Best Advice for Loading Horses on Trailers

I had a clinic stop in Flagstaff where the organizer was a long-time client and hero of mine, Barb. The clinic itself was at a facility a few miles from her home, but my dog and I were hooked up in the field behind her house. In the morning she and I were each driving. Barb needed to haul her mare, Scooter, and I needed to have the training gear in my truck.

At our agreed-upon departure time, Mister Dog and I were ready to go, waiting in my truck. Down the hill at a small distance, I saw Barb and Scooter in the pen haltering and preparing to leave for the day. The trailer was hitched and parked in the driveway with the back door open wide. Barb had prepared well which is smart because last-minute fumbling impacts horses. So much anxiety on both sides can be avoided by logical preparation. For all we can’t control, this part can be easy.

I am not sure why people think it’s so hard to get horses to load. Humans might be the ones afraid of trailers. At the end of the last day of clinics, it can be a challenge for some. People think the horses should know they are going home, but unless horses are trailered frequently, they have no idea. Mainly, everyone is tired. I help if I’m asked but I don’t loiter, always knowing that being watched makes the job a little harder.

This morning, we waited where we were. I hadn’t started my engine. Scooter would see me, of course, the truck hadn’t been there previously, but we sat back to watch the Barb and Scooter show.

Barb finished checking the halter and lead rope, opened the gate to Scooter’s pen, and led her out onto the drive. Scooter stood quietly as Barb closed the gate and then, on a long slack lead, the mare followed Barb’s feet more than anything. It’s instinctual with horses, Barb wasn’t being a genius. Yet.

Barb is a woman of a certain age, but always lively, with the brightest eyes and a quick laugh. She’s had a lifetime of experience, all the best and worst things have happened, and she’s survived with a kind heart, strong political opinions, and a great sense of humor. Barb refers to herself as The Elderly Cowgirl. I wouldn’t mind if younger horsepeople demonstrated her version of “elderly.”

One thing Barb and I have in common is hearing loss. She has cochlear implants and I have hearing aids, but from first meeting her, as she clipped a special mic onto my collar at a clinic, I knew I liked her. She asks for what she wants and does it with a smile. Being assertive is a wonderful thing, as any mare will tell you.

After a few strides, Scooter halted thoughtfully and looked up the hill at us in the parked truck. It was new, it didn’t belong there, and she is a mare with a job. She paused, thinking about us for a moment. Barb gave her time to process what she saw.

Scooter is a mare of a certain age with a chocolaty color, and she has tiny ears hidden in a thick mane. She is an Icelandic horse, tough and independent. Smart and steady. There are physical questions now and then, but Barb gets them sorted. Neither of them are quitters.

Scooter’s favorite color is red, and she and Barb like to dress to match. It isn’t cute, it’s their partnership made visible. They are on the same team. Barb also makes up songs in praise of Scooter that she isn’t afraid to sing right out loud for you. But don’t underestimate their skill, it isn’t that they haven’t had challenges. It’s just that they keep working on understanding each other.

Scooter exhales and they move toward the trailer, the lead still slack, looking for all the world like they are dawdling. The art of being with horses is to go slow, even if the clinician is watching.

Then Scooter sees something on her right. She stops to look and since Barb has no hearing loss where horses are concerned, she does the same. This wasn’t a big visible action, Barb didn’t try to find what Scooter saw, she just kept breathing and looking ahead to the trailer. When Scooter was ready, she brought her head back and they walked the rest of the way to the trailer.

Just to be clear, we don’t need to cue a horse when the back door of the trailer is open. We take ourselves so seriously that we think we need to train ordinary things every time we do them but horses are intelligent. They are perfectly capable of understanding an open door on a trailer. When we make a big deal out of ordinary things, horses think we are focused on something they don’t see. Our worry is palpable to a herd animal used to depending on the senses of those around them as well as their own. A horse is right to think twice if the human has trailer anxiety.

Barb trusted Scooter knew what the task was and the mare paused again, thoughtfully taking her time considering the tall step, and without swinging ropes or popping whips, without any fanfare at all, Scooter got up into the trailer. Barb gave her a pat, secured her for the trip, and closed the door.

Haven’t we had enough of chasing horses in circles, baiting them with food, flooding horses with sticks, and especially, talking trash about patience by those not able to demonstrate any?

Horses certainly have; they are often more afraid of the ground behind the trailer than the trailer itself. Afraid of the scene of the crime, where the fight happens.

Details matter. If your trailer is too small, it isn’t fair to ask them. You need a different trailer. If you are stressed out about time, keep it to yourself. It isn’t their problem.

Horses are always right because it doesn’t work to tell them they’re wrong. If your horse has bad experiences around trailers, it will take time to win their trust back. You stay affirmative in your mind and ready with praise. They will load when they feel safe. Aggression should never be an option; that’s how things got this way.

