My first riding horse, a saintly Appaloosa gelding named Taz, taught me a little bit of everything. One of the lessons that sticks with me most is that shipping horses isn’t for the faint of heart. He’s also the reason I still get anxious loading and trailering any horse—even Dorado, my off-track-Thoroughbred and a hauling pro who’s traveled up and down the East Coast multiple times with no issues.
Shortly before his retirement, Taz started having trailering issues. He’d always pawed at stop signs and red lights, but this turned out to be the least of our worries. He started moving around a bit more as we drove, but he still loaded, went to shows, and returned home without batting an eye. But once his fussiness progressed into jumping over the chest bar and into hay mangers, we called it quits. He stayed on our farm for the rest of his life. We don’t know how he didn’t seriously hurt or kill himself, but he opened our eyes to just how dangerous trailering can be, even if you’re just hauling down the road.
These experiences, coupled with some terrifying things I’ve seen in my travels with horses, have led me to do my best to ensure everything as safe as possible when Dorado and I hit the road. Plus, let’s face it, horses don’t need any outside help with getting into trouble. They’re masters at that on their own accord. Here are a few basic safety tips for shipping horses to help them stay safe before, during, and after trailering.
1. Don’t skip out on trailer (and hitch) maintenance.
It might seem obvious, but don’t overlook it. We owe it to our horses to be sure the floor isn’t going to collapse, axles aren’t on the verge of breaking, hitches don’t have cracks developing (which could compromise their integrity and lead to them breaking while you’re hauling), and more.
Have a trailer repair professional thoroughly examine your trailer, tires, wiring, wheel bearings, brakes, and hitch at least once a year; if you haul regularly, have this done twice a year.
2. Always have an equine first-aid kit on hand.
Another tip that seems like a no-brainer, right? But, in my experience, having emergency medical supplies for their horses is another safety consideration equestrians commonly overlook.
In your first aid kit you should keep:
- Your veterinarian’s phone number (sure, it’s stored in your phone, but what if your phone battery is dead?);
- An updated list of your horse’s normal vital signs;
- A thermometer;
- A stethoscope;
- Leg wrapping supplies (such as rolled cotton, brown gauze, and Vetrap);
- Duct tape;
- A PVC pipe or two to use as a splint;
- Triple-antibiotic ointment;
- Emergency medications you can obtain through your vet, such as ophthalmic ointment for eye injuries, Banamine, and/or Bute; and
- A few disposable diapers for use as bandages and/or to control bleeding.
Also—know how to use everything in your first-aid kit. Don’t wait until your horse gets cast in a stall at a competition and cuts his legs (like Taz did once) to learn how to properly apply wraps to protect the wounds.
3. Don’t allow your horse to ride with his head out of the trailer.
Opening vents and windows to keeping fresh air flowing through and allow built-up heat to escape from trailers is important. It’s generally not advisable to close your horse up in a box stall with no windows or doors to allow airflow, so it shouldn’t be any different for trailers. But be smart about it.
When your trailer is moving, be sure a screen or grate covers any windows or vents large enough and close enough for your horse to stick his head out. Yes, your horse might appear to enjoy the wind in his forelock—or mouth … Dorado once let his tongue flap in the breeze through a small gap in a stock trailer wall as we cruised down the road, no joke—and looking around as he travels. But it’s not worth the risk that a close-passing vehicle, tree branch, or even smaller debris (twigs, leaves, … even flying insects) could cause serious injury if it hits your horse’s face or eyes. Don’t risk decapitating your horse!
Once you’ve stopped and parked your rig, it’s safer to remove screens and grates from windows and for your horse to look around. But remember that—more than once—horses have tried to jump (some successfully, others ultimately requiring rescue) through trailer window and doors to escape their confines. Is it worth the risk? That’s your call.
4. Make sure leg wraps are secure.
Wraps and shipping boots can protect your horse’s legs if they scramble to catch their balance, slip off a ramp or step during loading and unloading, and in countless other scenarios, as well as keep them from stocking up during long-distance transport. But they can also cause issues if they slide down under a horse’s foot or come unwrapped en route.
Sure, some horses will just stand on wraps or boots should they come loose. This happened often back when I was a brand-new horse owner and didn’t know any better, and (fortunately) the worst result was a destroyed set of shipping boots.
But others might panic and scramble, maybe even lose their footing and fall, if their boots or wraps don’t stay in place. This could lead to injury to them and any horses they’re trailering with, especially if the divider doesn’t extend to the floor.
Also, be sure your horse is accustomed to wearing shipping boots or wraps before you load up to further reduce the risk of him becoming alarmed.
5. Don’t tie your horse with a chain shank.
In the trailer or to the trailer (or anywhere else, for that matter) save the chain shank for when you’re on the other end.
As I cooled Taz out after a class at a high school equestrian team meet years ago, I watched as a group of people worked to free a panicked horse who’d ensnared a leg in the chain shank (on a nylon rope) with which he’d been tied to a trailer and left unattended. They eventually managed to cut the rope and loosen the chain, but the horse was left exhausted, sweaty, bloody, and apparently lame as his owner tried to load him to go home.
I don’t know how that horse ended up or if he sustained any serious injuries during the debacle. But I do know that I learned the lesson, then and there, to never tie a horse with a chain.
6. Use bailing twine to make quick release ties.
Speaking of tying, when you do tie a horse in or to a trailer, always use a loop of bailing twine or a quick-release device. Not only do you risk damaging the trailer if a horse pulls back—my trainer had to replace tie rings after an acquaintance’s horse did just that and popped the original one off—you also risk injuring your horse.
When I realized I forgot to make a twine loop on my friend’s trailer before taking Dorado to a show, I risked it and tied him to the ring. After all, he’s an old pro, stands quietly, and just takes in the sites at shows. And that’s exactly what he did … until he dozed off, a horse at a neighboring trailer spooked, and, startled, he jumped backward and pulled on the rope until his halter broke. And, as he walked off toward his travel buddy tied on the other side of the trailer, he was lame.
That one poor decision left me making a nice donation to the show organizers (since I withdrew and took him home), buying a new halter (the least-painful part of the whole ordeal!), paying several hundred dollars in vet bills (since Dorado needed care for a sore poll, neck, and back), and losing training time (as he recovered from said injuries).
Worst of all, a choice I made hurt my horse. I felt awful and still do. Fortunately, he recovered quickly with no long-term effects.
This time I learned the lesson the hard way, but it’s still not a mistake I’ll make again.
7. Never put yourself in danger.
Yes, we want our horses to stay safe, and it’s easy to get caught up in trying so hard to do so that we forget about another important part of the equation. We need to keep ourselves in one piece. A few things to remember:
- If you’re in a trailer with a horse, always have an escape route.
- Don’t put yourself in a position where you could get trapped between the horse and a wall or divider.
- Wear a helmet. In a perfect world, this would be any time you’re at risk of a head injury (so, basically, anytime you’re around a horse). At very least, however, protect yourself when you’re dealing with an unwilling loader, whether you’re leading the horse or offering support in another way.
- Speaking of which, avoid that scenario by training your horse to walk quietly in and out of trailers or, ideally, load and unload themselves.
- If it’s possible, don’t open the back door when your horse is still tied up front. This can be challenging due to some trailers’ designs, but it’s a safer method for everyone involved—your horse included.
Of course, these aren’t the only safety tips you should take into account before you load up and head out. But they’re easy ways to help increase the likelihood of your horse arriving to and returning home from his destination safe and sound—literally.