Gosh this is SUCH a big subject and a great example of how many elements there are, that make up a task like this. Breaking the task down and getting each of those individual elements happening well, is a key to success.
There is also an excellent blog where I talk about the details of float training Oliver, here.
Here is a chapter from Bobby’s Diaries about float training and traveling, which even though I wrote it all those years ago, is still valid now. Of course this was written what… 17 years ago? and lots of water has gone under the bridge since then and we have made lots of progress with our sensitivity! 🙂 So add the philosophy of your course work to this chapter – i.e. using your Not Quite Right to know when to stop and wait and when to press on on for a bit longer, when to quit for the day or if you are hiring the float for the day – when to quit for an hour or so and allow the horse to relax and process.
I have also added some extra, later ideas to the Bobby’s Diaries chapter in red…
When you feel fear when you are traveling your horse, it’s probably because
you’re both a wreck waiting to happen! Listen to your fear, figure out what is
unsafe about what you are doing and change it!
Traveling a horse who is on the outer edges of his not too sure zone or in his oh
shit zone in the float or truck is a recipe for a disaster that will happen some
day. I made a commitment to my horses a long time ago that I would do my
best to make traveling a relaxed and even enjoyable experience. When they are
relaxed and comfortable I can be relaxed and comfortable too and we both get
to where we are going fit and able to enjoy that competition or that clinic or
that lovely ride in the bush, whatever.
In order to do this, I will not shut the back of the float up unless the horse is in
his comfort zone. When a horse walks on the float, I do not go “gotcha”.
When I’m float training a horse, I need him to be able to walk forwards and
backwards, softly, confidently and easily – without coming off the float the
whole way – before I will close the back up and travel.
I like my horse to walk on as I point him towards the float and throw the rope
over his back. Then I do the back of the float up. Then I walk around the front
and tie him up if I’m going to. To load like that is to be able to do it by myself,
easily. That’s my big picture.
What’s your big picture? Do you like to send him on from behind like I do, so
that it’s quicker and easier to do the back of the float up? Or do you like to lead
him on, leave him standing there loose (because you would never tie him up
without him being locked in, would you?) and walk around to the back to do
the back up?
Either way, you want him standing there politely and happily while you do the
back of the float up and then walk around and tie him up if that’s what you like
Almost all horses are claustrophobic to some degree. Claustrophobia is a fear
of small spaces. It is quite logical for a horse to be terrified of going into a
float. Knowing what we now know about their emotions, we’re going to work
their comfort zone so that it includes this cave on wheels, rather than risk them
flipping out into the oh shit zone and damaging themselves and the float while
they are traveling, if something goes wrong.
There is some preparation that you can do before you walk up to a float to load
them for the first time using this model:
Have you taught him to move forwards when you ask him to with the lead
rope? I.e, slide one hand down the lead rope and take up a gentle contact
with your horse’s halter. Add a gentle pressure in the forwards direction.
Does he step forwards easily and comfortably and reliably? There’s not
much point at going anywhere near a float until he does!
Will he back up from the rope? Getting him on the float is good, but you
also have to be able to get them off, easily and smoothly without panicking.
You could teach him to back up from the tail – that’s a useful way of asking
him to come off the float when you’re ready. Once you’ve taught back up
from the rope, you stand at his tail, holding the rope in your hand. Imagine
him moving backwards when you pull his tail. Pull his tail gently in the
backwards direction. Use the rope to get him to step backwards. Stop and
wait for the chew. And start again. When he steps backwards from a gentle
pull on the tail, “what a star!”
Does he move his butt away with soft easy movement of his legs when you
keep a short rope and walk to his hind end? Because you’re going to use
this simple method of changing speed and direction to establish leadership
at the float.
Can he go into tight places that are not the float? Between you and a fence.
Between you and a wall. Between you and a leafy bush that will brush
against his body as he walks past. The more claustrophobic things he has in
his comfort zone, the less fearful he will be when you ask him to go into the
When we were float training young Boot n’ Scoot, he had a tendency to throw his head up in the air, so I made his float training more about bringing his head down to the feel of the rope and being able to move forwards and backwards giving to the soft feel of the rope at the same time.
We worked on that outside the float at a distance that he was comfortable with and then all his step by soft and happy step was asked for with him giving to the feel of the rope at the same time. It turned out to be powerful for him. That was also an incredibly important element for Oliver, because he had banged his head on the roof of the float repeatedly in a traumatic incident/ accident in the float just before he came to me.