Watching this pair was not just a great start for the day, it was one of the best trailer-loading demonstrations I’ve ever seen. The mare never once said no, and Barb never once corrected her. They just continued on with their task. Is there anything more beautiful than choice and consent? Ever notice how those good at what they do make it look ordinary? Learn to see peace as the win. Then be consistent so your horse trusts you to not betray that safety.

Had five minutes passed? Ten? Time has no power over this pair and that makes the task go quickly. It’s all the micromanaging and bickering that takes time.

If you have problems loading horses, I’d suggest finding an “Elderly Cowgirl” to help you. They do the job right. They make the art of partnership look “ordinary.” Horses love that.

Anna Blake, Relaxed & Forward

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Anna Blake

34 thoughts on “Best Advice for Loading Horses on Trailers”

  1. For me, this scenario is what you teach, condensed into one brilliant little ten (or twenty) minute span of time. As usual, I want the entire horse world to read it. Wouldn’t horses everywhere blow a big sigh of relief? Thanks, Anna, and Barb.

  2. If I remember correctly Barb sings her songs to Scooter and the world as she rides the trails near her home. She is a quiet force and lovely in so many ways. Great piece Anna !

  3. By your telling, Barb and Scooter are such perfect partners. Thanks for sharing their success with us! I, too, recall singing “Dover had a little lamb,” as we headed down the lane toward the trail head.

  4. I just loved that story and the many lessons contained within! My goal is just to, all the time, be the human my horses need and deserve all the time. Like Barb. And Anna.

  5. Thank you for this beautiful blog, bragging about Scooter and Barb. Barb has been one of my favorite people for a very long time, and I too count myself lucky to know her. Barb, if you’re reading this comment, I love that you and Anna (another favorite human of mine) are connected!

  6. So nice to read this piece. I knew Barb in high school as Val’s big sister. Finally got my horse fix while raising my 2 daughters here in the Pacific NW. Had many trailer experiences – some not so good. Non-chalantz (sp?) is the #1 approach 👌😊

  7. Anna, thanks for sharing Barb and Scooter’s loading story. They clearly know how to be with each other and are lucky to have found each other. It’s so easy to be task oriented and distracted by time constraints in our human lives, and so easy for our horses to show us that they don’t operate under those human constraints. As a human I will keep trying to adopt the equine time schedule when we are together, and hope that my horses will not hold my failings against me.

    • Do they have a world within ours or does our world exist within theirs? Maybe that’s the real question. Thanks Laurie. And they seem to keep trying as long as we do.

  8. All 4 of my horses are good trailer loaders. It did take confidence, passive persistence, and patience. When we moved from MO to OR, we sent them by transport. We had already left and a good neighbor loaded them in his trailer, took them to a large parking lot where the transport had parked, two trips, 2 and 2. They loaded in the transport as if they had done it every day. From the transport to the facility in WA after 2 days’ driving. Overnight, and onto a regular horse trailer for the last leg to a boarding place in OR, until we got the new property fenced. Everything totally new and strange, but all reports I received, all went just fine. What troopers!

    This was in 2019. Then in 2020, we were in the path of the massive forest fires. The order came to evacuate in the evening, so we loaded in the dark, no electricity yet in the horse barn or the trailer shelter. I could take 3, and the 4th mare went with a neighbor, who offered us sanctuary at her daughter’s in-laws’ place in WA, no problems loading. The day was dark, the skies terribly full of smoke, I am sure we were stressed, but I remembered to breathe deeply for my mares.

    2022, there was another forest fire just 1/2 mile from the property. We had no time to prepare. The sheriff came by, Go Now! A neighbor came to help, offering sanctuary at her boarding barn. Even in the dark, power was out, with 2 strangers helping, again, the mares loaded beautifully. We were able to take all 4 as we had acquired a bumper pull for day rides, as well as the LQ. The neighbors’ fiancé hooked his truck to the smaller trailer and we hitched to the LQ. Another strange place after a curious trip, and the mares walked into their stalls at this new place, also dark and without power, as if they lived there. They are not stalled at home, just a large open barn shelter.

    Guess I’ve done something right, as well as being blessed with 4 lovely mares!

  9. Reflecting on your writings this past weekend, as I often do while in the barn, I remembered a wonderful story about trailer loading & listening to horses. Several years ago (before I was reading your blog) I was at a horse rescue event where many horses were adopted. An older couple had adopted a lovely mare but couldn’t get her loaded so help was requested. The gal who came out to load (I was watching) led the mare to the back of the trailer and when the mare planted her feet – clearly not going to go into the trailer, this gal went into the trailer herself and gave it a good inspection. She then stepped out and said “I don’t blame the horse for not going in, this trailer isn’t safe due to the rotted metal in the floor”. She then said, lets find someone that can loan you a trailer or trailer for you because I will not be part of loading a horse who rightly knows she won’t be safe. Another trailer was commissioned and the horse went in with no hesitation. While it didn’t mean much then, since reading your blog that incident now has whole new meaning for me. That gal is an endurance rider – using a rescue horse, and while already impressed with her way with horses – recalling that incident has me respecting her a thousand times more! She clearly listens to the horse!


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