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Thursday, 17 March 2011

'Teaching a Horse to Load into a Horse Float' by Glen Denholm

There are no easy answers. Answers though, do exist. Real ones, good ones, workable ones.  When the answers are right, why should we care if they are easy? Life’s greatest difficulty stems from doubt – not from complications. All you need is faith in yourself and your ability to make the right decision. Providing of course that you rule out the option that says, “It’s too good to be true” You have already made the toughest and wisest choice.  You just have to give time and energy to the course of action you have picked.

By Glen Denholm Dip Ag, Richmond TAFE, Equine Studies.

There are a few ways to do this.

Here are some I don’t do.

1.    You could build a simulated ramp in front of his stables and have the horse get used to walking up the ramp to get into the stable to have his feed.

2.    You could feed him on the horse float.

3     You can get four men, two with lumps of wood and the other two moving each foot forward whilst alternatively bashing him on the rump with the lumps of wood at the same time screaming at him to “get up ya mongrel”

The methods above only teach him bad things.  The first thing is that every time he sees the float he gets a bashing and more over if he plays up and will not go on, he can stay at home and be left alone.

The thing that ought to have been taught to him is: that he should have been taught to lead in the first place and then he would have led anywhere.

It would however, be a terribly brave person, who, witnessing this entire goings on was to call out, “Why don’t you teach him to lead.”  “He will lead” comes the reply.  “Well then, lead him on the float.” They reply “He won’t lead on the float.”

Teach him to lead and he will go on the float.

There are some things to think about.

Did you break him into lead with the whip?  Is he a big horse and will he fit on the float?  Has it a roof on it and will his head comfortably fit under the roof.  Is it a stable enough platform for you to attempt his first floating exercise?

For a big heavy draft or Clydesdale type horse, I would have a ceiling height in a float of at least 7 foot 3 inches.  You need a float that can carry at least 3 ton, with electric brakes on all wheels.  Most importantly you need a vehicle which is rated to tow a trailer weighing at least 3 ton to 3.5 ton.

It is not so much the towing of the float but it is the ability to stop both the towing vehicle and its laden weight.

So now we can start with the loading lesson.

Attach the float to a suitable motor vehicle. Pull the centre bar right over to one side in a double front facing float or tie the separation bars to one side in an angle load.

Get a biscuit of hay in a hay net and attach it in the float.

Get a dipper of his favourite food, eg oats or pellets so that when he does respond to your request you can reward him and make the exercise a good thing for him to do.

A horse that is anxious or under pressure, generally, will not eat.

If you are loading the horse and he will readily take food from your hand as a reward, you are not spoiling him, you are seeing how much stress he is under and if he is comprehending what you are showing him.

Here is what I do.

Firstly, get some fresh horse manure and sprinkle it on the rear of the loading board of the float you are going to use.  This makes the float have some “horse smells”.  Simple but effective.  Open the side or front door of the float, so it is not so dark.

Lead the horse up to the rear of the float.  You stand in the rear of the float, just near the point where the tail gate hinges to the float proper. Take the stock whip in your right hand with the thong coiled.  If you cannot use a stock whip then use a long dressage whip.

Call the horse by his name, (let us call him Peter) and say “Peter, come up.” at the same time gently touch his lead.

He will not know what to do.  He is staring at you standing in the mouth of a confined space. To him this is a cave.  Caves have bad things in them.  Predators.

 He knows if he goes in there his ability to flee from fright is removed completely.  He cannot rear up and away because he could dash his brains out on the low roof. The roof height needs to be 7 foot 3 inches to 8 foot 2 inches in height, floor to ceiling. The loading ramp has the appearance (if he has tapped it with his foot)
of being a hollow which could be of danger to him.

All these things are racing through his mind.  Every sense of his ability to survive will cut in and pervade his very being and scream at him this is unsafe.  But, he must obey you unconditionally and if you have done your work he will.

He may run back or rear and plunge away.  Go with him and bring him back to the loading ramp. This time when you lead him back, reinforce the leading with the thong of the whip trailing and “flipping” him gently on the rear legs.

