Spring is here and thoughts are turning to horse shows and trail rides. This usually means we need to get our horse into a trailer, and so, in this article, we will look at how to use clicker  training to make loading fun.

Trailer loading, like any other behaviour we ask of our horses, must be taught before we can ask, and expect, the horse to perform it. Using clicker training will help break the behaviour down into component parts that the horse can understand, and reinforce the desired behaviour.

The foundation lesson “standing on a mat” can help make trailer loading, not to mention grooming, tacking and mounting, easier and more enjoyable for you and your horse. To teach this lesson, your horse must be familiar with the concept of targeting, and understand that he is to remain in position until he is asked to move again (referred to as his “grown-ups are talking” position in previous blogs.

Introducing Mat Work

Start by placing a fairly large ‘mat’ (a piece of rubber flooring or carpet, for example) in a place where you want to play with your horse. An enclosed pen that is not too big is a great place to start.

Using targeting, have your horse follow the target, and when he steps on the mat, click and treat. (Note that when we click, we remove the target before delivering the treat.) Then, click and treat again several times, quickly (high rate of reinforcement), as long as he is standing on the mat. If he decides to leave the mat before you are ready to target him off, simply present the target again and have him follow it back to the mat. Once again, take down the target and click and treat at a high rate of reinforcement for staying on the mat. This time, try to ‘read’ his body language better and ask him to follow the target off the mat before he decides to move himself off the mat.

Keep in mind that you need to balance out the behaviours you teach. If you spend too much time on the mat, reinforcing that behaviour, he will become reluctant to leave it. While we want the horse to know the mat is a good place to be, we don’t want to make coming off the mat unpleasant. So, we must provide an opportunity for positive reinforcement for leaving the mat as well. When you want your horse to step off the mat, present the target again and have him follow it off the mat and touch it, then click and treat for ‘catching’ the target. Repeat this sequence many times, each time trying to build his draw to the mat and length of time he remains standing on it.


But what if your horse won’t step on the mat or will only get close to it?

If he will get close, but is still leery of the mat, perhaps you are too focused on the goal rather than the components. Start to notice when his focus changes from the target to the mat. At a point just before that, stop by letting him ‘catch’ the target, and play some simple targeting with him three or four times, then walk away from the mat. Repeat this loop of behaviours, each time noticing if his attention stays with you and the targeting game longer and try to casually work towards the mat.

If your horse will walk up to the mat, but not step on it, use your placement of the target – once he is there to ‘help’ him accidentally step even a toe onto the mat, then make sure you are on a high rate of reinforcement for this, so he figures out standing on the mat is a great place to be. Soon he will be heading towards the mat whenever he sees it, which is just what we want!

Adding a Trailer

When the mat is a ‘very good place to be,’ you are ready for the next important component part, generalization. Will your horse seek out and stand on the mat in different places? Will he remain there for a period of time? When these behaviours are solid, you can introduce the trailer.

Start by positioning the trailer (hooked up to the truck!) in an enclosed area, like a pen or arena, so that you can turn your horse loose to find his mat. (Note that if you have trained the mat exercise on a lead rope, you must introduce finding and standing on the mat off lead in an enclosed area first.)

Next, place the 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 stress? If so, try to get him engaged in the mat work. Have him target the mat facing away from the trailer to start in order to help gain his attention and build his confidence.

It is very important to remember that your focus should not be ‘get him on the trailer,’ but ‘target his mat.’ If you change how and what you have been doing just because the trailer is present, your body language and intent will be different and your horse will pick up on this. Remember, if you think different you are different.

Now, play with moving the mat around within the pen, and when you think he is ready, put it in the trailer, but don’t force it if he won’t target it there yet. Remember to use high rates of reinforcement for being on the mat; it is a good place to be. There is no time agenda; there is no ‘he HAS to get on today.’ Be sure to end on a good note, even if he is not on the trailer yet.

If your horse is already okay with loading, this may not be a big thing. He might, if you have done all the component parts well enough, just hop into the trailer and onto his mat and look to you for his click and treat.

It always seems that whenever you are trying to trailer load ‘helpful’ folk appear out of nowhere to ‘help.’ If this happens while you are working, I would encourage you to say, “Thanks, but we’re not practicing trailer loading, we’re practicing standing on a mat.”

When doing something different, staying true to your path can be challenging. Doing what you feel is right for you and your horse is especially hard to do if you are a novice horse owner and people with more experience are telling you that this is not the way to do it or it won’t work.

If clicker training can get a killer whale to readily swim up and hold still to let them draw blood, getting a horse to load himself onto a trailer using clicker training should be easy

Watch a video of this lesson at www.horse-canada.com/pony-fairy/self-loading-the-clicker-way.

For more information on the foundation lessons of targeting, grown-ups are talking and standing on a mat, visit www.horse-canada.com/pony-fairy and read:
Targeting: Part 1 & 2 (June 4th & 10th)
Getting Paid for Doing Nothing: Part 1 & 2 (June 17th & 24th)
Mat Work: Part 1 & 2 (July 19th & August 6th)
Mat Work & Trailers: Part 1 & 2 (Sept 3rd & Sept 10th)