There are many different ways of encouraging a horse to move forwards into
the float and the following suggestion is only one of them. Remember, connect
to his mind so that you can hear what needs to change for him to be
comfortable. And if you feel frustration, that’s a message that you need to
Stand at the back of the float and imagine him walking on the float. I was float
training someone else’s very difficult horse once and she walked in on
“imagine it”. I couldn’t wait to see if it was just coincidence, so I tried again
and stuffed it up. I should have spent a long time telling her what a star she
Slide one hand down the rope and take up a gentle contact with your horse’s
head and point him in the direction of the float. When he steps forwards, stop
and wait for the chew.
If there comes a time when you ask him to step forwards and he won’t, then
keep a shortish rope in your hand and walk to his back end, changing speed and
direction and ask again. You’re not going to add pressure to fear or confusion,
so when you have gone through the steps of imagine it, give a clear physical
request to step forwards with the rope, give him maybe three rhythmic gentle
slaps on the butt to encourage him to move forwards, then you’re going to stop
and wait for the chew before you ask him again – even if he didn’t move any
closer to the float.
I know, I know, you’re going to be standing there for a while waiting for this
chew with a scared horse, maybe even a long time, but it will be worth it in the
long run and it will happen – probably faster than you think. This method is
much slower to load them than the dominance model. But I think it’s often
quicker to have them happy in the float and I think that they are more solid,
faster. However, I’ve float trained dozens of horses with Pat Parelli’s more
dominance based method and if you’re looking for a quicker result, he has a great
float training tape and DVD. I learned to float train like that and it works – it’s just not so much about creating a bond as I work now.
Another option in Bobby’s method, is to back him up (changing speed and
direction again) away from the float, until you find his comfort zone and work
the comfort zone forwards and backwards (approach the float and retreat) step
by step getting the float into his comfort zone, waiting for him to chew,
allowing him to think every step of the way.
Watch closely that in your desire to get him on the float, that you do truly read
where he is in his comfort zone model and pay attention to that. Once we start
a task like a float loading, it is too easy to slip back into our old way of doing
When I used to float train horses as part of my living, I would ask the owner if
they had bacon and eggs in the fridge. They usually looked at me puzzled and
then I said “well, if we’re still here in the morning I’ll have bacon and eggs for
breakfast, thanks, but I won’t still be here the day after that!” This attitude of
having plenty of time to get the job done properly, no matter how long it
takes to get a positive result, is absolutely essential to a float training and
comes straight from my training with Pat. Also note that a positive
result does not have to be going all the way into the float and getting happy
about that and going for a drive today. If your time is restricted and the horse
very afraid, you may be happy with him being in his comfort zone with the first
steps on the ramp. Whatever. There are no rules.
ONLY NOW ARE THEY READY TO GO FOR A DRIVE.
Once they are in the float, I like to be able to ask them to come out of the float
and as they step backwards, say “just kidding, please go back inside”. If they
step forwards again, softly and easily without needing to come all the way off,
then I think they are ready for me to shut the back up and go for a drive.
I like to take them out somewhere where there’s a nice pick of green grass,
unload them, eat for ½ an hour or so. Then load up again. And go somewhere
else where there’s a nice pick of grass and unload again. Eat for as long as it
takes them to find their comfort zone for a while, then load up again. On this
first drive out, I like to take them to about 6 – 8 places, unload, eat, load up,
until when I point him at the float, he jumps on and says “what yummy places
are we going to this time?”
(That’s probably a lot more than I would do these days on a first day out. I would think that loading up nicely, unloading for a nice pick of grass, then loading back up and coming home would be a good deal for a first day. I would still at some point like to see a horse who could load and unload in a whole heap of different places, happily, before I considered them float trained.)
If I’m float training someone else’s horse, I’ll do that for two or three days in a
row to get them really solid and very comfortable about the float before the
owners come and learn how to load themselves and take them home. If you
have access to a float and the time to do it like this, it works well.
If you don’t have a float or trailer of your own, then it’s even more important
that you get your horse doing as many claustrophobic things as possible, in his
comfort zone before you go and hire a float. To have all these things happening
softly and easily is to make it quicker and easier the day that you hire the float.
And you are going to hire or borrow a float for at least one day just for float
training BEFORE you actually travel anywhere to do anything. And if your
horse was really scared of the float you might have to do it for more than one
day before you travel to a competition etc. It will be hire money very well
Here’s some float problems that I’ve found when I’ve been float training
I had someone leave my place with their horse on the back one day so fast
around the driveway that the poor horse was having trouble staying on its
feet. No wonder it didn’t want to get in the float!
