Important considerations when trailering horses

Horse Health: Doing it right can dramatically reduce the stresses placed on horses in transport

Trailering horses has become very common and doing it correctly will make the animal healthier, 
happier and more willing to co-operate.

Trailering of horses has dramatically increased in frequency over the last decade with horses travelling to and from sales, competitions, shows, trail riding, equine vacations, breeding and more. Some travel may be as short as an hour while other trips may involve many hours, perhaps even a few days of trailering.

Considerable physical, psychological, and emotional pressure is placed upon the “trailered” horse and many horses experience significant stress associated with transport. Their immune, digestive, musculoskeletal and hormonal systems are affected not only during transport but for hours, or even days after the trailering event.

Trailer loading of horses is the subject of many articles, forums, chapters and books. Perhaps rather than asking, “how to load the horse into the trailer,” it would be prudent to consider that the horse’s protest to enter the trailer may be its only means of communicating a problem which has nothing to do with “loading up.” The horse may actually have a good reason to protest entry into the trailer even if we cannot clearly connect to its reasoning.

The trailer ride itself is an “experience and/or environment” in which he/she is not used to.” If the horse feels uncomfortable or unsafe in the trailer it will resist entry and re-entry. After the horse loads into the trailer for the first time it will be the trailer environment which will establish his/her future comfort with loading.

The best way for a person to empathize with the horse’s experience of trailering is to ride inside the trailer while it is in motion — just as the horse does. A trailer in motion has many dynamics — accelerating, decelerating, stopping, and turning corners. Each dynamic places unique musculoskeletal demands upon the horse to balance itself. Abrupt accelerations, decelerations and sharp turns are particularly demanding as the horse often scrambles to keep its balance. The more frequent and abrupt the movements the more likely the horse is to feel unsafe and anxious. Therefore, driver technique has a significant impact on the horse’s experience while in transport.

The horse needs ample room and secure footing to be sure footed during travel. Poor footing and slippery surfaces quickly unsettle even the most seasoned of horses. A bed of shavings on the floor of a trailer offers the horse a clean and secure footing surface. Shavings also sponge urine and fecal matter expressed during travel which in turn improves air quality inside the trailer.

Horses travelling untethered in an open-concept trailer will quickly assume a rearward position once the trailer sets in motion. Research has shown that horses travelling in this manner are less physically stressed, better able to balance and brace themselves and vocalized less than forward-facing horses. In addition, horses moved in open stalls without head restraint were less likely to suffer from dehydration and immune system dysfunction during and after travel.

Horses are tied during trailering for a number of reasons — style of trailer, number and compatibility of animals travelling together, duration of haul, etc. Yet whenever possible allow the horses to take advantage of whatever room there is to carry their heads in a natural posture. If necessary, long-tie the horse enabling it to rest its head at a comfortably low-hanging level facilitating sinus clearing and airway drainage. Ties with quick-release snaps are a valuable safety consideration in case of an emergency.

Any covering placed upon the horse during transport, whether it be blankets, sheets, shipping boots or tack compromises the horse’s ability to dissipate heat and can add to the horse’s discomfort. The muscular activity associated with maintaining balance during transport produces considerable internal heat which the horse must dissipate in order to thermoregulate properly. Warm temperatures will markedly amplify the risk of heat stress to the horse. Heat stress contributes to dehydration, weakens the immune system, and fatigues the horse. Heat stress is a significant concern for horses travelling during the summer months leading to dehydration, colic, and exhaustion. Be sure to stop frequently to allow horses a break from the trailer and to offer water.

Bell boots are a simple, inexpensive and effective means of protecting the vulnerable coronary band from hoof strike and/or a misstep that may incur during loading, travel and unloading.

Vigilant attention to air quality inside the trailer offsets the risks associated with stagnant air, accumulating exhaust fumes and excessive heat. Keeping the trailer as clean as possible minimizes the risk of pathogens overwhelming a respiratory system weakened by trailer stress.

Provide ample water, adequate hay and no grain to the travelling horse.

Dehydration is a common side-effect of shipping that can lead to other more serious problems. Offering hay for the horse during travel helps retain water in the gut during transit and adds to the hospitality and comfort quotient of the trailer. Grain feeds, on the other hand, stress gut function and increase the possibility of colic.

Periodically stop and unload horses every four to six hours in a secure area. This allows the horse not only a physical but a mental break. Remember, the horse has no concept that the trailer ride will end, especially during the initial few experiences. Even stopping for 15-20 minutes will give the horse a rest from the balancing necessary when the trailer is in motion.

Horses have individual preference under travel conditions. If travel becomes an expectation frequently placed upon a horse it is worthwhile to investigate its individual shipping nuances i.e. travelling positions, watering routines, and preferred travel companions. Transporting horses in familiar and congenial groups reduces both the risk of exposure to infectious disease as well as social stress.

About the author


Carol Shwetz is a veterinarian focusing on equine practice in Millarville, Alberta.

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