You can train a horse to get on a trailer without balking, but for me, that’s not enough. I want Tonka to get on and have a cheerful, Where to? demeanor. And, I want him to arrive relaxed and ready. That’s asking a lot. Trailering means that Tonka is leaving the safety of his home barn. He’s traveling solo (not something a horse would ever ask to do), and he’s going to spend who knows how long in a noisy and bumpy box. So, I never, ever, take his cooperation and goodwill for granted.
Having a horse that is enthused about trailering starts with training a horse to lead and using positive reinforcement to load. Read this blog and this one for more on that methodology. But it takes far more than that to have a horse that looks forward to whatever comes next. I’ll share here what I do.
When trailering, it’s essential to leave enough time. If you’ve ever tried to rush a horse, you know how that can backfire! My motto is the slower you go, the faster you get there.
After your horse gets on, a calm hello, and a carrot while you’re unsnapping the lead line and attaching the trailer tie, sets the tone.
If the hay in your trailer has been sitting there a month since the last trip, put in a fresh flake, and make it the most delicious hay that you have available.
Let the horse stand in the trailer a few minutes. Most horses will defecate. Clean it up so they don’t have to haul in a stinky, slippery space.
Drive carefully and as smoothly as possible.
The destination matters. Sometimes you can’t help but take your horse somewhere that neither of you want to be, like a veterinary clinic. Or maybe, your horse has had a bad trip, despite your best efforts. When that happens, purposely add in some short, non-essential and fun outings. A few weeks after Tonka went to the veterinary clinic, I took him to a nearby pleasant field where I hand-grazed him. I also take him to interesting and beautiful places. I swear he likes to gaze at scenery as much as I do.
Trailering often leads to work, but that’s not a bad thing. I believe that horses, like humans, thrive with mental and physical challenges. It’s one reason why I take lessons.
It feels good to pursue an athletic sport and strive to improve one’s fitness and coordination. It should feel good to your horse, too. I want Tonka to buy into the work. For that, he needs clarity from me. He needs to know what to do, and when he’s done it right. For that I use traditional pressure and release, but also a sound that let’s him know exactly when he’s achieved the goal, followed up with the judicious dispensation of peppermints.
Yesterday, I took a lesson, the first one since last July. Tonka is feeling strong and sound. It looks like we’ll be trailering to some shows this summer. As long as Tonka trailers out, and arrives home, as relaxed and content as he did yesterday, we’ll keep going places.
What do you do to make the trailering experience a good one for your horse?
Note: I’m available to help with your trailering issues. I travel throughout New England, and can also provide consultations via email and Skype.