Animal Training Research: Teaching trailer loading using positive reinforcement

Many horses resist loading into a horse trailer. A trailer is a strange, noisy box on wheels – it’s no wonder many horses are afraid. Unfortunately, horse trainers have traditionally resorted to negative reinforcement based methods when teaching trailer loading, tactics based out of force and discomfort. Trainers create potentially dangerous situations when they try to force an unwilling horse into a trailer.

Researching new ways to train horses to load

Looking for a better way to teach, some horse trainers have begun using positive reinforcement based training techniques, such as clicker training (What is clicker training?) to teach horses. Positive reinforcement based techniques generally result in more cooperative animals, less stress for both the animal and trainer, and a decreased chance of injury.

Recently, I’ve been corresponding with Jaana Pohjola. Jaana works as a behavior consultant in Finland and has a degree in Applied Animal Behavior from the University of Portsmouth, UK. Jaana’s dissertation explored ways to used positive reinforcement training techniques to improve horses’ trailer loading behavior.

For her research, horses were taught to walk forward and backward through trailer-like structures using clicker training (see video below). Horses that completed training exercises with the trailer-like structures had a 40% decrease in loading time, decreases in heart rate, and decreases in fear-related behaviors.

Teaching trailer loading without a trailer

Many people start by directly trying to teach the horse how to step into the trailer. However, for many horses, this is way too big of a first step! The horse is often missing many pre-requisite behaviors related to trailer loading, such as walking onto strange surfaces and into narrow, dark spaces. This study is a great example of how breaking the behavior down into component parts makes it much easier for the horse to master the final behavior of walking into the trailer.

Horses in the study were trained for a maximum of 10 minutes per day. Many people get into trouble when training horses because they want rapid results. The trainer keeps dragging the session on, trying to get the desired result. Instead, many clicker trainers recommend training in short sessions. Short sessions or frequent breaks make it much easier to evaluate your progress and decide when it’s time to move on or make changes to your training program.

The different obstacles used in the study let the horse master trailer loading in small pieces, rather than dealing with the whole trailer. In the video below, I especially like the white horse who goes over the bridge with the canopy above — the first time it appeared that she was a bit hesitant, but the next time on the video, she marched right through!

Watch on YouTube: Training a horse to load using operant conditioning

At the rescue, we have a small horse obstacle course which we built about a year ago. You can see some pictures of our obstacle course here. Although we don’t have quite the same obstacles Jaana used in her study, I think our obstacles have helped build confidence and communication with some of our rescues who have been “problem loaders.”

The horses approve!

What’s one of the best things about clicker training and positive reinforcement based training methods?

Horses like these methods!

In her paper, Jaana writes that on “the first day, there had to be an assistant to help catch the horses from the pastures. After day two, the horses became more cooperative and the assistant was not needed.” So, not only did the horses get better at trailer loading, they also decided that people were nice to be around.

You can check out Jaana’s dissertation here, The effects of positive reinforcement training on horses’ loading behavior. Jaana also has a blog, which you can check out here, although it is in Finnish.

All photos are property of Jaana Pohjola and are used with her permission.

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