Loading your horse onto a float or horse truck must be one of the most fraught and problem stricken experiences many horse people can have. There’s the frustration and anxiety of your horse not wanting to go (or stay) in, the pressures of getting where you’re supposed to be going on time, the worries about how your horse will actually travel, etc etc…
You can take a lot of pressure off yourself, not to mention your horse, by careful planning. Make sure you are not in a rush when trying to load your horse, that you already have everything else you need packed and ready for your trip and know exactly where you are going and how long it will take. Drive carefully, being considerate of how your speed, braking and corners will feel to your horse.
But what if you can’t get your horse in the float in the first place?! From here on we’ll talk about loading into a float, as horses generally have much less issue with travelling in a truck. (There is more space, so less feeling of claustrophobia, plus trucks tend to travel horses at an angle, which means they can simply turn and walk out to unload rather than having to back out.)
There can be many reasons why a horse refuses to load. The most common is that he has never actually been properly taught in the first place. It may be that he has had some sort of trauma related to loading or travelling in the past. Another common scenario I come across here in New Zealand is with Thoroughbred ex-racehorses. Yes, they have travelled heaps in their past, but normally in a truck and with company – and I suspect they have just followed another horse in, as opposed to actually being taught what each step involved. A float is a whole new experience for them, and often one they are not keen to experience! Also, I’ve seen many floats which, if I was a horse, I wouldn’t be keen to load in either….!
Teaching your horse to load
The main pre-requisites for a horse to load well and safely are that he should lead well – not just following you, but also giving to any pressure or direction on the rope – and tie up without pulling back. It goes without saying – but is often overlooked – that the main prerequisite for unloading (from most floats) is that your horse must be able to back up!
If you have a horse that pulls back when tied, or one that hasn’t been taught to tie up, first make sure they are leading correctly (see previous article). Then, attach a long lead rope (or even a lunge line) to your horse’s halter and pass it through a tie ring. Obviously you will be teaching this away from the the float! Stand your horse a few feet back from the tie ring, then you move away to near the end of your rope. Start taking out the slack. Ideally your horse will soften immediately, giving to the pressure and stepping forwards. If he braces himself, hold steady – without pulling – and release the moment he softens. If he backs up, the long rope allows you to stay with him and let the rope slide through the ring without him actually getting away; most horses will stop backing away when the pressure releases.
Stand facing your horse, with a light backwards pressure on the leadrope, and with your outside hand (if you are on his left side facing him that will be your right hand) on the shelf of his shoulder. Say ‘back’, walking into him slightly and pressing lightly into the shoulder. Your aim is to get to where all you need to do is say ‘back’ and he will take a step backwards.
Next, how about introducing your horse to similar sounds and confinements that he’ll experience in a float. You could teach him to walk over a large piece of plywood on the ground, or a pallet with a solid weight bearing top. As well as letting him hear what his feet on a ramp would sound like, you’d also be teaching him to step exactly where you ask him to which is very important. Can he take the exact number of steps that you ask him to? You could set up a narrow space for him to walk through, using jump stands or barrels and poles. Will he walk through happily? Will he stop when you ask him at any point? Can he back out of the space, straight and steadily? Experiment with the width of your channel, starting wide and reducing it until it’s the width your horse will have inside the float.
When it comes to actually loading your horse, here are some points to remember. I would generally start by opening the float up as much as possible to give the horse as much space as you can. This may mean removing the central partition, or angling it over to one side. You want the inside of the float to appear as inviting as possible, so if it’s a model that doesn’t have windows at the front for instance, you might leave the jockey door open to allow light in. If you have an old wooden float I would consider painting the inside white to make it feel bigger and brighter. At this stage I’d also secure anything that might flap, rattle or bang; you can introduce these noises later.
Start by leading your horse towards the float, and on the way practise stopping and starting, and backing, to make sure he is listening to you and is soft and paying attention. Once at the ramp, just ask him to step one of his front feet on to it; if he puts both on that’s fine too. Let him stand there for a bit, telling him how good he is. Now back him a step, back onto the ground, again rewarding him with a stroke and telling him how clever he is. Repeat this until he can take that first step up without any hesitation or concern; he may even be offering more steps, but remember we do want him to be listening to what you are actually asking of him, and not anticipating or assuming that you must want more. Be clear and consistent.
