“…all of this trailer training was done at liberty. Ed was bound to participate only by his choice.“
–KATH MERTENS, DVM
… continued from a previous post
We left the previous Mr. Ed installment with him stepping both front feet into the trailer to reach his feed tub. But come hell or high water, Ed made it clear that he was not willing to get all four feet into the trailer; he’d rather go hungry.
Letting him “go hungry” was not an option, so I had to find another method to teach Ed that the trailer was worth stepping into. It was time to go back to target training with the clicker.
I started basic target training outside the trailer, first holding the target in hand, then placing it around his pasture, and rewarding him each time he reached to touch the target with his nose. Then I brought these new skills to the trailer, having him touch the target while I held it from inside the trailer. Next I had him target inside the trailer without me, leaving the target perched at the top of my portable hoof stand.
Ed was sweet and willing and enjoyed the game, but we didn’t actually make progress on getting further inside the trailer. Reach in to target? Yes. Step front feet in to target? Yes. Step a hind foot up? Nope. We were still stuck, half in and half out. Ed would step both front feet in, barely start to lift a hind hoof, and stop.
I wracked my brain for a way past this dilemma, thinking about splitting my desired behavior (trailer loading) into sequential tiny steps of success. Don’t train the end picture, I reminded myself. Train the next step. And then it was clear: if we were stuck at the hind feet, I had to train the hind feet to take a step.
Back to the pasture we went. I asked Ed to walk circles around me, and I clicked each time he moved a hind foot. This meant lots and lots of repeats of rewarding one step at a time, like this: Walk on, Ed. Ed moves front foot, hind foot, CLICK! Except I clicked at the beginning of the hind step, so the timing was more like: Ed moves front foot, hind fo–CLICK!! I tried to get my click as close to the beginning of the movement as possible.
I still needed more. I needed something to emphasize the stepping up part of trailer loading. (Weeks earlier, as this whole loading journey began, Team Ed had tried bringing over a ramp-up trailer to rule out the step as the limiting factor. To no avail: Ed was equally unwilling to climb a ramp as a step-up. He marched both front feet in, and stopped.) Conveniently, a dry-lot corner of my pasture is delineated with felled telephone poles. Originally intended to contain a layer of hog fuel within the dry-lot, the poles have also provided physical therapy for horses recovering from leg injury. Horses put in extra effort to lift each leg over the pole, passively providing range-of-motion exercise.
It dawned on me that if I brought Ed to the poles, I could click as he stepped each hind foot up and over. I’d be reinforcing not just a step forward, but specifically a step up and forward.
It worked great. I want to pause to emphasize here that all of this trailer training was done at liberty. Ed was bound to participate only by his choice. I had made a promise to always pay him for his efforts, but he was free to shrug off the work as not worth a mere treat at any time.
To the telephone poles we went, and I held the target out as an invitation for Ed to cross from one side to the other. Instead of waiting until he reached the target to grant his click, I reinforced the moment each hind foot lifted up and over the pole. Then I modified to clicking when each hind foot was at its apex over the pole.
I brought the exercise back to the trailer, where we had been stymied at Ed giving up instead of completing a hind leg lift. Now he’d been primed at the telephone poles. I went back to clicking just as he began to lift a hind leg. We did it over and over and over again. His effort increased infinitesimally each time, until–plop!–he lifted a hind foot up and rested it inside the trailer.
Beautiful! I ended the session and gave Ed his jackpot payout.
As this process was playing out in real time it often felt like progress was achingly slow. Ed’s focus was interrupted several times by angry squirrels chattering in the trees overhead. Or by my dog barking at the wrong time (easy enough to put her in the house, of course.) I would wait minutes at a time for the next step into the trailer, but as long as Ed was willing to stick with me and try to figure things out, I was willing to get to a good end-point for the day.
On October 12th our end-point was targeting. On the 15th I started clicking his footsteps. On the 16th I clicked his hind feet over the telephone pole. And on the 17th, praise be, he clicked all the way up into the trailer. So basically, it took 6 days, inclusive, to take a horse from stuck at the edge of the trailer to volunteering to stand inside. No stress, no tack; no other way to train this case that I and my team could think of. Well done, Mr. Ed!
–With special thanks to: Suzi, Cindy, John, Holly, Paige … who all believed he’d get in.