Tips for Safe and Healthy Horse Hauling

Ensure the health and safety of your horses during long trailer rides.

Michaela Jaycox

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One of the most fun things riders can do with their horses is to take them on adventures to new places, be it to a clinic or show, or to explore beautiful trails in the surrounding wilderness. Some horses can’t wait to get into the trailer and are entirely trusting of the experience. What can you do to ensure their safety and their health during long hauls while keeping that trust intact?

Truck and Trailer Safety

Before you set out on a long haul with your horses, make sure your truck and trailer are in good mechanical shape. | ADOBE STOCK /HENRYK SADURA

A caveat of safe hauling makes assurances that your truck and trailer comply with legal requirements in your state. Do your homework and research specific guidelines regarding trailer brakes, safety chains, fire extinguishers, towing speed, size dimensions of the truck and trailer, and license plate placement and visibility. To monitor current information and up-to-date regulations, check with departments of transportation in states you’ll be passing through with your horse.

Go through a checklist of your equipment:

• Check that your truck is matched in capacity to your trailer, and that your hitch corresponds as well. Your truck should also be able to stabilize the trailer in high wind conditions.

• Have your truck, trailer, and hitch in excellent mechanical shape and keep maintenance work up-to-date to avoid breakdowns. Make sure lights and blinkers are functional and your mirrors give optimal views.

• Check tire pressures and tread, including the spare.

• If you’re unfamiliar with the equipment, do practice runs without your horses loaded, so you can ascertain appropriate stopping distance, acceleration delays, and how to turn without hitting anything.

• Install a thermometer within the trailer in warm weather to inform you about the conditions your horse is experiencing. Then you can make adjustments accordingly, such as the frequency and length of rest stops or time of day to travel. The best-case scenario is to have a trailer with an insulated roof to help with temperature control.

• Make sure there are no sharp edges within the trailer or on outside tie areas that can cut a horse or snag a halter or lead rope.

• Check that the butt bar affixes securely and that its padding is intact.

• Check that all door latches close well. It is smart to use a safety lock or pin on the back doors once your horses are loaded to ensure the door can’t open while traveling.

• If the weather permits, open air vents and windows to improve air circulation within the trailer and to lessen the buildup of heat and humidity. Make sure they are in good working order.

• Have a fire extinguisher handy in both the truck and trailer.

• Cell phones are wonderful devices to stay connected when used properly. Set up a hands-free device in your truck for phone conversations (where legal) and if this is not available, then it is best to pull over to talk on the phone when hauling with horses on board.

Before you start on your trip, map out your route and rest stops. Identify veterinary clinics along your route in case of trouble. Pack as much familiar hay and water from home as possible. Have all travel paperwork (Coggins test, health certificate, equine passport, insurance papers, and medical alerts) up-to-date and available with each horse. In the Western states, you’ll need a brand inspection to cross state lines, and even to travel 75 miles beyond your home.

Loading and Settling Horses in the Trailer

Hay nets can be dangerous inside a trailer; hay bags work best if there isn’t a manger. Place hay bags low enough for horses to comfortably eat, but not low enough to catch a leg. | ADOBE STOCK/ RICHARD NANTAIS

With proper training, most horses will load and unload with little fuss or drama. However, even with veteran haulers, shipping boots are great for protecting legs and hooves from injury.

Some horses move around a lot or scramble while the trailer is moving, and it’s not uncommon for a horse to step on itself or on another. There are also times when loading or unloading that a horse steps wrong off the back or falls off the side of a ramp. Leg boots give some protection against minor and even serious injury.

Clean out all the debris and old hay from feeders as mold can cause respiratory problems. Provide fresh hay at a safe height where the horse can’t get his head or halter entangled, but not too low where a leg could get caught. Hay nets are dangerous, especially for a horse that scrambles in the trailer; hay bags work best if there isn’t a manger. When possible, hang a small bucket with a bit of water in it—not so much that it sloshes around and wets the floor but enough that your horse can periodically take a sip.

Load the heaviest horse toward the front of the trailer. | Michaela Jaycox

Use quick-release ties on your horse’s halter to enable fast release in an emergency situation. Some horses do okay with their head loose, especially if a closed partition keeps the horse facing in the proper direction. In a stock trailer, it may not be necessary to tie a single horse; untied, he can turn around as little or as much as he wants provided his size allows that without getting stuck. Many horses prefer to face backward to help steady themselves from trailer turns, swaying, and acceleration and deceleration. A horse that is able to select a preferred direction experiences less overall fatigue, overheating, and travel stress.

If you leave the trailer windows open for ventilation, be sure to have a safety guard or screen on the windows so your horse can’t stick his head out into traffic. This is particularly important at freeway speeds. A face mask keeps debris from flying into your horse’s eyes when open windows have bars but no screens.

Know your horse’s peculiar quirks and anxieties. Place compatible horses next to each other—this is calming for both horses and avoids injuries related to bickering. Load the biggest and heaviest horses first, toward the front of the trailer, to help balance the load on the hitch.

Avoiding Health Issues While Trailering Your Horse

During transport, horses experience some important risk factors: stress, respiratory irritants, and dehydration. Before embarking on your adventure, ensure that your horse is pronounced healthy to travel by your vet. You will also need a health certificate signed by your veterinarian if you are crossing state lines or going to a venue that requires one. Keep your horse’s respiratory viral immunizations (equine influenza and rhinopneumonitis virus) up-to-date. If vaccines are due, boost them at least 2–3 weeks in advance of travel to maximize immunity.

When a horse’s head is restrained in an up position for an extended period, microbes in the respiratory tract—the trachea and lungs—increase exponentially within 6–12 hours. Organisms normally present in the throat migrate downward into the respiratory tract, potentially causing pleurisy and pneumonia, often called “shipping fever.”

It is best to unload a horse every 4–6 hours for 20–30 minutes to not only give muscles a break from balancing but also to allow head lowering to clear the airways. This does not entirely eliminate debris and microorganisms from the airways, but it can help. Clearance of the respiratory tract takes 8–12 hours of no restraint to assume a head-down position as a horse eats or relaxes.

On long hauls, it’s best to unload horses every 4–6 hours for 20–30 minutes. | ADOBE STOCK/GIORGIOMORARA

With the horses out of the trailer, remove feces and urine-soaked bedding before reloading. Studies have demonstrated that horses allowed intermittent rest periods in addition to frequent trailer cleaning had less mucopurulent material in their airways upon arrival at their destination.

The concentration of horses in the trailer affects air pollution, which affects respiratory health. Air quality in the trailer deteriorates over time from increased heat and humidity, ammonia fumes from voided urine, and increased circulation of microorganisms from accumulated feces. Hay consumption and stirred bedding increase air-borne dust particulates. Wetting the hay well before travel can mitigate the aerosolization of dust and debris as a horse eats.

Dehydration can be a complicating factor in how well your horse arrives at his destination. At rest stops, offer a fresh bucket of water and give your horse several opportunities to drink before assuming he won’t.

Short to moderate journeys in reasonable heat and humidity conditions do not necessitate electrolyte supplementation, particularly if a horse munches hay along the way. Eating helps to calm anxious horses, and for journeys beyond eight hours, horses need to eat to retain their body condition.

Stress also affects a horse’s immune system and ability to ward off microbial infection, particularly of the respiratory tract. Whatever you can do to provide a comfortable, gentle ride can go a long way to keeping your horse healthy. Horses that stress easily may benefit from omeprazole treatment against gastric ulcers just before, during, and immediately after a long journey. Keep in mind that rapid stops and starts are exhausting on horses as they strive to maintain balance. Take turns slowly and easily. Keep the speed as steady as possible and stick to one lane as much as reasonable.

It is said that a horse balancing in a moving trailer uses energy much akin to walking the distance traveled. If you keep that in mind, you will be more conscientious about how you drive to give your horse the best comfort while on the road

The Bottom Line

Traveling with horses can be a wonderful experience, giving you a chance to bond while enjoying your partnership in your equestrian pursuits. It pays to take the time to attend to all the little details mentioned above. Your horse will arrive in the best condition and you will both be less stressed because of it. Safe travels!

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