To Float or not to Float, or How Carpet was Floored!

This article first appeared in the Australian Horse World Magazine, January – March 1989, Volume 6, number 1, page 42-44.  …yes I know it was a long time ago!!!


To Float or not to Float, or  How Carpet was Floored!

In many-times-Great Grandpa’s day, it was said that a good horse should have “three propyrtees of a manne, three of a womanne, three of a foxe, three of a hare and three of an asse:

Of a manne – bolde, proude and hardye

Of a womanne – fayre-breasted, fayre of haire and fayre of gait

Of a foxe – a fayre tayle, shorte ears and a goode trotte

Of a hare – a greate eye, a drye heade and a softe coate

Of an ass – a flatte chinne, a flatte legge and a goode hoofe …..

…. and in this day and age we can add another important propyrtee – the ability to walk willingly into a box on wheels and remain quietly in the box while it travels along a road.

There is nothing more frustrating than loading car and float with all the paraphernalia associated with a weekend of competition and then to find that the major figure necessary for that competition flatly refuses even to set foot in his little mobile cage.

The horse that loads like a gentleman will get you to a competition on time when other gremlins are all out to stop you. My offsider Anne and I discovered this en route to Oberon Horse Trials many years ago. Those of you who have never travelled the road to Oberon from Goulburn should attempt the journey, so you have a tale of horror with which to frighten your grandchildren. It is lavishly furnished with signs telling the would-be journeyer that it is unsuitable for towed vehicles and it is so bad that the local Shire Council, not noted for its expenditure on roadworks, has been forced to put bitumen on the notorious river crossing. But Anne and I decided that if the guys who played polocrosse could sail up the hill towing their horses, so could the girls who evented.

We reached the brink of the descent to the river and wended around the bends down to the water. No worries. What was all the trauma, we wondered. We found out when we attacked the hill leading out of the valley. The first bend was a hairpin, tighter than tight, up a sheer cliff face. The V8 Kingswood said “No!” and shuddered to a halt. There came a muffled thudding from behind us. The horses had decided to say “No!” as well

So out came Lurch and Jimbob, very pleased to feel firm ground under their feet and I hauled one and was dragged by the other to the top of the hill while Anne persuaded the car it could get up the incline. By the time she appeared I was badly in need of oxygen due to asthma, exertion and altitude. The horses loaded in two seconds flat and we proceeded, only to fall prey to a puncture a short time later. Well, it wasn’t exactly a puncture. When we tried to remove the affected wheel, the tyre was just a strip of semi-molten black stuff stuck to the rim. So off came the horses again, while we struggled with jack and spare. Then back on again in two seconds flat and away we went once more.

We missed the pencilled sign to Oberon and ended in a paddock trying to do a U-turn in mud. So off came the boys again, while we slithered and slid back to safety. Then on again – three seconds flat this time, the extra time being taken up by slight pauses and very expressive glances from Lurch and Jimbob as they marched up the ramp, Lurch with his huge ears flat, his eyes half-closed in his large head and towering to his full 17 hands to show his indignation. Still, we arrived in time for the dressage judges’ lunch break and had just enough time to overcome our hysteria and prepare for the afternoon tests. Thank goodness for horses which loaded easily, we said to each other.

I was to learn that a horse which loads easily can also in one sad incident become one which presents real problems. Our much-loved Lurch broke a bone in his hindleg and it was some time before I bought a replacement horse. When I did it was with the money I had been saving to buy a carpet for our lounge room, so grey Cosmic Crown rapidly became known as “Carpet”. He was to teach me a few things about floating horses.

Initially, Carpet was a real gentleman about going onto the float and I could load him alone, as he stood quietly while the breeching chain was fastened and the tailgate somehow raised (why, oh why are heavy tailgates designed by men who have forgotten that women transport so many horses these days … ). I usually with Carpet loaded as usual on the right hand side of the float to take advantage of road camber and avoid having his weight over the less stable road edges. One day however,  as we travelled carefully home from a dressage school, the breeching chain broke. At the next left-hand bend the divider gave way as Carpet leant on it and we had problems. He rapidly lost confidence and my usual fastener for everything from fencepost to riding jackets, binder twine, was not really suitable to hold the weight of a large, panicking Thoroughbred. We travelled home even more carefully than usual, my husband Bob fixed the chain and we did a couple of practice drives round the paddocks, Carpet aboard and quiet. Then off to St Greg’s ODE at Narellan.

