Self-loading is not only a great convenience, it’s also safer than leading the horse onto the trailer. Standing in a narrow trailer stall with a 1,000-pound animal is never optimal, and self-loading takes some of the concern away if you have a highway emergency and don’t have a helper nearby.
Always consider safety. Secure all trailer doors. Put trailer wraps on your horse. Use a cotton lead — not nylon — with a knot on the end. Never, never allow the line to wrap around your hand. Put gloves on and wear solid shoes, not sneakers. Wear a hard hat if you wish.
Look at the area around the trailer to make sure no people or dogs are just hanging around. Horses that are being loaded often make a sudden move sideways or backwards, and there should be no potential dangers inside this trajectory — for himself, for you, for others.
Any horse that leads readily onto a trailer and doesn’t attempt to turn around inside should be taken to the next level and taught to self-load. If your horse has never been loaded before, you may want to skip the step of leading him onto the trailer and teach him to self-load right from the start.
The key is the work done before you even show the trailer to the horse. The horse should both walk out ahead of you and halt on command. Return to basic leading lessons, using a chain over the nose and carrying a long dressage whip or short longe whip in your other hand.From a halt, standing at the horse’s shoulder and facing forward, say the word “walk” without stepping forward yourself. Accompany it with a flick of the whip towards the hock. When the horse steps out ahead of you, you can then walk forward yourself, using a word of praise and a pat on the shoulder.
Alternate that with halt commands. Say the word “whoa” while you shorten stride but don’t completely stop your own steps. Accompany the “whoa” with a tug on the lead rope. If the horse halts, then stop your own steps and praise him.
Continue the walk/halt exercise a few minutes each day until the horse’s responses are solid. For the next few days “load” him over obstacles where he might usually hesitate: a rail on the ground, across a rubber mat, up a small bank, anything you can find where the horse can step out ahead of you. Continue with your praise whenever he does this without needing the flick from the whip.
Prepare The Trailer
When you’re ready to self-load, prepare your trailer by having the front escape door open but the chest bar closed. Hang up a hay bag or net. It’s a good plan to have a helper at the open escape door with a treat ready to keep the horse from trying to turn around and looking at you behind him — an idea you don’t want the horse to ever consider.
Prepare for actual loading by looping the rope end over the horse’s neck while holding it in the usual place. You don’t want a rope so long that it will slip down where the horse can step on it or he’ll fly backward in the middle of loading.
Walk around your stable yard “loading” the horse over a few obstacles and then just walk right up to the trailer. Step next to the ramp without any hesitation, say the word “walk,” and use a flick with the whip. The horse should step up on the trailer, where he’ll be rewarded by your helper while you put up the butt bar.
You then move to the escape door and snap the trailer tie on the upper ring of the halter. Let the horse stand there and enjoy some hay for a few minutes before you unload. Repeat once a day for two or three days until you no longer need the helper to be at the trailer escape door.
If the horse doesn’t self-load the first time you try, don’t get into a confrontation at the foot of the ramp. Return to the usual lead-on method right then or “self-load” again over obstacles. Try the trailer ramp again later that day or wait for another day, when the horse’s response to self-loading over obstacles is confident and he’s calm and giving you his full attention.
Your horse needs to safely unload as calmly as he loads, but handlers often skip this part of the process as it appears so much easier. However, the lack of a verbal command can lead to fear, anticipation and confusion. The horse then starts turning around in the trailer, sitting back on the butt bar so that it’s difficult to release, or blasting backward when the butt bar is dropped. This is particularly important if you use a step-up trailer because the horse may hesitate to back down off the drop.
You should teach the horse to step back using a verbal command at the same time you teach “walk” and “whoa.” If he doesn’t step back when you say “back,” then apply a light tap with the whip on the chest and a light tug on the nose chain. Any inclination the horse shows to back on command, without the chain/whip aids, should be praised. Continue the work on alternating “walk,” “whoa” and “back” commands until the horse will readily take three steps straight back.
When your horse is on the trailer and you lower the trailer ramp, you should always let the horse stand there for a while — never lower the butt bar right after dropping the ramp or the horse could start to anticipate.
When you’re ready to unload, snap on the lead line and loop the end over the horse’s neck. Unsnap the halter tie, lower the butt bar, and say the word “back,” possibly adding a light tug on the tail (but not a pat on the butt, which should remain a reassuring signal to relax and stand still). If you’re consistent with using the word “back” and the tail tug, the horse will wait and won’t anticipate unloading until he gets those signals.