Trouble-free loading

Waikato trainer Russell Higgins with part two of his guide to safe and happy float travelling

You can’t pull or bully a horse into a float; the horse needs to willingly decide to load, at your suggestion (IStock)

From a horse’s point of view, he’s not supposed to put himself into any situation that would take away his ability go into flight, his major survival mechanism.

Horses are claustrophobic by nature, and the float is such an obvious trap that a horse should be skeptical and avoid it.

Changing this perception is the key to years of successful, easy loading for you and your horse. Whilst there are a lot of different ways to get a horse into a horse float, this is not what this article is about – this is about changing their perception to the point that they will willingly go into a horse float with only a suggestion from you.

I don’t for a minute think that the way I do it is the only way to approach it, but it has been successful for me with many hundreds of horses over the last two decades. 

Firstly, let me share with you four things that lead people to have trouble with loading horse: 

1. They wait until they need to load the horse,

2. They walk him up to see how it goes,

3. When he’s trying, they put pressure on him; and 

4. They shut the ramp before the horse is ready.  

Do those four things and you are guaranteed trouble! A different approach is what is needed to get a different result.

Preparation is key

Every horse has a limit to what they can successfully learn or change in one session. This is determined largely by their starting point. If the horse you are dealing with is troubled, has learned negative behaviours or has had little or poor handling, then you are looking for an improvement on that, one you can build on that will make tomorrow’s session easier. For the first session you may not even go near a float.

I start with essential ground skills; yielding from steady pressure to teach a physical response, yielding from driving pressure to teach a mental response. I want control of the horse’s motion; forwards, backwards, hindquarters and forehand.

I then start to introduce obstacles. When asking a horse to enter a float you are asking them to go over, under, between, up to something and then have something come up behind them. All of these can be broken down and done in isolation. Over a tarp, a bridge, poles, plywood, barrels. Under a overhanging branch, sacks, shower curtain, a roof. Between barrels, rails, pool noodles, small gateways. Then combinations of those. All of these will help to build confidence and understanding in the horse and lessen the challenge of the first session with the horse float.

Building confidence

I break the task down into two stages. The first stage is to build the horse’s confidence. A horse’s natural self-preservation will stop him from going into a situation that he believes could be dangerous; there’s no point fighting against this.

Instead, I will send him forwards as far as he is prepared to go and then ask him to retreat, back away and try again. If he makes progress, I remove him from the situation for a while, at least for 30 seconds, and then start over. What I am looking for is a “try” from my horse, an improvement which is usually shown in a physical advance.

If I get this, I will pause a while then retreat the horse which takes the pressure off and rewards the try. If there is no advance, no try, I will back him up and immediately send him forwards with more energy than used to back him and release the pressure for the forwards. I then allow him to dwell a while. 

The timing of the application of pressure and the release is crucial to the success of this strategy; It’s where you put the energy and where you put the release that causes the horse to think in any given direction.

I choose to send the horse forwards from the side; this makes it easier for the horse to lower his head as he goes forwards and he is less likely to pull back because you are not trying to pull him forwards. This send has been practiced with the obstacles prior to going to the float.

Russell and Cassidy demonstrating a good try from the horse

During this process there is a lot of repetition, always rewarding the try and taking pressure off when the horse tries. 

Look at it from your horse’s point of view; he is already skeptical about the float, so imagine how it will effect him if every time he looks at it you put pressure on him, making him both physically and mentally uncomfortable? It won’t take long before he won’t want to go near the float and will even avoid looking at it.

After rewarding the small tries and advancements from your horse, it is typical that he will start to try more, making larger physical advances until you reach a point where he is fully inside the float. This approach requires patience, persistence and consistency from you.

Adding an incentive

Once loading all the way in, I move to the second stage, not usually on the same session, which is to add incentive so that he becomes even more willing to load. Simply put, if a horse doesn’t really want to be in there it doesn’t take much to put him off going in, so I want to get to the point where he really wants to be in there before I add the stress of putting the back up or actually travelling him.

The second stage is simply to set up a contrast were the horse finds rest and comfort inside the float. I will move the horse a lot away from the float, doing a variety of things with no rest; send him forwards, half circles, hindquarter yields, forehand yields, back up, sideways. Work with what he knows and is capable of but doing it more than he would want to, and then allow him to rest in the float. 

After several repetitions of this he will be looking at the float as a place of comfort, and his desire to be in there will increase. End the session on a good note, and come back again for four to seven sessions.

The float will soon be seen as a place of comfort for the horse

Why it works

The reason this approach works is because in the first stage, you are helping to build the horse’s confidence and causing him to feel that he can be safe inside the float. In the second stage, you are setting it up to where he feels comfortable inside the float.

Comfort is only important to him once he feels safe. The first stage allows him to learn the answer, the second stage causes him to want to find the answer.

The reason this approach won’t work for some people is that they put pressure on at the wrong time, causing the horse to see the float as an uncomfortable place to be and increasing his resistance. They release at the wrong time, teaching the horse to seek comfort away from the float, and/or they don’t take the time to build the horse’s confidence and teach him the answer before putting more pressure on him ie. going straight to stage two.

Techniques and timelines will vary from horse to horse, but if this approach is adopted then the result will be years of stress-free travel with your horse.

The horse needs to feel comfortable and confident that he is safe inside the float

Using food as a bribe or reward

I’m often asked about using food to help get a horse in a float. I’m not against it; however, I believe food is often used inappropriately, more as a lure or bribe than an incentive. I personally will use food from time to time to add incentive once the horse is loading well. More often that not, I don’t use food and when I do I deliberately don’t use it consistently. This, I’ve found, gets them more interested and more enthusiastic about loading. Safety and comfort trump food every time.

The more you do this and the more horses you do this with, the better a person gets at reading the horse and knowing what is appropriate for that horse, and want constitutes a try. 

Be patient with your horse and yourself, take the time it takes and reap the rewards.

Cassidy self-loading on Russell’s suggestion

For part one of Russell’s float travelling guide, see this link

  • This story was first published in the February 2017 issue of NZ Horse & Pony. To subscribe, click here