Most horsemen are familiar with and employ renowned “low-stress” horse trainer Ray Hunt’s famous dictum:
“Make your idea the animal’s idea by making the wrong thing difficult and the right thing easy through the application and release of pressure.”
This approach works really well for loading inexperienced horses into trailers, and it works equally well for loading cattle into trailers in the open. The basic idea is that every time an animal—whether horse or cow—looks away or moves away from the trailer you apply pressure to make that difficult. But every time it moves towards or looks towards the trailer you release press
ure, which rewards it for doing what you want. Eventually—and sometimes this takes only minutes if done correctly—the animal understands that the easiest thing for it to do is to go up to and get in the trailer, and that that is where it will experience the greatest release of pressure. Once the animal does go into the trailer, you can calmly, slowly, and safely go up and close the gate because it was the animal’s idea to go in so it’s content. However, if you force it in (e.g., drag it in), it’s not the animal’s idea and it is only thinking about escaping back to where it came from or where it last felt safe and comfortable.
Trailer loading animals in this fashion takes a certain mindset. The conventional mindset is that cows are afraid of the trailer so they won’t want to go in, therefore we’ll have to force them, either by setting up a crowd pen or roping and dragging them in.
The low-stress mindset is that cattle aren’t afraid of the trailer as is commonly believed. What they’re afraid of is what w
e do to them before we get there, and what we do to them to get them loaded. Consider the following photos:
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I parked an open stock trailer in a pasture and within minutes it was surrounded by yearlings, and the more curious even self-loaded! This proves that cattle aren’t afraid of the trailer or don’t not want to go in it; it’s how we bring them in. It’s what we do to them before we even get there that matters to them, and if we give them time to investigate the trailer on their own terms and timeframe and become comfortable with it, and put them in properly (i.e., with pressure and release), we might find that we have to drive them back out because they’ll be so happy and content being in there.
We can also walk animals in on foot if we work with them a little first, keep them calm, and simply walk them up to and in the trailer.
Trailer loading off a rope
Trailer loading a roped cow by walking it into a trailer was something I would have deemed impossible until I saw it. Now I realize that roping and dragging cattle into a trailer—as I’ve done more times than I care to admit—is obsolete. Instead, what we need to do is communicate what we want in a way that it becomes the animal’s idea so it wants to go in the trailer
and does so willingly. This is done by following Ray’s dictum as described above and illustrated in the following video:
A really good training exercise is to practice trailer loading, both loose and off a rope, in a controlled situation, like an arena or big corral. I recommend first practicing trailer loading off a rope because we have more control of the animal. For example, every time it tries to avoid the trailer by scooting off, we can dally and stop it, then get around it and move it back towards the trailer. It’s important to get back to at least where we left off (i.e., the closest poin
t) quickly, or else we lose ground. Also, trailer loading off a rope is easier than trailer loading loose and it’s a great confidence builder.
Next, I’d recommend starting with one critter and practice trailer loading it loose. It can be helpful and can save time if you have one rider on each side of the trailer to run interference and bounce the cow back to you when it tries to avoid going into the trailer by skirting around it. This isn’t necessary but it can save multiple laps around the trailer.
Prepare your animals
It’s very important to prepare or train your animals for what’s to come, even if it’s a month off. If we train
or prepare our animals we can easily do anything that we need to do with them and they will stay calm and quiet and do it willingly. If we don’t prepare them for what we are going to be doing we’re likely to have trouble. Trailer loading is no exception. For instance, it’s a really good idea to trailer load new bulls repeatedly—using whatever you normally use for trailer loading; e.g., your trailer load out—until they will walk in calm and quiet with minimal pressure. This prepares them to be loaded in the field if necessary.
Whit Hibbard –
a site dedicated to the knowledgeable and skillful handling of livestock in a safe, efficient, effective, and low-stress manner.
About the Author
Whit Hibbard is a fourth generation Montana rancher who spent approximately 38 years handling cattle conventionally. He then made a paradigm shift to low-stress livestock handling (LSLH) as taught by Bud Williams which he has studied and practiced for over a decade. Whit teaches clinics and consults on ranches and is the editor and publisher of the Stockmanship Journal which promotes the adoption of stockmanship.