The idea was to go via the school where I teach, but due to Carpet’s scrambles the chain gave way again en route and it was a wet and steamy horse I unloaded and carefully placed in the disused wire’ gas cylinder cage (also used to detain stray dogs) outside my laboratory windows. A frantic phone call bought Bob to make further repairs while I tried to impart scientific knowledge to reluctant Friday afternooners. Come 3:30 Bob and my strapper, our son Philip arrived, Carpet was loaded and we set off.

We had travelled just two metres when Bob shouted “Stop!” Feeling the motion, Carpet had ducked down as if about to hurtle out of the starting stalls, but when he came up he was trapped under the central divider. Out came the bolt-cutters and we freed him but I decided we would be non-starters at this particular ODE while we made improvements to the float. I climbed on and rode the first half of the 25kms home at a spanking trot. Then we showed Carpet the float and he agreed to go the rest of the way on wheels – very slowly.

Bob decided on major alterations to the float. First strengthen the steel sides. Carpet had spent quite a bit of effort trying to get his feet as far to the right as possible and would certainly have gone through anything but steel. Then the floor was replaced with thicker wood covered with conveyor belting (and I can assure you that the 40mm counter-sunk self-tapping screws needed for the job come only in lots of thousands – the manufacturer, accustomed to supply them direct to the trade, finally agreed to post us 200). The divider came in for special attention – there is no way any horse will ever get under that divider again and no way it will ever shift without due permission. All this necessitated much hammering, drilling, painting, wielding of screwdrivers, welding and bending of pipes by the male Gadens who appeared to obtain some mysterious enjoyment from the proceedings.

Several weekends later, the unveiling took place and the horse, suitably attired in bandages and boots, walked straight on. The moment the float made a suggestion of turning left, the kicks and thumps began and the new paintwork was ruined. We drove miles round the house paddock until he settled to the right, then a reward of oats and repeat to the left. We left for a Queensland holiday feeling that the problem was solved. What unsuspecting fools we were!

Return from Brisbane on Tuesday. On Wednesday, the first ride, where discretion dictated that if I didn’t leave the saddle relatively gracefully at my own volition I would be unceremoniously dumped. I had never been game to bailout before and I wondered if turning 40 had left its mark. Thursday Carpet was clipped and told serious work was to begin at a dressage school on Saturday. Friday, a reminder trip in the float was called for – I eased forward gently and smoothly and the trip lasted just one metre…..

How a horse well over 16hh managed to get right down onto the floor of the float, hind legs neatly tucked underneath him and front legs straight out, I have no idea. Only the awkward position of the grey head as it rested uncomfortably on the chest rail gave any indication this position was not quite as Carpet had planned.

I was totally lost for words and out of ideas. He had walked on readily and it was not as if he could not balance while I tentatively eased my foot off the clutch and edged forward. He had just flung himself down at the mere thought of travelling. I remember thinking rude thoughts about his imported Royal sire and his Irish dam – had he perhaps heard the Irish jokes the boys brought home from school? I definitely remember thinking that I’d bought him instead of a carpet for the lounge room and that if things didn’t change smartly I’d soon have a nice big glossy grey rug to place in the middle of the floor.

So I swore and Bob acted and extracted Carpet from the float, then we stood back and threw ideas back and forth while Carpet rested his head on my shoulder to show he was suitably contrite.

The horse had panicked because the divider had given way while he leaned on it when the float turned left. We travelled with the horse on the right hand side of the float for reasons we thought good and sufficient – but what if the horse preferred to travel on the left? On the left, he could lean on the solid wall when the float turned left (we refused to think about what would happen when it turned right.)

So we loaded him back on the float, this time on the left side. And we made sure the divider was solid in the centre. Then we set off. And it worked. We went into Goulburn for the dressage school, Saturday and Sunday, and returned without a single scratch on the paintwork. Then we drove out to Crookwell – not even a hint of moisture on the neck. Not a stagger nor a bump.

So for the moment the problem is solved. But so many things can cause a horse to be thrown around in a moving float – badly cambered roads that tilt the float, centrifugal force which causes a horse to shift balance just changing lanes and too much speed, often necessary to hold one’s own with highway traffic. It can be difficult when you feel that you are holding up trucks which can travel faster than you but I’ve found chatting to the drivers on the CB radio can be very useful, I apologise for my slower speed and more often than not they tell me not to worry and  ask where we’ve been and how we went ….

For the present we are extra careful and take a companion for Carpet, Philip’s pony Rosie, as a calming influence. With luck, we’ll never hear the thud and blunder from the float again and I will be able to use my next lot of savings for that floor-covering as planned.

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