My daughter Mel shared a wonderful memory on Facebook this morning, that brought back memories of this old story about float / trailer training two of our own horses.
Six years ago we moved farms and had 11 horses to move. Some of the horses were brilliant loaders and travelers because I’d worked with them on it.
Boots was not one of them and neither was Sunny.
Boots was born at the old farm and had never been off it and had had little to no work since Mel (his owner) broke her foot so badly a couple of years earlier. The only float training he had had, was when he was a few days old, I just once led his Mum on the float and he came in by himself. We had him just standing in there doing nothing. We didn’t go anywhere and we didn’t get to repeat the experience because she died just a few days later.
Sunny however was a nightmare traveler who clearly had some bad experiences under her belt. My first warning bells came when the old owner sent me down the paddock to collect the horse myself and disappeared as soon as I gave her the money, leaving me to load a strange horse by myself. Hmmm…
When I went to walk her up from her paddock that day to bring her home, she started rearing and plunging when she saw the roof of the float coming up over the brow of the hill. Her behavior was so bad that I knew it was going to take more than a few float training sessions and she was too far from home to go to and fro and do the training, so I decided to send a truck for her and float train her at home.
Even on a racehorse transport truck (she’d been a racehorse and had been on trucks many times for goodness sake!) she was difficult to load and only just held onto her self control for the trip in enormous tension. The truck driver called her shocking names that I won’t repeat here.
Like happens too often, life got in the way of the float training and it wasn’t until I knew that we needed to move them, that I got around to float training both Boots and Sunny.
I started with Boots because I thought he would be the easy one, having been on a float happily within that baby imprint training period.
No nono no noooo…. it wasn’t easy at all!
There are all kinds of things that have be happening happily and on auto pilot for a horse to be a good float/trailer loader and a happy traveler and Boots was missing many of those things because of a bad injury (hers not his) that had interrupted Melissa’s training of him.
I had to teach him to come forwards off a halter softly on auto pilot. I had to teach him to bring his head down and keep it down as he walked forward and to back off the ramp of the trailer with his head down (I don’t want my horses banging their heads if anything ever goes wrong in there and they come off in a hurry!). I had to teach him to back up softly on an ask, manouvre his feet around so that I could guide him wherever I needed to, to move his feet happily at every stage of him being part way in and part way out of the float and biggest of all, to develop an excellent comfort zone in the float so that the noises and happenings of traveling would not be a big deal.
And even then, the plan was to have his herd leader, a VERY good traveler, on the float with him. It’s always best to have a very good happy traveler with them for reassurance until they themselves are seasoned happy travelers.
At the same time, I started doing the same thing with Sunny, which with her included approach and retreat from the float/trailer itself and stopping at each stage and waiting for The Chew to signal that she had released that bit of her old trauma around the float. It was taking a LOT longer than I planned and moving date was approaching and I still didn’t have Sunny happy in the float.
I remember, exhausted from packing, with moving date just a few days away, walking into the paddock to get her out for another float training session and “hearing” Sunny very clearly saying “Stop. I don’t need this. I will be OK.” I was surprised because she had had a real terror of the float, but I was only too grateful to believe her and accept.
The night before horse moving day, I had a sudden insight that it was going to take two days of ferrying two horses at a time, to get all the horses to the new farm and, daunted by that amount of time in a workload that was already massive, I ordered a truck that would fit all the big horses on at the same time, with the little ponies in the float, so that we could do everyone in one trip.
So here we are – Boots is float trained but has never seen a truck in his life and Sunny – well this is the same truck that she came to us on, that she had such enormous tension with. But I had it all planned out with the order of them loading to give them the best experience possible – with Peace to go in first because his big long body needed the extra space they get in that position, Boots to go next to UT who was his herd leader, Sunny with UT on one side and Bobby on the other, both brilliant travelers. The other confident travelers sprinkled in between.
I am smiling here at the memory of it and shaking my head at the best laid plans of mice and men… Like so often happens when we plan things – it didn’t happen like that.
There was three of us leading horses up to the truck and in hindsight, we had a bit of God’s guidance going on, although I certainly didn’t think so at the time when I was left with all the other horses already on the truck and found myself still holding Sunny’s leadrope with her not on yet.
Well… If you’ve ever seen the last horse go on a full truck load in one of those race horse transport trucks, that last horse has to be a superb loader. They are walking up a steep ramp that you sure as heck wouldn’t want them to fall off for fear of bad injury and right at the top of the ramp, at the steepest point, they have to start turning sideways and step partly sideways into the last position.
The truckie grabbed her off me before I even had a chance to go “oh no I think I’d better float her after all” . Up the ramp she went, as confidently as I’ve ever seen it done and manouvred herself sideways into position like she’d been the professional anchor horse on a truck load of horses all her life.
I just about burst with pride for her.
I said to the truckie. “Remember that horse you called a … … that you brought to our place a couple of years ago? That was her you just put on the truck. His jaw dropped. I so much enjoyed telling him that…
Up went the ramp and off they all went to the new farm, all traveling brilliantly.
So what happened? How come Sunny was soooo… amazing at it when I hadn’t had a chance to finish her float training?
I think there was a bunch of reasons:
1. She had watched Boots find his deep comfort zone in the float and horses WILL learn from other horses WHEN that other horse is in their deep comfort zone learning. (Why would they want to learn something that someone else was still afraid of? Or forced into?)
2. She was surrounded by horses with deep comfort zones around traveling, although only two of them had ever been in a truck before.
3. We had released her old trauma with the techniques that you can hear the beginnings about in the free lessons The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse.
4. She was listened to in the moment.
There is a real art to good float training – to getting horses to be happy and confident travelers – and one day I’ll pull together all the different video footage and stories of the different ways in which we needed to respond to different horses in the moment and make a mini program out of it. 🙂 It’s on the work list!
You can find other articles about horse float / trailer loading problems here:
And don’t forget to get the free lessons that have had rave reviews from all over the world The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse.