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Getting horses off a trailer

From: Sid

Dear Jessica, I don't believe you have answered this question before. We have just bought a new trailer (three-horse slant) and plan to do some hauling later this summer and in the fall, to go to some shows and trail rides. Our horses were born on the property and have never gone anywhere. We plan to spend the next month training them to get on and off the trailer. My question is, since we have two horses and a three-horse trailer, how should we adjust the stall dividers in the trailer, and should we teach the horses to back off the trailer or turn around and walk out? Which one is better? We have heard different things from different people, but it's your advice we want.


Hi Sid! Stock trailers are easy, because you can just let the horses turn around and come out of the trailers head first. Straight-load trailers - unless you have one with a front/side ramp - require horses to back up and step down. Slant-loads can go either way, depending on the size of the horse and the number and position of the horses on the trailer. With a slant-load, you can tie back or remove one or more dividers to give your horses more space, especially if you're hauling only two horses. Since most slant-loads are designed for small horses, the extra space won't just be welcome - it may be very necessary if your horses are going to be comfortable during the ride. If a horse is on the back stall of the slant-load, it will be easier to have him back out. If he's in the middle or the first stall, he can probably (depending on his size and coordination) turn and follow you out - but he can also back out, and he should do so calmly if you ask him to.

Since you'll be training your own horses using your own trailer on your own property, you have a great opportunity to do everything right. Train them to get on and off, and to ride in the trailer, in every possible way and in every possible order. Then ask a friend with a different type of trailer to come out and help you with another loading lesson. (Be sure that he understands that he will be helping by parking his truck with his trailer attached, and then by sitting quietly on a lawn chair FAR from you and the horses - not "helping" by standing right next to the trailer and waving his arms or a whip or a broom at the horses. ;-)

Practice with as many different trailers as you can find, but remember that the basic lesson your horses must learn has nothing to do with any trailer - it's all about leading. If your horses will walk with you, walk away from you, walk towards you, stop, stand, and step forward, back, or sideways on command and on a loose lead rope, then you are unlikely to experience any problems getting them on or off ANYONE's trailer.

Just be sure to keep the learning process calm and pleasant. No matter what kind of trailer you have, and no matter which stall your horse is in - front or back, left or right, first, middle, or last, you should be able to back your horse out one step at a time. Horses need to be taught to get into and out of trailers of all kinds, and to remain calm whilst doing so. Some day, your horses may need to ride home on someone else's trailer. If your horses are calm and accepting, and can walk into any trailer and back off that trailer quietly, you'll have done a great thing by preparing them for just about any and every possible trailering situation.

I worry when people tell me "My horse has to be on the right" or "My horse has to be on the left". I worry when they say "My horse won't get in a trailer if he has to go up a ramp" or "My horse won't get into a step-up trailer." I worry when I hear "My horse has to come out facing front, he can't back off a trailer so he HAS to go in the first stall of a slant-load." ALL of these statements come down to the same fundamental problem: these horses have not been trained to LEAD properly. Horses that lead properly will go where you ask them to go, but far too many horses have simply learned ONE specific routine that applies to the trailer they usually ride in (but may not apply to other trailers or other situations).

Do yourself and your horses a huge favour: TEACH THEM TO LEAD PROPERLY. You can teach your horses to go forward, back, and sideways, step by step, at your request. Once they're confirmed in this, actual trailer-training will be much easier. It takes a lot of trust for a horse to step back into the unknown just because you tell him to, but if you practice he will learn that he can trust you and that there WILL be something there for him to put his foot on. You can begin by teaching them to walk onto and off of - and walk onto and BACK off of - a sheet of 3/4" plywood on the ground. The plywood will sound like a trailer ramp or floor, and feel like a trailer ramp or floor, but without sides and with only a 3/4" height, it won't frighten them or make them claustrophobic as a trailer would. Teach them commands like "step UP", "back" (which should mean ONE step at a time), and "step DOWN," which is very useful when the horse's hind feet reach the last bit of trailer and the next step will either be down onto the ramp or down onto the ground. And while you're at it, be sure that your horse understands and remembers (and will comply with) "Whoa" and "Stand."

The "bottom line" when it comes to getting horses on and off trailers is the same "bottom line" that applies to doing anything at all with horses. You need to be safe and your horses need to be safe. In this case, it would be nice if your trailer and any other humans and animals in the area could be safe, too. It's dangerous when agitated horses explode off trailers in a huge panic because they've just been asked to do something unfamiliar. It's much nicer when you can toss the leadrope over your horse's neck and indicate which stall he should put himself into, and it's much nicer when you can undo your horse's trailer tie, open the back, and tell him "Back, back, back, back, okay, step DOWN, whoa, stand" and have him get himself off the trailer and stand quietly behind it.

The best loading and unloading involves absolutely no excitement or agitation at all, and you're in a perfect position to teach your horses how to load and unload calmly from the very beginning.


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