Floating can be a bit of a daunting experience, especially when you have to cover long distances or when the experience starts out with a bit of a drama and power struggle with your horse refusing to get onboard and into the float. Here is one Horseman’s philosophy regarding Float loading and how we can help our horses become braver and calmer.
“My horse walks into the float but then rushes backwards and hits his head in the process.” “My horse pulls away from the float and sometimes even rears up.” “My horse stays well clear of the float and doesn’t even get close to it.” I am often asked these questions and what people should do, if they continue to experience one of these or maybe even all of these problems, then your horse is trying to tell you something, they don’t want to get on that float.
Making sure that your horse loads stress-free doesn’t start on the day you and your horse need to travel. It starts a lot earlier and it starts with their mind.
The core idea you are trying to create here is that it’s your horse’s idea to get into the float. You are trying to get the horse to do something that every part of their being says “that is dangerous, you will die, don’t do that.”
From my own experience over the last 20 years I believe that the vast majority of horses that we would label as difficult floaters are horses that are afraid of the float, they are scared of being in that box/cave. So our goal is to help the horse become more confident, to learn that they won’t be trapped in the float. They can move their feet and that they aren’t trapped there.
Horses that scramble in the float are generally horses that don’t move their feet to adjust their balance. The reason they don’t move their feet is that they are so worried that they feel stuck or trapped. You drive around a corner, the horses balance changes and they scramble to keep their feet.
So how do we go about developing this confidence? The first part is understanding how a horse learns. They learn from the release of pressure. Pressure can be anything, a noise, a touch of the hand, your stick or rope. Pressure isn’t pain or discomfort. It can be but it can be so much more subtle. The goal here is that every time the horse even considers going into or near the float we would give them comfort or take the pressure off.We may start by using pressure on the head from the halter and from behind with stick. The horse starts to walk forward, stop release. Let the horse learn that a try equals a release. At the same time we have to stop or make the other options more difficult for the horse to achieve the release. ‘Make the right things easy and the wrong things hard.’ This is a very old saying that gets right to the heart of the truth.
If we are good enough, you would start to release to the good thoughts that your horse starts to have. If you can start to see your horse consider the idea of trying you could release, reinforce that idea. Then build on it.People generally wait too long with the pressure. They are waiting for the physical but miss the mental try. The sooner you start to see the try the sooner you can release and the quicker your horse will learn.
If you are working with the horse for the first time or they are very stressed about the float you need to set the situation up in the most relaxing way possible. This doesn’t mean putting buckets of feed in the float, it means giving yourself enough time to work. It means coming at the situation as a teaching or learning experience, not a task you need to complete. If your mind is relaxed with no pressure about achieving a goal your horse will see this. They will start to understand that you don’t want to trap them but are trying to help them learn and understand.
One of the best analogies I give to my students when I am trying to explain mindset is this.
Imagine you have a phobia of spiders or snakes. There is a spider or snake in a glass box inside a room with a lockable door. I need to get you inside that room. That is the goal. I could try grabbing you, pulling you into that room, using my strength to force you in. I get you in that room, hold your hand against the glass box and make you understand that it ok, you aren’t being hurt. You still resist and fight me, so I lock you in the room until you learn its ok. If you have a true phobia of spiders or snakes so this doesn’t work. Your fear will make you fight to save your life. You would do everything in your power to escape. Now, the next day I need to do this again, you see me coming and start to run, I am faster so I catch you, get you back into the room and lock the door until I let you out. Now the 3rd time I try this technique you probably won’t let me get close enough to catch you.
Now if we try a different approach. If I took you by the hand, gave you the key to the door and tried to lead you past the door. I give you as much room as you needed, waited as long as it took for you to try to walk past the door. If I built your trust and confidence in me so that when I did ask you to try to stand in the door you trusted me enough that you would try. I allowed you to leave anytime you needed, I put just enough pressure or encouragement to get you to try the difficult task but anytime you felt the need to move away I allowed that. This way you learned that you could always leave, that it was ok to try and hopefully your confidence grew to the point that you tried coming into the room. From there it is just time until you were able to touch the glass box.
This is the horses world. The glass box is the inside of the float. The locked door the trailer gate.
Build the horses confidence, allow them to leave when they say they need to especially once they start moving into the float. Never trap them when they are worried or scared.
There are a lot of technical points that are critical to successful training with the float, your position, your timing, how much pressure, what tools you use all contribute towards whether you are successful. But the key point is your attitude.
If you need help with Float Loading or building confidence in working with your horse, secure your place in our next clinic and book now! There is also a video (link) which illustrates all of the steps discussed in this article.
By David Mellor