A common problem encountered by horse owners is the horse`s reluctance to load into a trailer. Many reasons have been suggested to account for this problem, including: previous adverse experience during loading and the natural reluctance of the horse to enter into a confined space.
Horses that resist loading may cause injury both to themselves and to their handlers. Difficult horses often get worse in response to the owner`s attempts to coerce them into the trailer. Various methods have been suggested to teach horses to load. They usually involve exposing the horse the loading process in small stages and escalating aversive stimulation for non-compliance. None has been scientifically assessed.
A recent study by Dawnery Ferguson and Jesus Rosales-Ruiz at the University of North Texas has shown that target training offers a successful means of overcoming loading difficulties.
Target training consists of training an animal to touch a target with its nose each time the target is presented. The target is then use to prompt the required behaviour. The technique was discovered in the 1940s, when it was found that chickens could be trained to peck a black spot. The chickens could be made to peck anything by placing the spot on it.
The principle of the method is to train the horses to approach, and touch, a target (such as a stick, coloured spots, or the trainers fist). The target is then moved to various locations inside the trailer.
Five quarter horse mares were used in the study. They were chosen because each one required a significant time to load (up to 3 hours). All had been forced into trailers in the past using whips and / or ropes. None had been in a trailer in the six months prior to the study.
Dr Rosales-Ruiz describes how they carried out the training process. Before starting the training they accustomed the horses to expect a reward (a small piece of food) when a clicking noise was made using a "clicker".
Then they used the clicker to train the horse to approach and touch the target. The target they used was a red cloth pot holder, which they held about 0.5 metre in front of the horse. If the horse touched the target they activated the clicker and gave a small piece of food as a reward. They moved the target to different places - initially close to the horse and later further away- including on the ground, on fence posts and on trees. When the horse would approach and touch the target consistently, they added a vocal cue (the word "touch"). They moved on to trailer training when the horse responded by touching the target within 5 seconds on 90% of occasions.
Trailer training required two people. The first led the horse to the trailer where the second trainer held the target just inside. The first trainer prompted the horse to "touch". When it did so, the second trainer activated the clicker and gave the horse a small piece of food. The first trainer then led the horse away from the trailer. They repeated this procedure gradually moving the target further into the trailer. When the horse would successfully load on the left side of the trailer, they moved on to loading on the right side, and then either side. They then repeated the procedure using different trailers and different handlers.
Each horse had one training session of about 15 minutes daily. It took between 45 and 50 sessions to complete the training in four of the five horses. The fifth horse would only go right into the trailer if another horse was present. Small changes in the loading procedure (such as changing the side of loading) caused minor disruptions to loading behaviour in three horses. These disruptions were easily overcome by continuing the training. However, Dr Rosales-Ruiz advises that trainers should check that horses continue to load well under natural conditions after the initial training is complete.
"Target training and shaping were effective in training the five horses to load into a trailer without the use of punishment or negative reinforcement" concludes Dr Rosales-Ruiz.
for more details see:
Loading the problem loader: The effects of target training and shaping on trailer-loading behavior in horses. Dawnery L Ferguson, Jesus Rosales-Ruiz. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (2001) 34, 409 - 424.