In this blog, I am going to explain in more detail how to teach trailer loading using clicker training.
The featured horse in the article and videos on this blog is Oli, a delightful, but very large, Warmblood, three-year-old gelding. Sarah, his owner, decided to train him when she first got him as a two-year-old with clicker training. Over the last year and a half or so, they have progressed through the foundation lessons, started the in-hand work, which has produced a very balanced young horse, who carries himself in amazing balance and self-carriage and he has recently been introduce to being ridden using clicker training. Trailer loading was another thing Sarah wanted to teach in preparation for horse shows.
Having done all the foundation lessons, Oli was very familiar with mat work and targeting so continuing this work to include the trailer was a natural progression.
We needed to add onto his mat work a raised ‘mat’ or platform which would allow him to get used to stepping up into the trailer. We brought Oli in to the arena and turned him loose while we got other things set up. We had placed the platform in the arena in preparation for the lesson but before we could ask him to stand on it he already had.
You have to love a clicker trained horse!! So that was easy but we did want to add in backing off the pallet which again took very little time.
We placed the trailer into the arena and added a series of mats around it and allowed him to play around doing a well-known behaviour of standing on the mat, while getting comfortable with the trailer itself before getting on. When he was ok with the trailer’s presence we put a mat into the trailer and asked him to target the mats outside and then the one in the trailer. Oli was happy to do this.
If you listen closely to the videos you can hear how strong the wind is blowing and all the noise the tarp is making, yet Oli was happy to play with us and ignore the noise. This required quite the focus for a young horse, all alone in this arena to have.
By the time we could get him fairly far into the trailer using the mat and hand targets we decided we needed to change our plan a bit and have himself load and turn around so Sarah and Oli both could feel more comfortable as she wanted to haul him loose and he seemed happier facing backwards. So our next step was to plan how we were going to break down and teach the behaviours needed to get this.
We decided we needed to teach Oli a go forward cue so that Sarah could stay outside the trailer while Oli went on and then have him turn and target his nose to a target held by Sarah and then target his feet to his mat while she shut the doors.
We used cue transfer to change his cue for going into the trailer from targeting the mat to a touch of the whip on his hip.
Cue transfer is when you put a new cue onto an old behaviour. Oli knew how to move forward to touch a target, but now we needed him to move forward from a touch on his hip. This was NOT trained through increased pressure till he figured out it meant move. In clicker training we like to use guided learning to help horses succeed. So we touched Oli’s hip with the end of the whip and left it there. This is the new cue. We then presented the old cue of target (in front of him) and when he moved towards the target the whip was taken off his hip. Pretty soon we could simply place the whip onto his hip and he moved forward, and we could fade out the old cue of the target. This way Oli learned that the touch on his hip also meant move forward.
Next, we then had him learn to target to his side by turning his head to touch the target presented at his side. Eventually we placed the target further back to make it so he needed to move his feet to touch it. To turn while on the trailer we needed to be able to present the target at his bum and have him turn around to touch it.
Finally, we added back in the target to the mat so we now had a chain of behaviours.
Luckily, Oli readily offered to turn once in the trailer, which was really nice as treating him for going in was a bit awkward as when he turned he needed a lot of space and being in there with him during the turn was tight. Perhaps his turning once on was only because he wanted to turn to get out but we took advantage of it and clicked and rewarded for it. We threw the mat in after he was on the trailer so he wouldn’t target to it on the way into the trailer.
Very quickly Oli had the behaviour chain down and would load, turn and then stand on his mat to get his reward. We played some fun games he knew well to make his time on the trailer more rewarding for him before we added in the closing of the doors etc.
We spent some time making sure he would load , stay on, be comfortable and unload before starting to close the doors or take him anywhere. Here is one last video for you showing his progress.