took her to the trainer, but, within a few months of her return a month later, I'd taught here to back reliably and easily out of all three of our trailers.

Piper was to go in slot No. 3, which meant he had to stand quietly while I exited through the door he?d come through. He hesitated only briefly before jumping in and stood perfectly.

After a few more individual practice sessions, we loaded all three horses into the trailer and let them sit in our parking area on ?two or three days. Then we took them all for a 15-minute journey twice before the day of the planned trip.

I should add that for each of these practice sessions, the trailer was attached to our truck. Never practice in a trailer that's not attached to a towing vehicle holding it securely on the ground. An unattached trailer, especially a lightweight two-horse trailer, is a potential death trap if the horse panics, because he could easily cause it to tip over or slide.