Big wide windows can have some horses quite panicky about cars and
trucks coming towards them on the other side of the road. When we come
across this one, we tape up the window with cardboard and make it smaller.
Slippery floors. They have to do a lot of work in there, moving their feet
and they need grip to be safe or they go into their oh shit zone.
Some partitions are so deep that they won’t allow the horse to spread his
feet wide apart for balance. That can put a lot of horse’s into their oh shit
zone when they go to spread their legs and can’t – and then they will
scramble, or climb the walls. It’s worth getting the partition cut down to
avoid that one if your horse is not an excellent traveller.
If cutting the partition down is not an option, then you can tie the partition over to the side and give them more room to spread their legs. THIS IS AN IMPORTANT SAFETY ISSUE… When you put the back up, have the partition in its proper place and the breeching doors or chains in place to stop your horse coming back unexpectedly – you do not want to get flattened by the tailgate being pushed down by an unrestricted horse coming out unexpectedly. AFTER the horse is in the float and the ramp properly closed, THEN you can reach over and tie the partition back. ANOTHER SAFETY ISSUE – Make sure that the partition is totally secure when you tie it back. You do not want that coming loose and banging your horse while they’re traveling!
Once they are loaded and the back tail gate is closed, stand up on the back of the float, reach over the back and move the partition over and tie it firmly (no rattling) over to one side giving him more room to spread his legs. When you get to the other end of the journey, stand up over the back of the float and put the partition back into place, clips and all, including the chain behind the butt or whatever way your float does it, before you open the back up.
That way you won’t have an accident. It takes a little longer, but the safety is worth it!
Float boots that restrict smooth and easy movement will often panic him if
he has to move his legs when he’s on the float. Yeah, I know, we put float
boots on to protect them and now I’m telling you that they actually cause
some travelling problems! If you are concerned about his legs when
travelling with another horse, then fetlock and shin boots and rubber bell
boots such as those used for jumping are a much better option than floating boots.
He’s either OK in the float and doesn’t need them or we should be float
training him until he IS OK in the float and then he doesn’t need them.
Floats that move and rattle or are even unsafe. Ride in it yourself, off road
somewhere and check it out. Glue sponge into place to stop rattles. Check
your flooring. I once went to float train a horse who wouldn’t get on
because she was very smart. Sooner or later she was going to fall through
that incredibly dangerous floor!
Wheel balancing your trailer makes it a more comfortable ride. The tyre
people will often tell you that it’s not necessary on a trailer, but you’ve got
the same reasons on your float as you have on your car – longer use out of
the tyres and comfort in the ride for your horse. If you can feel the
difference, then so can your horse.
Check your electric brakes are working smoothly and not jerking your horse
around. I had a horse come in to do a clinic once because the owner wanted
to fix float loading problems. When I saw the lady coming in with her
electric brakes grabbing and slamming her horse towards the front window
of the float, it was not rocket science to figure out what was wrong with
Traveling them with a horse who is already a good traveler can be a bonus
– until they themselves are the good traveler. However, if you truly work
his comfort zone, then that’s not necessary.
(Later addition: These days I would turn myself inside out to have a companion that was deep in their comfort zone.)
Is the float big enough for the size of your horse? If they are big or a long
horse, like our horse Celtic Peace, then we cannot expect them to travel
happily bent like a banana! Apart from the emotional problems, it damages
their muscles and bones!
What I am NEVER going to do is tie them up while the back door is open.
I’ve seen people do it and it makes my blood run cold. I don’t care how
good they are at tying up, the smallest thing going wrong can cause a
disaster, so it’s not worth it!
I float trained one horse who was sick from the exhaust fumes of the car
pouring into the float through the vents. They had to get an exhaust pipe
extension to take the exhaust away from the float vent.
If you are an inexperienced floater, then go through all the steps that you will need to do before the traveling, the order in which to do things to load and unload safely, check out the route, do whatever it takes so that you yourself feel well prepared and comfortable with your part in the traveling beforehand. Maybe have a more experienced friend help providing that they are of the sort who can allow you to listen to your Not Quite Rights and not interfere.
And remember, he is NEVER not going on because he is a “bad boy” – he is
NEVER not going on, just to “stick it up you”. We have to remember that our
rage and frustration is OURS and he does NOT refuse in order to get at us – as
hard as that may be to accept sometimes!
Train him properly to travel without fear and then you can both enjoy traveling