Check back every Wednesday through May 26 for our continuing series on Towing and Trailer Safety.
Getting into a car and driving down the road doesn’t concern most of us. We have to drive in order to go to work, make purchases, visit friends, engage in social activities and function in general. Most of us enjoy and appreciate our cars.
For horses, however, taking a trip down the road in the horse trailer isn’t always the most pleasant experience. Trailers are often dark with varying temperature extremes, and even careful drivers sometimes leave them scrambling for footing.
“A lot of people don’t fully appreciate how much stress and anxiety is involved in shipping,” said Midge Leitch, VMD, a former U.S. Equestrian Team veterinarian and a staff veterinarian in radiology at the University of Pennsylvania’s School Of Veterinary Medicine New Bolton Center. “The best thing you can do for your horses is to teach them that none of these things are horrific. Horses ought to be as calm as they can be. Every effort should be made to make sure they are as comfortable as possible.”
The Nature Of The Horse
Perhaps the most important thing to remember when shipping your horse is that trailering, in general, goes against a horse’s natural instincts.
“Horses are prey animals, and they have a flight response,” said Neva Scheve, author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing A Horse Trailer. “Their mode of survival is running away, because if they don’t get away, they’re going to be dinner! They are claustrophobic, so if they are stuck in a situation where they can’t run away, there’s going to be a lot of stress, and then you’re going to have a lot of problems.”
Stress is defined as an external stimulus that’s beyond the control of the animal. When a horse is stressed, his endocrine glands flood his body with adrenaline and cortisol. This response also occurs in people.
“When any living creature is exposed to stress, the central nervous system kicks in to physically prepare the animal to react to the stress,” said Scheve. “For horses, the reaction is to run away. If a horse is in that situation for a long time its health can deteriorate. The trailer is absolutely against everything the horse is.”
Signs Of Stress In Horses
- Elevated heart rate
- Elevated respiratory rate
- Elevated blood pressure
- Uncharacteristic pawing, biting, kicking, bucking, striking or rearing
- Tensing of the muscles or lips
Make Your Trailer Horse-Friendly
Creating a comfortable environment in the trailer for your horse begins with selecting the right trailer.
“The horse comes first, the trailer second, then the tow vehicle,” said Tom Scheve, co-author of The Complete Guide To Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing A Horse Trailer. “You have to look at the horses that you have—their size, weight, discipline—then you know what kind of trailer will fit the horse comfortably. I’ve had so many people who have bought the vehicle first, and then they get a different horse than they thought they would.”
There is hope, however, for owners who already have trailers. Simple adjustments can be made to existing trailers to help the horses ride better and enjoy less stressful trips.
- Light – Keeping the interior of your trailer well lit, whether through artificial or natural light, will make the space much more appealing for a hesitant traveler. When looking to purchase a trailer, consider the ones that are painted white in the interior. White or light paint reflects light, which gives the appearance of a bigger space. Since most loading for horse shows occurs in the early hours of the morning, consider installing extra interior lights.
- Ventilation – Just like in barns, it’s essential to provide fresh air for your horses to breathe all the time. Even if you are hauling in cold temperatures, it’s important to keep the windows open and the air flowing throughout the trailer. Vents in the roofline will help stale, hot air rise out of the trailer. Keeping the air in the trailer fresh prevents horses from inhaling excess amounts of dust, mold, noxious gasses from urine and manure, and their neighbor’s exhalations.
- “The more you allow them to breathe fresh air, the better,” said Leitch. “You also want to think about how you’re giving them air. Most of the time you want it coming in the sides.”
- Temperature Control – “Temperature control is a risk management situation,” said D.J. Johnson of Johnson Horse Transportation. “You don’t want them to get sick on a long journey.” Temperature control isn’t just controlling the actual temperature of the trailer’s interior; it also involves controlling the temperature of your horse. Your horse may require a blanket when it gets on the trailer early in the morning, but as the day warms up, you may need to stop and take the blankets off. Even on cooler days, horses will be more likely to sweat in a trailer. In those situations, an anti-sweat sheet that will wick away moisture from the horse’s skin may be a better option than a regular sheet or blanket.
- Safe Walls – While your trailer walls don’t necessarily need to be padded, it’s important to examine the interior of your trailer for sharp surfaces or protruding points. Even a rounded surface could cause injury. In addition, if your trailer has windows, appropriate netting or bars should be placed over them so the horses can’t stick their heads, noses, ears, feet, etc., outside the trailer. Keeping your windows open is important for getting air in, but there shouldn’t be anything but air going out! Screens will keep unwanted insects and other debris from finding their way into the trailer.
