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Stuck in the Trailer, Totally Free

Here’s a new twist on a perennial horse problem: Finn the 4 year old Fjord gelding refuses to get out of his trailer.

Finn, at 19 hours stuck.

You’ve read in these posts how target training helped Mr. Ed, a horse who refused to load up. His trailer issue is much more common. And while I’ve seen plenty of horses exit trailers with something less than grace (my own mare included), I had yet to find a horse who flat refused to unload.

Until I met Finn.

Still tender in years, Finn has a well-established history of trailer-block, and his story is a great one to illustrate the power of positive-reinforcement training. As with trying to get Mr. Ed in, many methods of getting Finn out prove futile, some dangerously so. Target training brings Finn out safely, at liberty, within an hour or two.

An hour or two? What’s the use of that? Consider: Finn is a 1,000 pound creature who would rather go hungry than leave a trailer; even a two-hour solution is better than none.

He’d been stuck in the trailer for 19 hours by the time I saw Finn. 19 hours, without food or water, too afraid to get out. Food and water had been left as lures outside the trailer, but seeing them there was not enough to convince Finn to take the big step down.

That’s stark evidence for how “stuck” this horse was–and it’s a critical time for me to interject this: DO NOT withhold food or water from your horse. Once more, with feeling:

DO NOT WITHHOLD FOOD OR WATER FROM YOUR HORSE. The consequences could be fatal.



But we all make mistakes, until we know better (heck sometimes even after we know better, who am I kidding?) Anyway, an important digression.

Mistakes aside, the fact that food alone would not get Finn out illustrates a fascinating facet of clicker-training: successful training with treats is not about the food. It’s about giving the animal space to problem solve, with food used as the reward.

I like this because clicker-training is often dismissed with its reliance on food; I was once a disparager myself. Training with food is perceived as less “real” than training with praise alone, not to mention with pressure/release alone. But let me say this: all good training, regardless of method, involves offering something of value to the trainee. We flatter ourselves when we decide that simply being with us should hold enough value. Or simply finding a release from pressure.

Want to hear how well adding pressure worked for Finn? What I’m about to describe is not about using pressure correctly–instead it’s about desperation (and a heck of a lot of good luck that no one got hurt.) I have no doubt that a trainer skilled in pressure-and-release could eventually get Finn out of a trailer. It would probably take about two hours, maybe more. Who knows? As any good trainer will tell you, it will take as much time as Finn needs.

not a good surface for trailer unloading

Several months ago, Finn stepped forward out of his step-up trailer onto asphalt, slipped, and fell. I wasn’t there to see it, I don’t know exactly what happened, but most likely it was scary. Most likely it left an impression of risk for the fella. Thereafter, it has been a struggle to get Finn to unload.

Thereafter, folks have tried pressure and not a whole lot of release. Pressure has been a lunge whip tapping on his butt. Then tapping a little harder; then “tapping” really, really hard.

Someone added a butt rope, and tried to pull Finn out. Backing out was tried, but Finn had no more understanding of this than going forwards. How has Finn gotten out? With a rope on each front leg, as well as a butt rope, and brute force to pull his front legs forward and drag him out. The last time Finn unloaded, it was with a butt rope attached to a tractor, and the tractor did the pulling.

I. Can’t. Even. How did nobody get injured through all this?

Injured or not, and no I wasn’t there to see any of this, I can assure you Finn got stressed. Any of those pressure-added methods would have left Finn with elevated stress hormones, muscles tense, nostrils distended, eyes wide. As mentioned, none of these attempts sound like a correct use of pressure, since none of them included the critical release portion which allows for learning. That’s how pressure-and-release training goes bad, by forgetting about the release (as well as by ramping up the pressure enough to risk physical harm.)

That’s also where positive-reinforcement training really shines, when you have a horse who is scared enough that it’s almost impossible for them to find release. Instead of relying on pressure, positive reinforcement training relies on liberty, and asking the horse if they can figure out how to get our reward.

When I found Finn at his trailer edge at the 19th hour, I had prior knowledge that one of his handlers had already taught him to find a target. I got my target, and sure enough Finn reached his nose to it with alacrity. Then, instead of trying to get Finn “out of the trailer” I focused on increments of forward motion. I held the target slightly out of reach, and Finn leaned forwards for it. Click for the lean. Next time, he leaned forward and moved a front foot also–I clicked for the step. Every time Finn did anything which had him trying to move forward against his imaginary barrier, he got clicked and reinforced.

No ropes, all smiles: Sammi and Finn after less than an hour of work to get off the trailer.

I was actually at the farm for routine veterinary work, so I had to move on to attend to that while Sammi Jones finished the unloading process. Sammi is the one who had taught Finn how to target, and Sammi is the one who has gotten Finn unloaded in the past, without force.

Finn is still practicing, and in time he’ll step on and off a trailer with aplomb, routinely. For now, we have a traumatic history, a stuck horse, and a method he loves which shows him he can do this.

-Thinking horses? Think positive.

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