In the lives of mobile horses, traveling by trailer is a necessary evil. Trailering your horse to shows, lessons, clinics or other activities may seem like a run-of-the-mill routine, but trailering is one of the biggest causes of stress to your horse.
“The mechanics of getting on a truck and getting transported makes their stress levels go up,” said Duncan Peters DVM of Hagyard Equine Medical Clinic. “It’s one of those things that is a completely abnormal situation. They’re not normally on a truck or trailer or plane, so the insecurity or anxiety from not being in a normal surrounding produces stress.”
No matter how well your horse ships, traveling will increase the cortisol levels in your horse’s body, but there are many different ways to decrease the adverse affects of cortisol while trailering.
DIY or Commercial?
When considering a long distance trip with your horse, the first question to ask is: How long? How many miles are we talking about? How many hours will your horse spend on the trailer? If your trip involves more hours on the road than you’re comfortable driving by yourself, you may want to consider a commercial shipping service. Companies that provide commercial shipping can take a lot of stress off your shoulders and provide your horse with a better traveling experience.
“I have traveled in the back of a lot of trailers, and it’s pretty stressful,” said Richard Wheeler, DVM of Palm Beach Equine Medical Centers. “You’re kind of getting bounced all over the place because you can’t see to prepare yourself. You should have the most stable, safe trailer you can, and that will reduce the stress on them. There’s a big difference in some of these air ride trailers and those that travel from barn to barn. If you travel economy it’s pretty rough, but if you travel first-class it’s a pretty different experience. I recommend you travel your horse first-class as often as possible without the open bar!”
However, not all companies provide the same services.
“Reputation and experience count for a lot. That’s the most important thing,” said Wheeler. “There are a lot of companies that have been doing it for a long time and do a really good job. They have good drivers, good equipment and a good eye for things. Nothing counts as much as experience.”
Wheeler stressed the importance of doing your research when looking for a transport company. Speak with your trainer, veterinarian, or someone you know who regularly ships commercially.
Questions You Should Ask When Choosing A Commercial Shipper
- How long do you expect the trip to last?
- How many times do you stop and water?
- How often will you stop overnight?
- Where do you stop overnight?
- How will you ensure the safety of my horses?
- What size stalls do you offer?
- What qualifications do your drivers have?
- What are your emergency procedures?
- Is there a way to contact the driver while he is on the road?
- What kind of equipment do you use? How often do you service it?
- Do you offer travel insurance?
- Do you have references?
Of course, commercial shipping isn’t the only option; many people regularly ship their own horses to keep costs down.
Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before A Long Trip
- Do I know my route? Where am I stopping overnight?
- Where are the veterinary clinics along the way?
- Do I have another driver to share the hours?
- Do I have enough hay and water to last throughout the trip?
- What kind of climates will I encounter?
- Are my trailer and trailer safe for the road?
How’s The Weather?
Climate is something to pay close attention to while making your travel itineraries, regardless of whether you’re hiring out or doing it yourself.
“Temperature control is a risk management situation,” said DJ Johnson of Johnson Horse Transportation. “You don’t want them to get sick on a long journey.”
Many shippers will caution against transporting horses through different regional climates. For example, if it’s 75 degrees and sunny in California, you may want to reconsider shipping your horse to New York when it’s 10 degrees and snowing.
“The humidity [on the East Coast] doesn’t get them; if anything it makes our cause in showing the hunters a little easier because it tires them out a little quicker,” said Kate Considine of Willow Brook Stables, Lake View Terrace, Calif. “The biggest thing I realized is how cold they can get at shows like [the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament and National Horse Show (N.Y.)] and [the Washington (D.C.) International Horse Show.] They don’t grow coats as quickly, and some of them just don’t transition well.”
Even when horses ship shorter routes, such as from New England or the Mid-Atlantic to Florida for the winter circuits, they require careful monitoring. They may start the journey with blankets, but as they travel further south it’s important to make sure they’re not getting too hot.
Before Hitting The Road
Now that you’ve chosen whether to ship commercially or on your own, it’s time to prepare your horse for the trip.
“The first thing is to be organized, know the route and have all your paperwork in order,” said Wheeler. “Having a healthy horse to start with is imperative. It seems simple, but making sure their vital signs are normal the few days leading up to the trip is so important. Have them well hydrated and well rested before they travel and in the best condition possible.”
If you are shipping commercially, you should inform the driver of your horse’s normal vital signs and habits. The more aware the drivers are of potential problems, the more likely they can catch something before it gets out of hand.
Pre-Travel Preparations De-Mystified
Should I give antibiotics to my horse before a long trip?
