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Trust starts the end of trailer trauma

By RAY ARISS / Horsetrader columnist - August 4th, 2010

HEY RAY: We have brought back ranch horses from Wyoming twice now who refused to back out of our 3-horse LQ trailer –- before we bought them, they had always been hauled in big stock trailers and they just turned around to get out. Our new addition, 5-year-old gelding, needs to get over this refusal to back out. We have to trailer to ride.
–Dan Weyand, Fallbrook

HEY DAN: This is more common than you might think. Unloading a horse from a trailer can be almost as challenging as loading him into one if he doesn’t want to go because the motivation for him to stay put is “the fear of death.” We know we can force a horse in or out of a trailer if we have enough muscle. But anytime we go against a horse’s will, there’s the chance of everyone involved breaking a sweat as well as getting hurt. So, let’s assume your horse is NOT in the trailer, and you don’t plan on putting him back in, until he first understands a few things . This is definitely a better scenario than trying to teach your horse the lesson while still in the trailer.

Remember, it’s the preparation before the challenge that counts. There are many ways to ask horses to back up: Startle him while standing directly in front of him; push him back by pulling on the halter toward his chest or pushing on his chest; use a voice command “BACK” and twirl the end of a rope toward him with the intention of slapping him on the neck or shoulder if he doesn’t respond. You might even resort to using a stud chain on him in many creative ways. If all else fails, you might pull out the old sharp dressage whip and tap him on his chest or maybe his legs until he breaks loose away from it. All these are approaches have been tried at one time or another to get the job done with success. I’d like to share an approach that seems to be easily accepted by horses and people alike.

  1. You need to introduce to your horse all of the aids that you will be using in order to help him understand clearly the picture you want him to see. That will include the rope, wand or stick (preferably insulated), poles, a tarp etc. You should be able to swing around, throw over, and retrieve your rope all around your horse without unsettling him. He should equally feel comfortable with you patting him all over with the stick or wand before moving on. Shaking a tarp as well as walking over it calmly is a must.
  2. Make sure you can move your horse forward, backward, sideways (hip and shoulder) as well as flexing his neck and head from side to side without moving his feet. You also should be able to pat him under his chin with your hand, rope, or wand and make him back up freely without him being upset over it. All this will play a big role in the trailer if he refuses to back out.
  3. He should be able to back up straight under your guidance. Place two poles side by side (parallel to each other), three feet apart. Walk him through and back him through repeatedly, until it’s easy.
  4. Walk him over a tarp on the ground forward and back as well. Backing over a sheet of plywood is also a nice challenge before backing out of the trailer.
  5. Place the tarp over half of the length of the parallel poles on the ground. Work on this until there is no issue. This challenges most horses. If he refuses or evades by jumping out, simply move his hind quarters around his front end (turn on the forehand), and try again. If he shuts down (not wanting to move back into and over the tarp), try tapping him under the chin, starting off light and gradually intensifying the sensation. When he finally moves back, rub him under the chin with whatever aid you used (hand, rope or stick). We are trying to achieve a simulation of a refusal while backing up in the trailer. Jerking on him with a chain or tapping him with a whip on his chest or legs may not only cause rearing or lunging forward, but aggressive striking as well. This is definitely not something you want to experiment with when you have no escape while in the trailer.
  6. This might be a good time to bridge an audio aid or voice command to the mix (You can say “BACK” or use a series of clucks, at least five, for backing). This will help him get a clear picture if he becomes confused.
  7. We are now ready to attempt loading — and more importantly, unloading — your horse in the trailer. Because the loading part is not an issue, the aids we will be practicing will be the backup aids. Bring your horse to the back of the trailer to where only his head is in the trailer. Ask him to stop and then back up a few steps and then praise him.
  8. This time ask him to walk in, front legs only. Again, stop and back him out to the same spot as before and praise him once again. You should be using your audio cues as well as patting him under the chin. The patting should cause him to lower his hindquarters and back out.
  9. We have now approached the point of no return. You will ask your horse to load all the way in, and without any delay, complete the pattern of backing out same as before, by saying back or clucking, tapping under the chin, and gradually intensifying the volume of the tapping until he is all the way out. There cannot be any second guessing at this point. He will and should back out, if your timing and feel are correct. Allow him to replay and digest the experience outside of the trailer as long as you feel is needed. This is strictly a judgment call on your part. You may even want to stop at this point and put him away until another day. On the other hand, you may want to repeat step 9 if your instincts motivate you.

Dan, if you prepare your horse in such a way where he trusts you and he understands what you are asking of him without fear, you will be surprised how smooth and easy this process will go.

As always, trust your instincts and think safe,


Horsetrader columnist Ray Ariss, husband to Pippa Ariss and father of six, shares his insight into the relationship of horseand human twice each month, in print and on www.horsetrader.com. He lives and trains in “Horsetown USA”, Norco, Calif., at his bustling Starbrite Riding Academy, where he currently has 50 horses in various stages of training, including Andalusians, Friesians, Quarter Horses, Paints, Thoroughbreds, Arabs, Mustangs and more. Ray attributes his training success to the support of his wife and partner, Pippa, and a system he calls S.W.A.P., to which he credits his multiple championships in several disciplines. His passionate understanding of the “human-horse” relationship was evident when he took on the challenge of training a wild Mustang and — in just 100 days — produced the highest-priced adopted Mustang ever — $50,000. Does your “horse-human relationship” leave you with a question for Ray? Click here to submit one!