At this point you can either proceed to asking for more steps, or you can stop for the day. It’s certainly better to finish on a positive note, so don’t keep going until your horse is exhausted and shuts down on you. It would be preferable to do a few short sessions in a day, or spread over a number of days, rather than ploughing on for several hours in one go. If a horse makes a particularly big effort at any point, I’ll often take them right away from the float to give them a big reward and a break. Please also remember that backing out of a float numerous times can be very physically tiring for the horse.
I’ll assume then that you are giving your horse the breaks he needs to process all this new information. (If your horse goes all sleepy on you, closing its eyes for instance, it probably needs some time to think, so give him a few minutes before asking again.) Now you are going to ask him to take 2 steps up onto the ramp, and repeat as above. Basically we are going to keep asking for 1 extra step each time, consolidating by asking him to stand quietly in the new place, back off, and repeat. Each new spot will feel different to him, as his body is put at different angles. When you get to the point that he steps one or both hind feet onto the ramp he may initially have difficulty figuring out how to stand them flat on the angle of the ramp, so again, be patient and sympathetic and don’t overface him.
You are going to continue this way obviously until he is all the way in. There are a couple of different ways that you can position yourself during the process. The first is to simply walk in front of him, leading him in. You can duck under the chest bar when you reach it; alternately, if the partition is in, you could stand on the other side of it from him and lead him in from there. The other method would be to ‘drive’ him in, ie your horse loads himself while you stay outside the float. This is the ideal way to do it if you are loading by yourself, as you can then simply put the bum bar and ramp up behind him then go to the front and tie him up. For your horse to load this way he needs to be able to walk past and ahead of you, the way he would for instance if you were holding a gate for him to walk through.
There are several side issues that may emerge along the way.
- Some horses get extremely claustrophobic once their head and shoulders are inside the float and their vision is restricted. You can really help by not asking them to go in further than they are ready to, and by asking them to back out before they decide to do it themselves (so that they believe everything they are doing is your idea not theirs, and therefore wait to be asked). Just extend the amount of time they stand inside for a little more each time.
- Often a horse will progress to where his nose is up to the chest bar – but then he can’t seem to figure out how to take another step forwards and put his head and neck over it! Try recreating this scenario outside the float, eg leading him up to a straight bar jump, so that he gets the idea.
- Noises, eg the creak of the ramp, the rattle of his leadrope catch against the chest bar etc. Start introducing noises at each stage. You might even rattle things or put the ramp up and down with him standing watching from the outside.
Food / Treats / Rewards
Personally I never use food to get a horse to load. If you do, be very careful with how you do it. It’s one thing to give the horse a carrot because he took that extra step, but quite another to hold it in front of his nose to get him to take that extra step!! That isn’t a reward, it’s bribery – and he’s more likely to just stretch his neck to where he can snatch the carrot, then barrel out backwards! On the other hand, once your horse is going in and standing quietly, letting him eat a haynet or his feed there can be a way of making the float a ‘nice’ place to be.
Once you have your horse walking all the way in consistently, and backing quietly out, you will start introducing everything else.
- Can he still load as nicely when the partition is in its final position?
- Can he stand still while you change your position, eg from being at his head to going down beside him where you could do up the bum bar?
- Once inside, can he take just one or two steps back or forwards as directed, eg to make moving the partition or bum bar easy?
- Does he stand quietly while the bum bar, and then the ramp are done up?
You want to be able to do the bum bar up, and probably even the ramp, before you go round to the front and tie him in. For each stage, ie first the bum bar, then the ramp, let him stand for a bit then undo it; stand for a bit longer then unload him. Gradually increase the amount of time he is okay standing shut in.
The first time you actually take your horse for a ride in the float, make it a short trip, maybe just round the paddock or round the block. You could build up to taking him somewhere nice locally, unloading and doing something he likes, then loading and going home again. If you do have a horse with a problem, make sure that every time you put him in the float it isn’t to do something he doesn’t like, like competing or going to the vet!
This article is not meant to be exhaustive, but should help you understand your horse better and give you ideas of how you can improve his attention and fill in the gaps in his understanding of loading. If at any time you still encounter problems, break everything down into tiny steps and go back to what you know he can do, then slowly introduce the trickier parts again.
Trisha Wren can teach you how to really connect with your horse, on the ground and in the saddle, taking your horsemanship and performance to new levels. For information on clinics and lessons click here
©Trisha Wren ~ June 2007