This is SUCH a big issue for sooo… many people that I’ve devoted a whole category to all the articles about it, so check out the floating category at the bottom of the side bar. Getting horses to get on the float, truck or trailer has to be one of the most common problems that people experience with their horse.
Here’s an excerpt about floating or trailering problems from the first of the horse books that I wrote “Bobby’s Diaries – Straight from the Horse’s Mouth to You”. The approach is quite different because one of the things that this then revolutionary book shows us is how to understand our fear – how to use our fear to keep ourselves and our horses safe – which is what it is designed for!
Some of the concepts in the completely frre gift lessons The Six Keys to Happiness with Your Horse will add to your undertsanding of this article – you can get them by registering on that big yellow box over to the right here.
I love Bobby’s Diaries so much, that I wish I could reach out and put this book into your hands, it’s sooo… special. Like other readers you will probably read it over and over again. Like other readers, you may enjoy the simple, earthy style.
Read on to the chapter extract, there’s a link at the end where you can get the book…
“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 back around and tie him up if that’s what you like to do.
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 float.
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 change something.
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 was!
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.
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. (See the first of Bobby’s stories at the back of the book for how I discovered Bobby’s method of dealing with something that are really frightened of.)
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 things!
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 Parelli. 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. Or maybe even just being able to look at the float without sweating up in distress. Whatever. There are no rules.
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?”
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 spent!
Here’s some float problems that I’ve found when I’ve been float training horses:
• I had someone leave my place with their horse on the back one day driving so fast around the corners of 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 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.
• 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 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 go 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 him!
• Travelling them with a horse who is already a good traveller can be a bonus – until they themselves are the good traveller. However, if you truly work his comfort zone, then that’s not necessary.
• 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.
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 forever.”
Concepts such as the Comfort Zone Model and Oh Shit Zone (the “Oh Shit I’m Dead” Zone) how to get the mind connection with your horse, the art of gentle leadership and an awesome new approach to a whole raft of horse problems, are explained in great detail in the book “Bobby’s Diaries – Straight from the Horse’s Mouth to You” AND also in The 9 Keys to Happiness with Your Horse.