Creature Comforts

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Take a horse from a stall or paddock and put him on a trailer. Even before you start down the road, he will get edgy and nervous because he’s confined.

“Horses are stressed in a trailer,” says Tom Scheve, co-author of the book, “The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer.” Scheve also leads seminars on horse transportation and led one this past March at the 2001 National Exposition on Equine Transportation at the Kentucky Horse Park. Other experts who participated in the seminar included Phyllis Spalding of Sundowner of Kentucky and Dave Dalzelle of Jamco Trailers. Dr. Catherine Kohn, a professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, presented a separate session on health issues affecting transported horses.

These authorities contributed advice on improving a horse’s comfort by minimizing conditions that upset them. They also explained how to evaluate and even refashion a trailer stall to improve conditions.

“Stress is difficult to define and is ill-defined biologically,” says Kohn, “but can be evident in increased heart rate, rise in blood pressure, muscular tension and a cranky attitude.”

To boost equine comfort on the road, inspect your trailer’s environment, beginning with interior space. To the horse, the trailer stall should appear roomy and light, not tight and dark. Measure the stall’s height, width and length to fit the horses you haul. Adequate height gives the impression of a roomy space.

“Space is very important to a horse,” says Dalzelle, who specializes in rigs built for draft horses. “He needs lots of head room.”

Stall width should also be considered carefully. Whether you haul in a straight-load or slant-load rig, the wall-to-wall measurement should be sufficient but not excessive.

Dalzelle says, “In a straight-load trailer, the typical size is 7 feet wide, 7 feet, 6 inches tall [two stalls across]. Seven feet wide is what people want, but 6 feet wide is better. Draft horses stand in stalls 31 inches wide. If there’s too much room, the horse will get himself in trouble.”

Though horses may not benefit from too wide a space, they do need ample room to balance themselves. According to Scheve, “Horses like to brace their front feet for side-to-side movement.” Scheve went on to note that in a slant-load trailer more weight falls on the front shoulder, causing horses to shift more and have more difficulty balancing themselves.

Stall length affects comfort more than width, so check your trailer’s space by measuring between the chest bar and butt bar. “Make sure the trailer fits the horse,” said Scheve. “Get a stall 7 feet long for an 18-hand horse.” Dalzelle takes it one step further and recommends that dividers should measure 8 feet in length so the horses “stand long.”

Bars should adjust up and down, or move forward or back to fit different sizes of horses. Bars and dividers should be padded for comfort so the horse can lean without bracing against metal.

The stall size in a slant-load trailer can be deceiving. Scheve says the design came about to get more horses into a shorter trailer. “Slant loads are not generally better for big horses,” he says. “With a 102-inch axle limit, there’s only 6 feet 8 inches between the wheel wells.

“The only way to get more room is to widen the stall so the horse faces more toward the front. A 16-hand horse is right up against the front, his butt against the back, so he can’t stretch out.”

When it comes to dividers, Scheve cautions against lower divid­ers. “Horses don’t kick each other in the trailer. They are trying to keep their balance in transit.”

A good solution is a hanging divider mat, which is a flexible stall divider that hangs down to 6 inches above the floor. As described by Dalzelle, this partition helps separate strange horses while permitting some freedom of movement.

Should you tie the horse when hauling? According to Spalding, “Don’t tie the horse’s head up when you ship long distance.” Kohn adds, “The horse has a long trachea. With horses restrained in a head-up position, bacterial counts increase in tracheal fluid within 6 to 12 hours of restraint. Within 12 hours of freedom, bacterial counts decrease.” The experts agree that if the horses are tied, it should be loose enough to get their heads down to drain mucous, but not so loose as to entangle feet in the lead ropes. In a stock trailer, you can tie the lead ropes and unsnap the leads from the halters to leave horses untied.

And though a typical built-in manger in a two-horse trailer might seem like a convenient feed and storage compartment, it restricts the horse’s ability to stretch out and lower his head to snort, cough or rest.

Speaking of mangers, the panelists concur that feeding while moving isn’t necessary and can actually decrease comfort. Spalding described her approach on long trips: “We stop and feed the horse every two to three hours. A horse can choke when eating and fall down. The commercial shippers who feed in transit have a groom in the van with the horses.”

Loose hay can also blow around in the trailer. Scheve recommends moistening hay by dunking a flake in water; Spalding recommends nylon hay bags with a cutout to keep hay inside the bag.

Now that the horse is comfortably situated, you need to consider the trailer’s construction, which can dampen bouncing, vibration and noise. Its suspension contributes to the horse’s comfort, and Scheve says rubber torsion suspensions are a major asset. “Horses come off that trailer more supple than in a spring-and-shackle suspension. It takes a lot of shock out of the road into the axles, instead of into the trailer. It’s a truly independent suspension.”

A trailer can, however, be “oversuspended.” Dalzelle advises keeping the suspension slightly soft, saying “Too big is too springy. You shouldn’t­ have too-big axles.” Referring to a three-horse trailer, he says, “Your load will be 7,000 to 8,000 pounds, so don’t have 10,400-pound axles. It’s better to use two 3,500-pound axles to match your weight, so you have absorption.”

Where a horse stands also affects the comfort of the ride. With a single horse in a slant load, position him in the front stall. And with a less-than-capacity load, you might want to consider adjusting the tire pressure.

“If you have a tire at 110 psi and no load, the floor bounces and the tire wears in the same spot,” says Dalzelle. “So, soften the tire to 90 psi for that trip.”

For a quieter ride inside, Dalzelle recommends wood floors over metal. “Wood floors deaden the sound better and wood gives the floor more cushion.” You can also add to floor comfort with bedding. “Use wood chips or flakes,” says Spalding. “It’s easy to sweep out. Make it 6 inches deep to absorb urine.” She cautions against sand because it’s too heavy and shavings because they blow around inside.

Good air circulation eases the horse’s breathing in transit. The trailer’s ventilation and the number of horses hauled affect the amount of air exchange. “The more stocking density, the more temperature, humidity and fumes from ammonia or exhaust,” says Kohn. She noted that a fan will aid air exchange.

And keep in mind that the color of the trailer can have an effect. According to Scheve, “a light-colored trailer will be 15 degrees cooler than a red or blue trailer and 30 degrees cooler than brown or black.”

Paying attention to these many details can affect how your horses accept life on the road and how they ultimately perform on the other end. Transport trailers may never come close to the comfort of a barn stall, but the steps you take to make horses comfortable can reduce stress.