It’s so much fun when you can reach a horse and human at the same time. Recently, I was asked to come to a client’s aid. Both came away from the experience with a new understanding, a better rapport and all puffed up as a result of what they accomplished independently and then, later, together.

Horse trailer loading trouble solutions
cc license by eXtensionHorses

Fun with a reticent gelding – interpreting horse and human signals to solve loading issues

When you get stuck, you can either keep doing what’s not working or call for help.

The owner of a young gelding that’s only home had been her farm (he was born there) started working on trailer loading for the first time this year. She had started him under saddle but made the decision to send him to Halcyon Acres® to do some polishing and get him steady on the trails.

Things went well, until they didn’t.

I always applaud those wise enough to know when help is warranted. It’s not always something easy to admit, but doing so can transform the relationship you have with your horse almost immediately.

What’s the real horse training issue?

We spent almost an hour and a half addressing and correcting the problems the first day. Actually, the horse loaded without incident on the first several attempts, but changed his tune after we tried to lift the ramp to close him in. This wasn’t a great trailer to be working with, which complicated things a bit, but the bigger challenge was this guy’s habit of backing rapidly without being requested to do so.

Patience and understanding was an appropriate early reaction. Soon it became clear, though, that he was no longer wary, but merely having fun controlling a game he designed.

In conversation with the owner, or perhaps, more importantly, observing the horse, it became clear he had learned that flinging himself backwards at a rapid pace ended a lesson he wasn’t too keen about. So, it’s not surprising he embraced this cool tool that provided a reward.

This was a very smart horse. He also responded gleefully to attention and praise – much more so than the food bribes that had been offered in the past. Sweet by nature, this solid guy wanted to please. He just wasn’t confident enough in people to be comfortable following their lead. He needed to understand that his backing frenzy could cause harm to him or human and was not acceptable.

The training shifted from trailer loading (this wasn’t the real issue) to addressing the backing penchant.

An unusual approach to solve the loading challenge

While it’s rarely appropriate to intensify the pressure to discourage a young horse from bad behavior, in this case, it was. This guy used his bulk in an attempt to mow over the human or fling them off the lead.

We put a chain over his nose to gain some additional leverage. As expected, he didn’t like it. He quickly learned, though, that his actions were merely responded to in kind. We never applied any pressure to the lead in the trailer, but once he was out and trying to fling or knock a human off their feet, pressure was applied. The moment he offered a smidgeon of cooperation, it was released. Timing is critical. The release needs to be immediate. Also note this wasn’t a jerking on the lead action, merely some weight against it. He quickly realized his nose got comfortable the millisecond he stood still.

After that, loading was basically a non-issue. The backing off without request ended too. He’d stand for many minutes as asked then stepped off slowly, one stride at a time as pressure was applied with some fingers to his chest. He glowed and responded with delight as attention was lavished for little attempts and food bribes were eliminated from the mix.

Gleeful owner reports positive trailer loading experience

Several days later I received an ecstatic call from the owner who, after witnessing the schooling session and listening to next step recommendations (give him a few days to process and gloat, no chain, walk on with confidence, immediately recognize tries, use attention vs. food bribes as a reward, etc.) that all went as we discussed – no, even better. Her loading challenges seemed to be history.

It’s always exciting to find eager learners who can process information easily in both horse and human form.

We’ll do another session together before we lock him up in the trailer for a short trip to the Halcyon Acres® facility, but both sessions should be uneventful. This guy really wants to be a good boy, he just didn’t understand.

Why horses resist trailer loading

Every horse is different. Understanding his concerns is the first step to resolving issues. Seeking help when you can’t is critical too. Forcing a horse on a trailer only works once. The damage you do to his psyche with such an approach will cost you big time in the future.

Instead, try to get into their head. You’ll be amazed at how much you may learn when you take the time to try to understand and respond in accommodating ways.

Unfortunately, many professional truckers or so-called seasoned trainers tend to resort to tactics that serve to reinforce a horse’s fear or dislike for the trailer. What’s more important than any tactic you use is getting a quick read on why your horse is being difficult. Usually it comes down to one of three reasons:

  1. He’s afraid. This can be due to unfamiliar trailers, first time introductions or memory issues associated prior bad experiences.
  2. He’s playing you. Some horses (interestingly with trailer issues it tends to be the geldings even though mares tend to present clever facades during under saddle training) offer resistance because it’s a fun game and/or they sense your lack of confidence and take the lead.
  3. You’re sending him the wrong signals. If you face a horse when trying to load him, his tendency is going to be to either stop or back. People who are helping you load also send body signals to the horse that can be problematic. Some don’t like being crowded. Others load better with a person close by to help keep him on the right path. Noticing how he’s reacting to the people involved and how you might be unintentionally asking for undesired behavior is important.

The most important factor in forging the path to better loading experiences is paying attention. This includes recognizing why your horse is responding the way he is, noting what he’s trying to tell you and understanding how what you’re doing is encouraging or discouraging his cooperation.

If you’re in the Western New York area, we can come out with on-sight. If not, consider our e-coaching services. Capture the scene in video, send it along and we’ll work with you providing customized ideas and suggestions through all the challenges. This month we’ve added an introductory e-coaching offer to new clients for one month of support at $65.

13 Responses

  1. Nanette – You would LOVE (heavy sarcasm) trying to load my sister’s horse, Herman. Even at the age of 27, he can be difficult to load and takes two people and a bit of planning to do so.

    Herman’s Thoughts on Trailering:
    Step-up trailer – horse eating cave
    Ramp trailer – horse eating cave with a tongue
    Pressure on halter – reason to back off trailer rapidly, rear, and/or bolt
    Chain over nose – reason to back off trailer even faster or reason to rear and bolt
    Person with broom, whip, stick, etc. behind Herman – reason to back off trailer at the speed of light, backing over person, rearing, and bolting
    Bucket of treats – reason to think about stepping onto the cave’s tongue
    Uncle Jimmy’s Squeezy Buns (in the wrapper) – reason to get front end…and then back end in the trailer
    Old Rice 2-horse trailer with front and rear ramps – Awesome invention in trailers that lets me, Herman, get on the trailer, walk through, and get out the front without having to run backwards.

    Once he is on the trailer, with the butt chain up behind him, he is fine. I use his propensity to go backwards in my favor as he will stop moving long enough to grab at the horse treat in my hand while my sister clips the butt chain. I then let him take a step back while I put up the chest bar. If he hasn’t gone anywhere in a while, I’ll walk him through & off the front ramp a couple of times so he gets the idea of getting on in his head.

    One thing I did learn, and this is a bit of an odd thing, is somewhere along the line, Herman has associated the words “good boy” and the trailer with bolting. My sister wanted to do a practice run with him one day, and I had his front end in the trailer. I told him “good boy” and started to hand him a treat, but he had already bolted backwards. Hmmm…huh?

    So, I changed my “good boy” word to the first thing that came to mind – “schnecken” (sticky German cinnamon rolls). I took a few minutes to associate the new word with large handfuls of treats and went back to the trailer. After a couple of false starts, “schnecken” got him on the trailer in a somewhat short time, and much more willingly than before. When my sister moved to a new barn, a few “schneckens” loaded him in about 5 minutes (versus the previous 3 HOUR drama).

    Sometimes you don’t need to change what you are doing, just what you are saying.

    1. Good point Bree – and really funny post. Agreed word association can be a big factor. Kudos to you for figuring this out with Herman. I actually had a horse here that liked to back as you describe. When he’d get in these tantrums I’d just keep backing him – right up onto the trailer. Trial and error can be a big part of the process. It’s not always the obvious solution that works.

  2. One other sometimes helpful tactic is to recognize that “cave” characteristic of the trailer which the previous comment described. I was at a horse show a while back and watched a young horse owner try to load her horse who was having none of it. I asked her if the trailer had a door in front (I knew it did, but didn’t want to sound pushy after watching her and a couple of other people pull, push, and swat the horse with a broom to no avail). I suggested she open it, then try loading the horse. He walked right in as soon as he saw the “light at the end of the tunnel”. I said nothing and disappeared into the crowd. 🙂

  3. Good for you, Alli. I’m sure they appreciated your help. I really like some of the new designs on trailers. Often it’s so much easier to use the narrower ramp at the front of the trailer for a young horse instead of trying to coax them in from the back.

  4. I must respectufully disagree with part of this blog. I’m sorry but I have to pick apart the phrase “use attention vs. food bribes as a reward”.

    Using attention is good, assuming the horse feels that attention is a reward. It’s up to the horse to decide what’s rewarding and what isn’t.

    However, you’ve conflated “bribes” with “rewards”. Rewards are given AFTER the behavior is completed. Bribes are given BEFORE the behavior is done in hopes that the behavior will be done. Please don’t confuse the two.

    Operant conditioning or positive reward training (+R), also called “clicker training”, uses the science-based training system of providing rewards AFTER the behavior being trained has been performed. If food is used, the food comes AFTER the behavior happens. The click is a bridging signal that promises the reward is coming.

    This horse could have been retrained without having to use a chain over the nose at all. Instead it could have been retrained using only +R (positive reward) training methods alone.

    It bothers me that the use of food is condemned by calling it bribery when it could be used as a reward. But you have to know the difference. And, as you said, timing is critical.

    I have several videos on my YouTube channel, LaurieH57, that show different ways to train trailer loading using +R concepts, if you’re interested in watching them. Others have many, many more out there.

    Thank you for listening.

    1. That was the first thing I noticed: The connotation of food rewards as “bribes”, yet praise & attention as “rewards”. Thank you for pointing out the difference, Laurie! I was gnashing my teeth until I read further down & caught your response! 🙂

  5. I love that Laurie clarified the difference in the definitions between the two terms(baiting and rewarding). The difference in the results are hugely differnt too. Pretty soon the food is secondary to the relationship with the whole learning process. It becomes very clear that they enjoy the training and solving the puzzle.

