A trailer is a small, dark, metal box on wheels. For a prey animal like a horse, walking into the mouth of this monster sounds like a pretty scary idea! Shimmer, our little buckskin filly has found a foster home. So, it was high time for her to learn to walk into a trailer!
She had been in a trailer several times previously, but it had involved being herded into the trailer with a group of other horses. This is quite different from having to walk on a lead rope quietly up the ramp and into the trailer all by herself. However, with a lot of patience and a bit of clicker training, she mastered trailer loading in no time at all.
Shimmer has been at the rescue’s main property almost a month. She was pretty shy and skittish at first, so rather than jump right into training, I’ve focused mainly on hanging out with her in the pasture, getting her more use to people and getting her more comfortable being touched. Others have helped with this as well and she’s made great progress. She’s worn a halter a handful of times, but before Friday, she had no experience leading.
So, my first task was to teach her the basics of leading and how to give to pressure. After I put her halter on, I reached up slowly to attach the lead rope. Big mistake! The moment she felt the pressure of the halter behind her ears she panicked and started to pull back. So, I let go and she trotted off. Time to back up a step!
So, I backed up and worked on holding the bottom chin piece of the halter while she stood beside me. If she’d let me hold it a second or two, I’d click and give her a treat. Then, I’d take a step away from her and give the tiniest of tugs on the halter. When she’d move towards me, I’d click the clicker again and give her another bit of food. Pretty soon, she was letting me put pressure on the halter to lead her around the pasture. After she understood that the pressure on the halter was not going to hurt her, attaching the lead rope was easy. The horses catch on super fast when I use clicker training to tell them what they’re doing right.
Next, we did a bit of leading around the pasture and then moved out into the yard. Every now and then she’d get a bit nervous or uncomfortable, but for the most part she was calm and relaxed. Sometimes she would get a bit disconnected from me and move off to the side, but a bit of gentle pressure on the lead would bring her back towards me. Since she was leading nicely around the yard, we moved onto the challenge of the trailer. (Note: For many horses, learning to lead and learning to trailer load could take multiple sessions and multiple days. Watch your horse and her body language and don’t rush! It’s better to train a behavior right the first time than have to retrain it later.)
My trailer loading strategy for Shimmer was this:
No pressure, lots of patience, and reward the slightest try.
So, we started by walking towards the trailer. I walked on to the ramp and she stopped a step away from the ramp. We stood there awhile, then I clicked for her standing calmly, gave her a treat and we walked away. Then we did this again. And again. And again. Several times I gave a tug on the lead rope, but she was happy standing right in front of the ramp. Sometimes I’d feed the treat over the ramp and she’d stretch her nose waaay out, but kept her feet right where they were. So, we continued to repeat walking up to the ramp, click and treat, and walking away.
After a certain number of these repetitions, it would be very tempting to get a whip or stick and give her a couple taps on the rear. And, that probably would have been enough motivation to get her into the trailer. However, it would not have been her choice. I also could have used increasing pressure on the lead, but pulling and tugging would have only frustrated her. I wanted it to be her idea and I wanted her to remain calm and relaxed. She needed lots of time to think things over and decide that the trailer was an okay place and I needed to have patience and let her take her time.
Finally, after approaching the trailer 12 or 15 times, she put the tip of one toe on the ramp. Excellent! So, we circled back around and the next time she placed the tips of both toes on the ramp. The next few times she placed first one foot and later both feet on the ramp. The time after than, she offered to place all four feet on the ramp and then the next time we approached, she was willing to follow me all the way into the trailer. After that, we walked in and out of the trailer two more times (which she did as if she had been doing it her entire life) and then called it quits for the day. She had accomplished quite a bit for one afternoon!
With young horses (and old horses) it’s important to let the horse take as much time as they need to get comfortable with new situations and tasks. Shimmer’s threshold was at the bottom of the ramp and she was very skeptical about taking that first step. However, I just repeated over and over what she was willing to offer, until she was confident enough to put that first toe on the ramp. She stayed calm and relaxed because she realized I wasn’t going to push her or pressure her beyond her threshold. Instead, I waited with her until she was ready to offer more on her own.
The next day, we did a short session working on trailer loading. Shimmer walked confidently in and out of the trailer about half a dozen times with no hesitation or worry. If you train a behavior correctly from the start, you won’t have to make corrections later. By going slowly at the beginning and letting her take the time she needed, I can save time in the long run. Plus, we now have a yearling who is happy and stress free when it comes to trailer loading.