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Simple steps to horse-float loading

October 20, 2008

by Cath Dennis

The natural environment of the horse is grassland plains such as the prairie, steppe or savannah. In these places, there is nowhere to hide from predators - the only means of escape is to run.

The sooner a horse spots a predator and starts running, the more likely it is to survive.

This means that horses tend to adopt the attitude of 'run first, think later', and they feel safest when they are in a very open environment where they can see for a long way and have space to flee.

Cath Dennis has developed the Solo Harness, which can help throughout the float training process, by giving handlers more control over forwards and backwards movement of the horse.
» Invention makes horse float-loading safer, easier

Consider then a loading situation from the horse's point of view. The horse is faced with an enclosed metal box into which its human handler is trying to encourage it. It is likely that every part of the horses being is screaming 'Don't get in there, you can't escape and you'll DIE!'.

To train a horse to load calmly, you have to prove to it that nothing bad, and preferably something nice, will happen as a result of getting into the trailer or truck. This is best done in stages.

Initially, the aim is to have the horse calm when it is near the trailer. Hitch up the trailer so it looks as it will when you come to actually load. Open up the trailer and take the horse for a wander around it - allow it to investigate all around the trailer and use verbal praise or food treats so that the experience is as pleasant as possible. If the horse shows signs of wanting to look inside, let it!

The next stage is to encourage the horse into the trailer. Open the trailer up as much as possible. Front-unload trailers are the easiest as they allow you to create a corridor - the horse can always see its escape route which helps reduce the chances of panic. Take out partitions if possible so the 'corridor' is as spacious as you can make it.

Encourage the horse to come with you into the trailer. As you work on this, remember that horses don't necessarily think on the same timescale as we do. What seems like hours to you may seem like a very short time for your horse - don't rush things!

Through the whole process, think in terms of small steps towards the final desired behaviour.

Reward the horse every time it does something that is positive; for instance, putting a foot on the ramp, standing on the ramp and so on. If the horse gets scared at any point, go back a few stages and find some behaviour that you can reward to keep the horse feeling positive about the whole experience.

Gradually you should work through being able to walk through the box, then stopping inside the box, then having the front and rear bars put into place, and finally having the ramps put up.

When you get to this stage, you can think about towing the trailer with the horse inside. DON'T EVER STAY IN THE TRAILER WITH THE HORSE WHEN IT IS BEING TOWED.

It is a good idea to stand in a moving trailer on your own to get an idea of what the horse experiences, but it is highly dangerous to be shut in with a horse.

When you are transporting your horse, speed in itself has little effect when the vehicle is going in a straight line, but changes in speed or direction can be very unbalancing. Make sure you plan for bends and junctions well ahead and slow down, turn or speed up much more gradually than you normally would. Make sure you are confident towing an empty trailer before you try towing with your horse on board.

Make your horse's first floating experience safe and enjoyable. Take him to an event you're not entered in to get used to the experience.
Your horse's first trip should be short, preferably in a straight line, and should end with a big treat - you want the horse to associate everything involved in travelling with something pleasant.

When you feel ready to take a longer trip, plan to go somewhere your horse will enjoy, for instance meet up with friends for a hack. Try to avoid going straight into a stressful situation such as a show - you run the risk of the horse associating travelling with stress and excitement which may not help you on your return journey.

If you get nervous yourself before a show, it may be a good plan to take your horse to a few shows that you are not entered into - this gives them the chance to get used to travelling to that kind of environment without the added problems of an anxious rider and time pressures.

If you have a calm, experienced horse available, make use of it throughout the training as a lead horse and later as a travel companion.

Overall through your training, try to keep things calm, slow and enjoyable for the horse - the more things you can find to reward, the better, and the more likely you are to end up with an animal that is easy to transport!

Demonstration of the Solo Equestrian Harness



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