Stand on the loading ramp and roll the thong of the whip out down to his near side, say “Peter, come up”.  Now before he makes a move, he will look at the thong out of his near side eye, and he may lower his head to smell the loading ramp and the horse manure. 

What ever you do let him do this.

Do not pull his head up.  What he is doing is exercising his right to use two of his five senses, that of touch and smell.

 Let him understand what it is that he will stand on.   Let him understand that there could have been another horse there and it probably is safe to walk on.  What ever happens let him make this first move.

Ask him to come up again.  This time, he may just put one foot on the float loading ramp.  It may only be the toe of his hoof.  Tell him “Good boy”.  Ask him, “Peter, come up”.  If he refused, wiggle the thong a little and ask him again, “Peter, come up.” Do not hit him with the whip.

He may bang the tail board with his front hoof. He is not trying to strike at you. He only wants to see what it is made of.  He may smell it again, let him.  Ask him again to come up until he has two front feet on the float.  Tell him he is a good boy, rub his eyes and make a fuss of him.  Offer him a handful of feed.  Make this “a good thing to do.”

Lead him away from the float.

What, did I just say, yes lead him away from the float?  Reassure him.  The again trailing the thong of the whip lead him back to the ramp and resume your position on the ramp.

Make sure he is facing the float and lay the thong down beside him again, and ask him to come up.  He should gingerly place his two front feet on the ramp.

Ask him to come up again until he has all four feet on the ramp, give him some food reward, eg the oats or pellets. Offering him some food reward has two advantages.
One will be that good things are starting to happen for him and so far he has not been hurt and secondly if he does not eat the feed then he is still terribly concerned about what is going on.

Take him off the float and reassure him and praise him up.  Lead him back to the float again and bring him back to where he was with four feet on the ramp.

Ask him to come forward again.  However, this time do not pull on his lead.

If you pull on his lead, he may throw his head up.  If he does and hits his head on the roof of the float you will have the devils own job from here on in.

Ask him to come forward with the whip along.  Be happy if he puts his head or even his front legs and shoulders in the float.  Praise him, give him his reward and back him off.

Ask him to come forward again and bring him to a position where he was with his legs and forequarters just inside the float.

Ask him to come up and flop the thong of the whip down beside him.  He should at this time step up into the float.  He should also realise that there is some hay in the hay net.  Let him eat some of it as a reward and praise him and tell him he has done well.

Lead him off and ask him to go back on immediately.

You may find that he will willingly step straight on to the float and happily start into his hay.

If he does this, then that’s enough for the day, let him go.  He has done pretty well.

Repeat the lesson the following day or that afternoon.  Get him to the stage, where you can ask him to step over and let him feel separation bar in the float, but do not fix it in place just yet.  Put your arm across behind his buttocks and simulate the position of the tail bar. 

When you feel comfortable, after a day or so, secure the separation bar and fix the tail bar in position and get a couple of friends to lift and secure the tail gate in position. Ask them to let him know what they are doing by saying “whoa mate”.  You can stand in the front of the float and reassure him.  Tell him it is OK and all is good.

Lower the ramp and undo the tail bar and move the separation bar away and lead him off.  If you get this far without any catastrophes you have done pretty well.

After a little while he should nearly trot onto the float, because there is food in there and good things happen.  Now it is time to take him for a little drive.

Attach the float to a motor vehicle that is suitable to tow the float that you are using.

Lead the horse up and put him on.  Right up until this time the float has been a solid slightly immovable platform.   Now you are going to ask him to stand on a moving unstable platform...

Remember to make all your starts and stops gradual ones.  Make all your turns left and right very slowly.  Do not worry about the other drivers on the road.  Just because the speed limit is 100 the law does not demand that you do that speed.

It would not travel much over about 40 kph with a young horse in a horse float for the first time.  If I am able I use my gears to slow down to a corner or stop.   I make all my turns very slowly and lightly apply my brakes to indicate to the horse about 100 meters or so prior to stopping.  Just to let him know what’s going on.

When you back the horse off the float, stand at his shoulder and tell him “back steady” and stop any desire by him to run off the float.

As he becomes more confident, ask him to “get on” when you are loading him up.
When he has to move over, ask him to “git tover”.  Everything you do with him, use some voice command and voice intonation with it.

