Spring is here and thoughts are turning to horse shows and trail rides. This usually means we need to get our horse into a horse trailer, a task that can be quite challenging for some folks and their horses.
Trailer loading, just like any other behaviour we would ask our horses to do, must be taught before we can ask, and expect, the horse to perform that behaviour. More specifically, all the “component parts” of the behaviour have to be taught; neglecting to do this is usually why a behaviour falls apart.
So what are the “component parts” of trailer loading behaviour?
What behaviours do we need to teach before even attempting to load a horse onto the trailer?
Some of the behaviours needed will depend on the loading history of the horse and also on how you want to go about loading your horse onto the trailer. Do you want to have him load himself or do you want him to follow you on? Let us presume you want your horse to self-load. Also, to begin with, let us consider the horse who is an “okay loader” with no huge issues about loading.
To deal with specific issues, we would need a slightly different set of component behaviours, even though the end behaviour of “loading onto the trailer” is the same. I will discuss how to handle some of these challenges in part two of this series. The foundation behaviour of targeting is one that works well for trailer loading. We can have the horse target his nose to a target that we then put into the trailer. Alternatively, we can use the foundation lesson of standing on a mat (which is really targeting the mat with the feet) to load onto the trailer.
For this article, I have chosen to explain the process and the component behaviours needed using mat work.
The first behaviour we need to shape is standing on a mat. For a detailed explanation of how to teach this foundation behaviour, please refer to Saddle Up May 2011, which is available online. When you have done the mat lesson many times, using high rates of reinforcement to make the mat a “very good place to be,” and your horse actively seeks the mat to stand on it, you are ready for the next important component part of the trailer loading behaviour, “generalization.” Will your horse seek out and stand on the mat in different places, at different heights, in tight spots? If the answer to these questions is yes, then you are ready to move on. If the answer is maybe, or no, then you need to look for what could be causing the issue in the new place.
Remembering that you must only change one criterion at a time, the next component part that you might want to work on is “building duration” for standing on the mat. When your horse’s behaviour is solid about finding the mat and standing on it for a period of time, then you can introduce the trailer. Try to place the trailer (hooked to the truck!) in an enclosed area so that you can turn your horse loose to find the mat. If you have trained the exercise previously on a lead, practice it off-lead in an enclosed area first, before introducing the trailer. Now place your mat in the pen away from the trailer. Take the time to read your horse’s emotions. Is the mere presence of the trailer causing him some stress? If so, try to get him engaged in the mat work. Have the mat away from the trailer and have him target the mat facing away from the trailer to start. Build his attention and confidence.
The whole time you are doing this exercise it is VERY important to remember that the thought in your mind should not be “get him on the trailer,” but staying with, “target his mat.” If you change your focus from what you have been doing with the mat, just because the trailer is now there, your body language and intent will be different and your horse will notice this. “If you think different, you are different.” Now play with moving the mat about within the corral. Move it closer to the trailer and see how he feels about that, then move it farther away. Try putting it in the trailer, but don’t force him if he won’t yet target it there. Gather data to see where he is at in his mind, now that the trailer is part of the picture. Remember to use high rates of reinforcement for being on the mat; it is a good place to be. There is also NO agenda that says, “He MUST get on the trailer today.” Take the time to make the experience positive for both of you.
If he is already fine with going on the trailer, this may not be a big thing. He might, if you have done all the component parts well enough, just hop in the trailer onto his mat and look to you for his click and treat. It can be just that easy. But, in some cases, we need to be more creative in order to help a horse overcome a history of bad trailer-loading experiences, and I will show you ways to do this with clicker training and a positive approach in part two.
Let me offer a couple of words of advice about teaching trailer loading with the clicker. It often seems that whenever someone is trying to load, helpful folk appear out of nowhere. If this happens while you are practicing and they offer to help you load your horse, I would encourage you to say, “Thanks, but we’re just practicing standing on a mat.” It is often hard, when doing something different, to stay true to your path. This can be especially hard to do if you are a novice horse owner and all the people with more experience are telling you that “this is not the right way to do it” or “that won’t work.” You need to do what you feel is right for you and your horse. Stay positive. If clicker training methods can teach a whale to swim up and keep still to have a blood sample drawn (no halter here and no dragging him where he doesn’t want to go), rest assured, you can teach your horse to load himself onto a trailer.