The Great Shavings Debate
You certainly don’t want your horses scrambling for footing while they’re traveling, so it’s important to study your footing options before you load up and drive away. Most horse trailers are equipped with some kind of rubber mat on the floor, but keep in mind that moisture can make the surface slick. Using shavings, straw or some kind of bedding on the floor can significantly decrease your horses’ chances of slipping. Not only does bedding provide traction, but it also encourages urination, absorbs moisture, and, if bedded deeply, can protect legs from nicks and cuts.
However, while Leitch and Johnson encourage the use of shavings, or straw in the case of mares and foals, the Scheves recommend against using bedding in the trailer.
“The trailer environment is a closed space, so whenever you put something in the trailer such as shavings, and the air starts blowing the dust and shavings around, the dust and particles can get into the horse’s respiratory system,” said Tom. “If you have a decent trailer, enough space for the horse to have headroom, your horse can stretch his neck and cough that out. Often in slant load trailers, where the stall lengths are limited, or manger trailers, which restrict head movement, this is nearly impossible for a horse to do. The result could more likely lead to shipping fever.”
If you want to add bedding to your trailer, one simple solution is to damp the material down to reduce dust and keep the majority of the bedding toward the back of the trailer. An alternative floor with a rough non-slip surface, such as Rumber, can also solve slipping, especially in open-sided stock trailers where you can’t keep out the weather.
Protective Gear For Horses
- Shipping Boots – These are easy to apply and cover the coronary band as well as the leg. Many boots cover the knee and hock as well. Make sure the boots fit properly and will not slide during travel.
- Standing Wraps – Wraps offer more support to the legs but don’t always cover the coronary band and hoof. You must know proper wrapping technique to apply a standing wrap. Sliding wraps or bad wraps can do much more harm than good.
- Bell Boots – Bell boots protect the vulnerable coronary band effectively, but they can chafe and rub if left on for too long.
- Tail Wraps – Applying a tail wrap improperly can be just as damaging as a bad leg wrap. Use with care or invest in a tail protector.
- Head Bumpers – This head protection attaches to the halter to prevent the horse from banging his head during loading and transport.
- Halters – Consider a leather halter when shipping. Leather is easier to remove (cut off) in case of injury or accident. Halters can be padded with foam or sheepskin to prevent rubs.
- Blankets – Consider the weather when deciding whether or not to blanket your horse on the road. An anti-sweat sheet is a good choice if your horse is anxious and prone to sweating. Clipped horses may need a sheet in conditions where unclipped horses would not.
Water, Hay And Grain On The Road
Many horse owners prefer their horses have free access to hay while traveling, but it’s important to consider how you’re presenting the hay.
“You don’t want the hay falling down on top of the horse, or want their head stuck in the manger with the hay,” said Neva.
Neva and Tom recommend removable feed trays made of canvas or other solid fabric. They do not allow hay to fall onto the floor and are installed lower than the horse’s head, which encourages the horse to stretch his head down and out. Keeping the hay damp will help reduce dust, and salting the hay before a long trip is a good way to encourage them to drink.
“You want to carry your own water with you at all times,” said Leitch. “The majority of horses won’t start drinking until four to six hours down the road, and horses should always have fresh water that does not have electrolytes in it. You don’t want to overload them with electrolytes.”
One thing that most people will agree on is never to feed grain during a long trailer ride.
“Feeding a lot of grain during shipping is a bad plan,” said Leitch. “Their GI function is not normal while shipping, gut motility slows down, and it’s not at all uncommon for impaction to occur during shipping because they don’t drink a normal amount of water.”
Tips For Keeping Your Horse Hydrated
- Bring your own water to which your horse is accustomed. For emergency purposes, you should keep 10-20 extra gallons of water on board.
- Salt and soak your hay just before travel. The added salt will encourage them to drink, and the moisture in the hay will add water to their system.
- Add electrolytes to feed, hay or water in appropriate doses.
- Pre-load with fluids under veterinary supervision.
- Teach your horses at home to drink water flavored with Gatorade or juice in case you run out of your own water on the road.
- Feed them apples. Apples have high moisture content and will get some fluids into their system in a pinch.
This article is the first in an ongoing series loaded with tips for safe towing and travel. Next up is emergency preparedness. Do you have any questions about trailering or anything you’d like to see in this series? Please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org She would love to hear your thoughts and looks forward to your contributions!