“Antibiotics are a mistake,” said Scott Swerdlin, DVM, MRCVS, of Palm Beach Equine Medical Centers. “I don’t think they does any good. If you give oral antibiotics it could be harmful, but IV or IM antibiotics doesn’t do any good or any harm.”
What about pre-loading with fluids?
“If you have a horse you know doesn’t drink well, and you know there’s a long trip coming, pre-loading with fluids is a good thing to do,” 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. “But if you run it in fast, it’s removed pretty quickly. You need to figure out how to get them to drink.”
Swerdlin added: “A horse will normalize itself after 12 hours. Intravenous fluids are going to be on the floor in the next six hours. I’m not sure how much that helps. Contact your veterinarian if you feel strongly, especially if you’ve had a history of transport problems.”
Should I give my horse oil?
“It can only help, it can’t hurt, but you have to make sure you balance electrolytes with oil,” said Swerdlin. “Some people feel that coating the large bowel with oil may help prevent the absorption of endotoxins. I don’t know if that’s absolutely correct, but it has worked for years [in keeping the GI tract moving properly]. I would leave that up to your vet and you. If it’s not difficult to pass a tube, then go for it. But if you were going to fight with your horse, I’d pass.”
What else should I consider giving my horse?
“Probiotics are a great idea, and you can only help your horse that way,” said Swerdlin. “I also recommend [an ulcer preventative with omeprazole] before and during the trip.”
While On The Road
One problem people don’t necessarily appreciate while traveling with their horses is that shipping with strange horses adds stress to the equation.
“It’s always a good idea to transport horses with their friends,” said Swerdlin.
Peters added that if you have horses that are normally stabled together at home, you should keep them together, whether on the road or at your destination.
If you end up choosing a commercial shipper to transport your horses, consider paying a little extra for your horse to ship in a box stall rather than a single stall.
“I would prefer to have them in a box stall,” said Considine. “It depends on the company you ship with, though. One of the shippers, he puts them in box stalls and they drive straight through, They’re in the trailer, they’re not tied up, they’re free to move around and eat and drink, and they’ve shipped really well. If they’re in a single stall, they stop, get out, they’re in a new place for the night, they get back on—it almost makes them more nervous.”
Peters also recommended shipping in box stalls because it reduces fatigue.
“When traveling there is usually an increased physical aspect. Horses that are on a truck or plane have to work their muscles more than they would in a field. The swaying, acceleration, deceleration, etc., tires them. By shipping in box stalls, it allows them to move around, eat a lot better, stretch—it’s like a moving stall, and those horses seem to have reduced stress levels,” said Peters.
There are varying opinions on whether it’s better to stop overnight and unload on long journeys or not, but it’s largely dependent on whether you utilize a commercial shipper or do it yourself.
If you are shipping on your own, you should organize places to stop at distances that can be covered in a reasonable amount of driving time. This could vary depending on how many drivers you have with you and the area of the country in which you’ll be driving.
“We have very few people that lay over,” said Johnson. “We usually go straight through, and we never take the horses off the van unless they’re laying over. The key thing is to get them from point A to B as safely and swiftly as possible.”
While stopping overnight seems like a logical solution to long hours on the road, owners also need to do their research when it comes to their overnight locations.
“Horses are flight animals, so a lot of them won’t rest in a strange place,” said Leitch. “You don’t know who was in the stall the night before, your horse is exposed, and there are a lot of horses who will rest better in the box stall on the trailer with fresh hay and water.”
Feeding On The Road
- Fresh water should be provided as often as possible, generally every four to six hours, or free choice if possible.
- Hay should be soaked and provided free choice, especially on long trips.
- Grain should never be fed on long journeys because the horses don’t move or drink as much on the road, which could lead to impaction.
You’ve Reached Your Destination. Now What?
“The first thing to do is get them in a comfortable environment and their heads to the ground,” said Wheeler. “Horses spend a lot of time with their head on the ground; it helps them to clear fluid and debris from their respiratory tract. A lot of horses will lay down and crash out for a while.”
It’s tempting to offer your horse a big meal after a long journey, but it’s a bad idea to feed too much too soon after long hours on the road.
“One of the problems we’ve had with horses who’ve gotten through the shipping is impaction,” said Wheeler. “They can have feed, but make it light. Give them a mash-like feed with some electrolytes, the more liquid the better, and try to feed them little and often for the first day. I like to give them a couple days of light exercise before serious work. Movement and exercise is good for their gut motility.”
Things To Note When You Arrive
- Is your horse eating and drinking normally?
- Is he passing normal manure?
- How concentrated is his urine? (It should not be dark.)
- Is his temperature normal a few hours after arrival? Does his temperature stay normal after a few days?
- Does he develop any coughing?
- Does he develop any stiffness or lameness?