Time and time again, trailer loading a horse comes up as a major problem. We’ve all seen the pictures of horses being pushed, beaten or shoved into a horsebox. We often see the reactions of frightened horses. A quick look on YouTube will bring up dozens of videos produced by horse trainers showing how to get a difficult loader into a trailer. The vast, vast majority of the methods used involve getting a horse to ‘move his feet’ when he’s outside the box and only allowing him to stand when he looks at, then puts a foot on the ramp, two feet on, etc.
Why is loading such a problem? It is after all, just another behaviour amongst all the many behaviours we teach our horses. In most cases the problems arise because of the way the horse has been taught to load or, more commonly, how he has been loaded from the start without any training. Many people assume that loading is simply something the horse should ‘do’ and don’t see any need for training.
“We cannot expect to get a behaviour on a consistent basis unless we have gone through a process of teaching it” is an Alexandra Kurland mantra that is very important to keep in mind. So how do we teach trailer loading? By using all the principles of any good training.
Firstly decide what the final behaviour will look like: I recommend writing this out.
- Do you want to lead your horse in?
- Do you want to send your horse in?
- Does your horse have to step up onto a ramp?
- Does your horse have to rearrange himself in the trailer, e.g. move sideways?.
- Does your horse have to stand while you rearrange partitions?
- Does your horse have to stand while you close a butt bar?
- Will your horse be tied up?
- Will he walk forward to unload?
- Will he back off the trailer?
- How will you ask him to come out?
- Will he have to back down that step?
- And so on….look at all the options and see exactly what you want.
Now look at your list. Each step in the loading/unloading process is a behaviour in itself. Before you go near a trailer, it is important that your horse is happy doing each component behaviour. If there are any gaps in his repertoire, then they need to be addressed before a trailer comes into the picture. If you have a horse who barges when being lead or panics when tied up, then he is nowhere near ready for the trailer.
One particular step that I find people fail to address adequately is getting the horse off the trailer. Yes, he has to go in in order to come out but he can certainly learn to back in the field or arena.
For many horses that step down off the ramp backwards is a huge issue. They cannot see the edge or judge how big the drop is. They often stumble and panic. Teach your horse to step onto a timber mat firstly. Ask for just one foot, then build up to all four feet. When this is easy, then ask him to step up onto a platform. Start with one front foot up, then that foot down, repeating until the horse is completely comfortable with this. Then other front foot up and down before asking your horse to bring up a hind foot.
When a horse is happy putting a hind foot up and down, I usually add a vocal cue to tell him the step down is coming. This can be a huge help when the horse is trying to locate that step off the ramp or box.
Reward each step!! We want our horses to load happily and for the whole training process to be a pleasant experience. Make sure that being in the trailer is very enjoyable. As with all clicker training we start rewarding the slightest try with a high rate of reinforcement and gradually build up to more and more complex chains of behaviour.
Misty and Marte demonstrate good loading: