Magic Mustang Tamer

Task 26: Loading the Trailer

Task 26: Load in the trailer

It’s probably been a while since the horse jumped out of the trailer and into your life. Loading on that trailer probably wasn’t a pretty sight. Let’s see if we can take the stress out of it.

ALERT: Being in a confined space with a fearful animal is NOT safe. Don’t block the exit with your body.

Task 26 Subtask1 Eat hay from behind trailer (30minutes with no evasions)

Objective: We wish to associate the trailer with availability of snacks.

The Set-Up: The trailer should be accessible from or in a moderate sized pen that has water. The door should be left wide open and secured so it can’t blow closed. The front door of the trailer should also be left open if the horse could walk through and exit the front.

Prerequisite Training: No training needed. You can start this the day the horse arrives if you like.

Protocol: Put some alfalfa hay as a special snack inside the trailer and feed the normal grass hay ration to the horse by laying the hay on the floor of the trailer near the doors. Let the horse eat from the back of the trailer for a couple of days. We also let the horses have free access to the trailer when it is not being used. Keeping a supply of snack food goes a long way to making them comfortable about the trailer.

What ifs:

  • What if the horse won’t approach the trailer to get the food? Put the food on the ground just behind the trailer. Hand feed the animal near the trailer.
  • What if the horse is anxious being isolated in the pen? You can put a trailer savvy buddy in and the trainee will see his buddy get in and out of the trailer to get snacks. Is it jealousy or deprivation? It can help. Do not put a horse that is not comfortable with the trailer in as they will make each other more fearful.

Task 26 Subtask2 Stepping onto elevated wood, rubber or concrete surfaces and backing off 5x

Objective: The horse will deliberately step onto various surfaces including elevated surfaces in response to the cue “Step up”. This is going to desensitize the horse to different ground textures and sounds in addition to providing a useful command.

The Set-Up: Pick out safe places to lead the horse to step onto new surfaces. Concrete slabs, rubber mats, wooden platforms, and concrete blocks can be used. Our horses have a 15 inch wood block and it becomes a game to stand on it.

Prerequisite Training: The horse must be able to be led into new situations (T23).

Protocol: Start with something low but that will make a definite sound (concrete sidewalk or wood surface) and try to lure the horse into stepping onto it. Bridge crisply and make a big deal of the horse trying. Take care to not reinforce pawing more than twice. If the horse suspects the answer is pawing, immediately move to shape duration of the hoof staying on the surface by feeding continuously as long as the hoof stays on the surface, and doing an LRS when it pulls its hoof away. When the horse understands putting its hoof on, start asking for and reinforcing backing off the surface between trials. Rearrange the horse every trial so that the horse will find it convenient to lift the other hoof on. When the horse is stepping onto the surface with low latency and keeping at least one foot on, add the cue “Step On”. After using the cue four or five times, wait for the horse to put a second hoof on before bridging.

Horses seem to really enjoy this task. It is hard for them to notice where they are putting their hooves at first and it is hard for them to notice anything on the ground, but their behavior around this task really highlights some interesting aspects of horse cognition.

What ifs:

  • What if my horse never wants to do anything else after it learns this game? Don’t worry, that’s normal.

Task 26 Subtask3 Lead into and back out of ground trailer 5x

Objective: We can teach the horse how to behave in the small space of a trailer without all of the strong stimuli (noise, smell, elevation) of a functional trailer. The horse should be able to be led in and backed out.

The Set-Up: We use an old stock trailer shell sitting on the dirt with no floor or trailer frame. The door is fixed wide open. In another environment, a faux-trailer could be fashioned out of fence panels, PVC pipe, and a taut tarp stretched over it.

Prerequisite Training: The horse should be able to be led into new areas (T23) and be familiar with (or at least not surprised by) the ground trailer.

Protocol: Monitor your horse for changes in head elevation or breathing patterns as you approach the ground trailer. Stop if you see anxiety welling up as having the horse panic and bolt away is something you wish to avoid. If you need to work on approaching the trailer for a few days, use the methods in T23. Make being near the trailer fun and being farther away from it boring.

When the horse is able to approach the ground trailer calmly, bridge and feed the horse for 1) walking up to the door, then 2) backing up. Lead the horse away but don’t offer food for any behaviors away from the trailer. Repeat this procedure slowing going farther into the trailer and backing out each time. Sometimes using 5-bites for going in will help focus the horse on the task.

