Trailer Loading, Part 1

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.