Updated: Dec 9, 2019
Almost every interaction we have with a horse affects their confidence. No matter our horse training goals, this confidence - in themselves and in us - should be a top priority.
Learning how to recognize and respond to a confidence threshold - a place where the horse might lose confidence if we proceed - is an important skill for trainers to have. How the trainer responds at these thresholds can affect the horse's confidence.
Horses may lose confidence when being taught how to trailer load. This may manifest as stopping forward motion, or displaying escape or avoidance behaviours. Using escalating pressure in those moments is a commonly taught approach, but unfortunately, it's an approach that can damage the horse's confidence in the trainer.
In my previous career I used such an approach. But since learning more about horse behaviour, how horses learn, and the effects of stress on learning and welfare, I use different training techniques now. One that I like to use in these instances places equal emphasis on achieving the goal of loading in the trailer and preserving the horse's confidence. The video at the top of this post is a few years old, but it shows an example of how such an approach can be used to good effect. As you can see, I stop approaching the trailer when I recognize that the horse has reached a confidence threshold. Can you see what he did that gave me a clue as to how he was feeling? We stay there together, and I watch the horse's behaviour for clues that any uncertainty he has felt has subsided. When it does, we turn and leave.
There are two important things to keep in mind here:
1. The 'confidence threshold' that I'm looking for here is a very subtle shift from the horse feeling 'I'm OK with this' to 'I'm not so sure about this'. Horses communicate quite clearly how they feel about what we are doing with them, and we need to pay attention to the small signs. It is not necessary to trigger a greater level of uncertainty than this in the horse in order to overcome trailer loading issues. To do so is counterproductive, and it puts us in a position where we may need to use escalating levels of pressure to control the horse, which increases their stress and decreases their confidence.
2. Leaving the trailer's vicinity when the horse has visibly relaxed builds both his confidence with the process, and me. This can be seen clearly in the second approach when we get much closer to the trailer, and the horse evens feels confident enough to become curious about the trailer. It is when he is displaying this curiosity that we once again turn and leave.
This approach - recognizing subtle thresholds and changes in behaviour, waiting for the uncertainty to subside, and retreating away from the source of potential stress back towards a place of comfort - is a good way to help horses build confidence during training, and in the trainer. It's a technique that I like to use for several issues, including approaching things that the horse may have a negative history with - like the trailer. As training progresses and the horse's confidence grows, I may add in other techniques, such as using positive reinforcement to teach the horse how to confidently enter the trailer. Having a variety of low-stress techniques in your training toolkit can help you be a better trainer, and I hope this is one you will try. Happy training!