Young Horse Pre-Trailer Training

Instilling trust, confidence, and thinking through challenges.

By Jonathan Field

In last issue’s article, A Foal’s Safe Trip Home, the challenge was to get my colt from Innisfail, Alberta to Abbotsford, BC as safely and stress-free as possible. At the time he didn’t lead and had never been in a trailer, and he was weaned the moment we left the property. Under these circumstances, I was concerned that the experience would be a lot for him to take in. In the previous article I described the steps I took to give him a great ride home and a good experience that would set him up well for successful trips in the future.

In this article I will share some of the key steps I took to prepare him for safe handling in general, and get him ready for some specific trailer training. For his first trip, he was herded into the trailer and rode loose in a mini-box stall with another horse on board. Even a big trailer trip like his first one is not enough to consider him a trailer-trained or prepared horse.

Once home, I brought him to a friend’s place, taught him to lead, and now he was ready for more specific training. There are still many steps needed to teach him to be led or sent into the trailer by himself, and to stand in the divider area.

Safety through gates (Figure 1)

Have you ever been squashed in a gate? It’s not fun! I teach all my horses to be patient around gates and box stall doorways. I want them to wait for me. Sometimes I send the horse through first just like into a trailer, and other times I go through first and ask the horse to wait and come when invited, even stopping a few times midway. It’s amazing how even an older horse will slow right down and learn to wait with only a few sessions like this.

Sending the horse through first (Figure 2)

This is good simulation for sending a horse across or towards an obstacle such as a log, a bridge, or a horse trailer. It’s easy and the objective is clear.

Side lesson opportunities (Figure 3) 

As soon as we got into this round pen we had the opportunity for another lesson. A friendly and excited dog was jumping around on the other side of the fence. Typically in these situations I will continue to ask the horse to move around and listen to my requests. Only when I have done a few circles and minor asks will I let him stand and observe the area of worry. In this case, the friendly pup meant no harm and the colt relaxed quickly. 

Each opportunity is a lesson that helps us set up for more confidence in the future. The main thing we must be willing to do is adjust our plan and take the time to overcome each obstacle as it presents itself. Every great horseperson I’ve met has the ability to help a horse when needed and still remember what they had originally wanted to do. When you approach a horse this way it’s a win-win situation.

Bridge and squeeze (Figure 4)

I set up this bridge-and-squeeze obstacle with the trailer in mind. A main tip for success here is to keep my feet still. Oftentimes as the horse resists and moves around the handler moves too, and ultimately both end up further away from the obstacle. 

Stepping up and onto something will be important for many things he will face in the future in addition to the trailer. Leading with my left hand to point him in the direction I want him to go, the colt’s immediate reaction is to go the opposite way. Keeping a constant light feel on his head through the halter, I raise the flag to block him and wait for him to take a step to his right. The moment he does he must get a full release of pressure with the flag lowering and the lead rope going slack. The timing of the release is key to teach the horse and encourage him to keep trying to sort this out and stay in a thinking mode. 

Allow for curiosity (Figure 5)

Now that he is “getting warmer” it’s time to allow curiosity to build confidence. Allowing a horse to have some time to sniff and look around will be time well spent versus getting into a contest of escalating pressures. 

Watch the learning happen (Figure 6)

It’s fun to watch young horses learn. Here he is figuring out where his feet need to go, and I have my flag lowered and no tension on the rope to allow him to sort himself out. It’s extra important here to not rush through anything but to really allow him to become a teachable, thinking, and confident horse. 

Pressure is human-made (Figure 7)

Here is another nice moment when the colt has two front feet planted and is reaching back for a sniff while standing in a confined space. Throughout this process I have kept my feet in a very small area. If you find yourself being pulled around by a young horse, the likely cause is the pressure you are applying. Sometimes older horses have more resistance and we need to move more with them to be effective. But even as you do, remember that the pressure was human-made. This little guy didn’t come with enough resistance to humans to drag me around, and I don’t plan on putting it in there. 

Building trust and confidence (Figure 8)

After several passes both ways the colt’s confidence had really improved. After this success I would head for the trailer. In the final installment in the next issue, I will ask him to both lead and send into a trailer, and we’ll answer more questions about trailers.

At this point I am not thinking about a specific discipline for this young horse. I’m very keen to prepare him for a super bright future, and more specifically, to trust me and learn to handle what life throws at him. In any discipline, training holes are often found when something new shows up and the horse has not been taught to handle a variety of situations and to look to their person. With that in mind, my main focus until this horse is at least three years old will be teaching him to think his way through many different challenges. This is only about teaching him to learn how to learn. If your goal is to become a horseman one day, you will open up a door to your horse’s mind and be amazed at how quickly he can learn and how much he can do. I like to think at all horses like masters waiting for a good enough horseperson to come along.

All photos by Angie Field

This article was originally published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.

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