Don’t horse around when it comes to trailering

By Emily Fray, DVM, Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital

With the warm weather comes the lure of traveling with your horse. But whether you’re headed to a regional show or simply a beguiling trail head, you’ll need to carefully transport your horse from stable to destination (and back again). Unsafe trailering can lead to injuries for both you and your horse, and improper hauling practices can result in colic or overheating of your prized animal. Here are some tips that can help make your road trip safe and enjoyable.

Train your horse to load

HorseAs prey animals, horses have an instinctive aversion to dark, enclosed spaces, so entering the confines of a horse trailer does not come naturally to your equine companion. Consequently, you’ll need to train your horse to calmly enter the trailer. One strategy is to lead your horse to the trailer after a hard workout, encouraging and rewarding him with every step towards the trailer. That way, your horse will learn to think of the trailer as a welcome resting place.

Lead the horse up the ramp with confidence—any reluctance or apprehension on your part will make your animal skittish. Walk into the trailer facing forward, since facing your horse can cause it to hesitate or balk. Always make sure that the trailer is properly hitched to the tow vehicle, even during practice sessions. Loading a horse into an unhitched trailer is an invitation to injury for both horse and handler.

Prepare your horse for the drive

You’ll want to protect your horse’s legs, head, and rear for the inevitable sways and jolts that come with being hauled in a trailer. Wrap your animal’s legs with standing bandages or fit your animal with shipping boots, either of which protect against serious leg injuries. Depending on your horse's temperament, a head bumper may be beneficial. If your horse tends to lean on the trailer’s butt bar, a tail wrap may help prevent rubbing.

You can position your horse facing forward or backward, whichever direction seems to minimize the animal’s stress. If your horse shows no preference, consider having it face forward, as backward facing horses tend to slip more during transport. If space allows, consider positioning your animal on a 45-degree slant, as horses seem to prefer this orientation.

While most horses are used to being tied in a trailer, you’ll want to ensure that the length of tie allows your horse to lower its head vertically. Tying a horse's head too tightly interferes with proper respiratory and sinus drainage and can lead to life-threatening pneumonia.

Make sure the trailer will provide adequate ventilation during the drive, to prevent your horse from overheating. If you’re hauling during especially hot or intensely humid weather, you might want to use an air-conditioned trailer.

Whatever the weather, be certain that your horse has access to food and water during long trips. Water is especially important, as trailered horses can easily become dehydrated. Carry enough water to keep your horse hydrated even if your encounter traffic tie-ups or suffer a mechanical breakdown.
And since accidents and unexpected illnesses can occur, always carry an emergency medical kit. This should include phenylbutazone (Bute), bandages and gauze, bandage scissors, alcohol, electrolytes, eye wash, thermometer, and antiseptic ointment.

Take regular breaks

During longer trips, both you and your horse need to take rest stops every three to four hours. Offer your horse water, and then let it relax for 15 to 30 minutes while you check the leg wraps, head bumper, and the condition inside the trailer. Encourage your horse to drink again before hitting the road.
On very long drives, include a 45-minute break every 6 to 8 hours. Change the hay nets and muck out any feces during this longer break. It’s a good idea to keep your horse trailered during this and the shorter rest stops, since your animal could panic and break free in unfamiliar surroundings, posing a danger to itself and folks nearby.

If your trip is longer than one day, plan for your horse to be stabled for the night. Thoroughly clean the trailer of loose hay and feces before reloading your horse in the morning.

With training and adequate preparation, even a lengthy road trip can be a safe and comfortable experience for both you and your horse.