    As a side note…There was a study done long ago, I read about it while I was still working at Sea World. The researchers gave different species of animals free food, meaning it was readily available. The they took the free feed away and taught the animals to hit a lever to receive their food. Then they we given both options…the animals primarily ignored the free food and opted to hit the lever for the food. I think that says a lot about the role positive reinforcement training can have on them psychologically.

    Also, one of the best facets of the positive reiniforcement/clicker training is that you don’t see the resistance you can see with traditional training methods (pressure/release). There is no flinging, rearing, pulling back or thrashing. Just quiet easy progress with soft eyes and relaxed head carriage. Even for the horse who has an unpleasant history with the trailer and loading. When you put something into the training equation that the horse finds valuable the difference in attitude is astounding. Not only do you not need a nose chain, you don’t need a halter either. Anyway…certainly something to consider or at the least learn more about. Thank you for sharing and for the opportunity to discuss training ideas. The more we learn the better we will be. :0)

  6. I have to agree with Laurie and Shawna. When I evaluate a technique, I look at the outcome — which is more than “did he do it.” I want to know if the horse is doing it willingly and happily, or if the horse is doing it to avoid unpleasant things. The difference goes to state of mind, willingness to learn, and overall emotional association (positive or negative) with the behavior.

  7. Thanks Laurie, Shawna and Melissa for your comments and perspectives. It’s good to make the distinction between bribe and reward. I appreciate the detailed explanation giving more on this (I try not to make these blog posts too long :-)).

    Frankly, most of what I see are situations where food was used as a bribe. This can create some dramatic problems. It can be very difficult for people learning to get the timing right. This is easier for most if a different reward is selected.

    I didn’t get into all the details of the illustrated situation, but there was some learned dangerous behavior in the mix where a correction was merited. Not my usual approach (as readers of this blog know), but sometimes you make short-term decisions to keep all safe during an interim period. Of course, being there provides a different perspective on the horse’s reactions and motives than what is available reading about it.

  8. I come from both disciplines, Nanette, and feel I have some skill at both now. It’s been my experience and that of others, that in fact timing the reward is far easier to learn than good release work.. now that is hard.

    But watching for a behavior, clicking it to mark/identify it for the horse, and then reaching into a treat bag and delivering a tidbit to the horse actually requires hardly any skill, just a little practice polish.

    Errors are quickly corrected, and Shawna points out how eager the horse is to learn, which makes errors inconsequential and super easy to correct.

    It’s also a remarkably effective way to overcome fear and replace it with calm and willingness. This has been my specialty since I started clicker training.

    You can see some examples of my work at
    http://www.youtube.com/user/MegaDonaldR?feature=mhee

  9. ” I didn’t get into all the details of the illustrated situation, but there was some learned dangerous behavior in the mix where a correction was merited. Not my usual approach (as readers of this blog know), but sometimes you make short-term decisions to keep all safe during an interim period. Of course, being there provides a different perspective on the horse’s reactions and motives than what is available reading about it.”

    I also am with what Laurie, Shawna Donluis said, and I like that you acknowledged their reply – however I have to comment on the part of your reply that I have quoted… – The method that they have described negates any need to make “corrections” or use harsh equipment even after a horse has displayed dangerous behaviours in prior training/handling- and further to that I dont see any urgency in trailering a horse to some lessons as a reason to warrant the harsh correction and speed of getting a fearful horse to load using a nose chain and coercion – the only time I would feel that “making” a horse get on a trailer if it is fearful is in an emergency – to get the horse to life saving surgery/treatment or away from a life threatening situation – any other situation could be dealt with slowly and over time using +R clicker training – .. again, thankyou for posting and for prompting this great discussion on training

  10. The safest way to habituate a horse to any situation including trailer loading is to allow him to approach it at a pace in which he feels safe.
    Positive reinforcement facilitates this by rewarding the horse for steps in the required direction-as others have said its a very different thing to using bribery.

    Its the use of force and punishment along with flooding techniques in training that makes horses dangerous.
    If only more people would realise this then a lot less horses would be hurt and a lot less humans injured.
    The way that punishment works ( such as a chain over the nose, you should try this actually so you understand just how painful it is) is by suppressing a behaviour.
    Naturally a horse will fight this as it occurs but he will also be likely to fight again at any later date.
    Horses habituated at their own speed without the use of pain or force have learnt to be accepting and comfortable with what they are asked to do which makes them far safer both during and following the process.

  11. Thanks Donluis, Carolyn and Sarah for taking the time to read this post and comment.

    I’m not going to get into a clicker training debate here. I’m sure each of you is open-minded enough to acknowledge there are valid ways to reach horses that differ from your exact approach. I’ve seen a lot of so-called ‘fool-proof’ formula approaches go very wrong when applied by those who read a book, watch a DVD or join a forum and proceed without horse experience and/or the support of an onsite guide. Likely, you all have too. I suspect each of you would agree every horse is different and what works for one may need to be modified for another.

    As a point of clarification, the correction did not relate to trailer loading. The intent WAS to suppress a behavior (taught, granted, but dangerous, inappropriate – and intentional).

    I appreciate each of you lending your perspective here. Hopefully we’ll see more working together to create a better future for the horses and humans that call them friend.

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