He will eventually know that going home means rest and relaxation and he will be keen to get home to get some R and R.

If you stand at the ramp of the float and he moves away to one side, flop the thong of the whip down on that side and say, “git tover” and ask him to move away from the thong of the whip. If he goes too far to the opposite side, reprimand him, “ahh, git tover”.  Bring him back so that he stands facing the ramp.

Again here, there are some problems associated with floating, like rearing and running back, kicking, striking out, and pawing.  To deal with these here in these writings is not wise.  If these things are occurring stop immediately and get help from someone you trust and someone who knows. 

Not someone who tells you they know, but someone that you know who does know.

What ever you teach him good or bad will be a lesson.

Good lessons will stick with him so will bad ones, the only trouble is that the bad ones will take longer to cure if ever.

I guess it is appropriate to mention some things that I do to prevent instances which arise when teaching a horse to float.

Where a horse has been knocked about and has been hurt by people when he has been floated, he may start to kick out behind to stop the potential of assistants hitting him with shovels, spades, sticks, palings, stock whips and long dressage whips and other weapons.

Where these horses come to a breaker, he may take measures to prevent and stop the horse from doing this.  In these instances, what I do is place floating boots on the horses rear legs and then back hobble him or her, to prevent the horse from kicking out behind. 

I then proceed as normal to lead the horse onto the float.

It may well be when the horse returns to the home of the owner, it will revert to this bad practice. To prevent this occurring the owner has to back hobble the horse, and do what the breaker did so that it will reinforce in the horses mind that this kicking out is a bad thing to do.

Where a horse might rear in a float, or certainly where a horse is being carried in an open top or half open float, it is a good idea to run a rope from the front left or right hand side breast bar to the rear opposite corner of the float across the horses back.

In the event that the horse is inclined to rear up, the rope will have the effect of minimising this ability to get up.  If he does rear up, nine out of ten times he will get his front legs over the breast bar or one of his hind legs over the separation bar in the float.  If he goes down in the float and there is another horse beside him, it can get messy.

If his front legs are over the breast bar, get into the front of the float, and if there is another horse in beside him, undo it and get it out.

Be aware that when the other horse comes out of the float, the horse with his legs over the bar might take fright and because he has been taught to back off, he may try to do just that. 

What ever works to get him off, try it, safely?

If he goes down in the float, get the other horse off, if there is one on with him.  If necessary, throw a riding coat or something dark over his head to obscure his vision.
Remove the separation bar, quietly without making much of a fuss around the area of the blindfolded horses head.

You have to watch that the horse does not start kicking and flailing around.  The worst thing that will happen is that he may kick through the side of the float.  Bad thing to happen and if it does, you are on your own, I cannot advise you.  Get a vet, tranquilise the horse and do the best you can.

Keep the horse blindfolded, if he is just lying there, groaning.  Do not loose your temper or patience and do not become muddled by idiots giving advice.  Think through your problem quietly, work out a plan, which will cause minimal injury and go with it.

If there are a couple of sensible people there, get a good strong rope on the horses head, and try to pull his head over his body to make him face to the rear of the float.
Chances are that when he sees daylight he will fumble to his feet and get off.

Never get in the float, between the horse and the float.  If he starts to kick he will do you terrible damage.

Remember, that a horse is an animal of the open spaces where everything has his clear vision.  The horse’s eyes do not dilate well and will not be sure entering a dark area like the inside of a horse float.

There is no horse born that is worth while you getting killed or seriously injured over.

Make yourself up a couple of little first aid kits.  One for you and one for the horse.

The horse needs something like a bucket to put clean water in, disinfectant, swabs, Potties white ointment, some type or oral pain killer eg bute paste, nothing much else, just something very basic until you can get him to a vet.  You don’t want to do much more than that.  Let the vet do his work, your job is to get him to the vet quickly.

Remember Murphy’s Law, “if it can go wrong it will go wrong”, especially where floating a horse is concerned.

Glen Denholm Dip Ag
Richmond TAFE,
Equine Studies.
(02) 45-709050 

The mare is a 7 year old clydesdale, not handled for 5 years by anyone, and had been taught to go on a float by Glen as a two year old.

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