What ifs:

  • What if the horse refuses to approach the ground trailer? Turn the horse out with the ground trailer as in Subtask1 of T26. Using a buddy can help.

Task 26 Subtask4 Step into trailer and back out calmly 5x *

Objective: The horse should be able to be led into and backed out of the real trailer.

The Set-Up: You need a stock trailer that you can step up into. The floor of the trailer should not be slippery. The trailer should smell like horses and not be full of flies or hot. Tie the door open so it cannot possibly be blown shut. Limit distractions. It is best to have the area behind the trailer a small pen with high walls. Some horses get frightened in the trailer and go crashing out of it. If you use a leadrope, wear gloves. You can also do this at liberty but the horse may get scared and crash around in the trailer… in that case flatten yourself against the trailer wall so you don’t get knocked down. It is, unfortunately, all too easy to talk the horse into trying something it really isn’t quite ready for.

Prerequisite Training: The horse has been conditioned to eat from the back of the trailer (T26.1), desensitized to stepping on new surfaces (T26.2), and taught to enter and back out of the confined space of a ground trailer (T26.3).

Protocol: Lead the horse to the back of the open trailer. Sometimes they will step up with you when you step on, but more often they stop. Reinforce stepping toward the trailer by bridging lifting the hoof off the ground. Shape stepping up. When you think the horse is going to step up, use the command “step up” which will encourage it but avoid using it when the horse is not likely to do it. Every time the horse responds correctly toward the trailer make the next request to back up in order to return to a good starting position every time. Use much smaller amounts of hay to reinforce the backup response.

Do not dwell at any one criterion too long. Do not allow repeated stepping turn into pawing. Be quite strict about discouraging pawing. Keep the horse progressing or go back and review Subtask 2 and 3. If your horse is nervous, make your sessions short and keep your animal feeling successful.

What ifs:

  • What if my horse is just pawing at the back of the trailer? I warned you about that. That is a nasty problem. Perhaps going back to stepping on objects will help the horse generalize. Good luck. I warned you but feed pawing three times and it is pretty permanent.

Task 26 Subtask5 Load into trailer in response to pointing cue 5x with latency <3sec

Objective: The horse should be able to load into the trailer upon request without being led.

The Set-Up: You need a stock trailer with non-slip flooring for this with a small pen high-walled behind it. I open the front gate as well, so the animal can go all the way through into a separate pen, but the trailer must have a smooth doorway with no latches or things that might scratch a scrambling horse. If you have gates that swing behind the trailer, they can be helpful to pressure animals that are still reluctant to enter the trailer. Carefully evaluate the trailer for potential for the horse to get scraped, such as around the exit door, and pad any problems with duct tape.

Prerequisite Training: You can train this behavior to a still wild horse, in fact, it is easier to teach a wild horse this.

Protocol: For a horse that cannot be led into the trailer, pressure the horse by raising your arms, lifting your hat, etc. until they look into the trailer. As soon as they turn toward the trailer, drop all pressure. Punish them when they turn away from the trailer by immediately going back to pressure. When the horse prefers to remain looking at the trailer, then start closing down the space available to the horse behind the trailer. Stay alert and consider where the safest place to be is. Take all the time needed and don’t escalate the pressure on the horse. Eventually it will jump into the trailer and escape out the front door. Escape behaviors are learned quickly. Repeat several times until the horse has low latency for the escape response. Start adding the pointing cue once the horse is likely to do it.

If the horse has completed Task 26.4 and can be calmly led into the trailer, have an assistant without food lead the horse to the trailer, lay the lead rope over the horses back, and let the horse jump into where you are waiting to give it hay. Repeat until the horse has low latency, and then trade roles with your assistant. When the horse has performed correctly 3 times in a row, you can start adding the pointing cue. Be sensitive about unloading to keep things pleasant. A horse trained this way will not be totally reliable about loading under duress (such as loading with another horse), but with practice the horse will have no fear to get in the trailer.

What ifs:

  • What if the horse ignores the pressure? Then it is not effective pressure. A rider on horseback is usually a lot of pressure to a mustang or burro. Don’t use a flag. Climb up onto a fence panel where they can’t kick you. Keep from getting them so adrenalized that they can’t think.

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