Road Worthy With Horses

Courtesy of America’s Horse Daily

Heed these tips to keep your horse-showing travels safe

There is an old saying among touring rock ’n’ roll bands that goes something like this: “What happens on the road, stays on the road.”

Devised to keep peace with those back at home, this playful old adage seems to work in practice. (Most of the time, at least.) Sadly, horse owners cannot be so carefree. When traveling with horses, what happens on the road can come back to haunt you for a long, long time.

Competitive riders face two main challenges: maintaining their horse’s health while in transit, and ensuring that the horses are ready to compete once they have arrived at their destination. Dr. Catherine W. Kohn, professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, advises riders and trainers to allow for plenty of recovery time between the arrival date and the first event.

“One of the first things that the competitor or coach needs to consider is the medication rules that apply to the particular discipline that the horse is engaged in,” Dr. Kohn says. “(Some shows require that there) is no use of therapeutic drugs during a specified period of time prior to the competition. Transport, particularly over long distances, can cause disease in horses, so we recommend to clients that if they have to haul or fly their horse from New York to California, they should allow a few extra days at the other end in case they need to treat the horse. (This way,) they can do that and still comply with the medication rules of whatever discipline they are competing in.”

If your horse is sick, he shouldn’t travel, period.

“If you have a horse that is in any way sick when you put it on the trailer, it’s probably going to be sicker when you take it off on the other end,” Dr. Kohn says.

The goal is to make the journey go as smoothly as possible. This requires that riders, trainers and horse owners know their animals inside and out. In preparing for a long journey, owners should take their horses on smaller trips to determine how their animals react to the travel experience.

“If you have a horse that is a bad traveler, you need to minimize the things that are making it hard for him,” Dr. Kohn says. “If he is bad at traveling alone, bring a traveling buddy along. If he is a bad loader, teach him to load before (the trip).”

One of the most common illnesses horses acquire in transport is shipping fever. A bacterial infection, shipping fever causes inflammation of the lungs and fluid to collect in the chest cavity. This condition will not only prevent a horse from performing in competition; it can become life-threatening.

“The head-up posture is a potential problem because when you put a horse in a trailer and tie his head up in a safe position, you make it impossible for him to expectorate, and his whole lung clearance mechanism is comprised,” Dr. Kohn says. “The other problem is the air space from which the horse is inhaling is often filled with dust.”

Dr. Kohn, who collaborated on “Guidelines for Transport of Horses By Road and Air” (USA Equestrian), advises horse owners to ship no more than 12 hours at a time.

“After that, you take the horse off the truck and put him in a stall for eight hours, you hand walk him, let him drink and rest, and then the next day you can haul for another 12 hours,” she said. “Many horses will ship for 36 to 48 hours at one time, but the longer the duration of the journey, the more likely the horse is to develop transport-associated diseases.”

While in transit, horses should be regularly monitored for any signs of impending illness.

“Every four hours or so, check on the horse and maybe take his temperature,” Dr. Kohn advises. “If you find that the horse is getting sick, you have to stop hauling him to let him recover.”

Merry C. Hardy, owner of Red Hot Quarter Horses in Alexander City, Alabama, notes that keeping a horse hydrated while in transit is one of the biggest challenges associated with hauling horses. Through the years, she has devised a number of ways to not only lead her horses to water, but to also make them drink.

“Some horses are very tricky about water that’s not from home,” Merry says. “One trick that I will use is I will pour apple juice into the water and offer it to them.”

To get even more water into her horses, Merry will soak their hay.

“One feeding of hay will absorb about two gallons of water.”

Soaked hay provides the added benefit of less dust flying around the trailer.

Cherry Hill of and author of “Trailering Your Horse,” suggests that horse owners start disguising the water prior to the trip to give the horses the chance to become accustomed to the taste.

“It’s impractical to haul enough water (from your own barn) to a week-long competition,” she says. “But you have to play around ahead of time to make sure that the horse will drink it, because sometimes the water smells so different that the horse will go off of it.”

Dr. Kohn advises clients to cut the horse’s grain intake during the trip.

“I don’t think that the horse needs to eat a lot of grain when he is on the road,” she says. “We recommend that you don’t feed him grain while on the road, but once the horse is in his stall for the night, he can have half his normal ration. You want to avoid setting him up for a muscle problem.”

Cross-country travel takes horses through several different climates. Some horse owners like to compensate for changes in temperature by blanketing their horses. Dr. Kohn cautions against over-blanketing.

“Most people, in an effort to be really careful with their horses, often over-clothe them,” she said. “Remember that they are in a boxed area, and if there are multiple horses, they do generate a lot of body heat. It’s not advisable to have too many blankets. If you do go through a climate change, you have to stop and adjust the horse’s clothing and check to make sure that you are not over-dressing them.”

The same goes for protective clothing, such as shipping boots and caps.

“If you are going to put bandages on the horse, you have to make sure someone is going to check the bandages all the time,” says Carolyn Stull, Ph.D. and animal welfare specialist at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of California at Davis.

“If the horse is in a box stall, it is probably less risky to have no leg wraps. If the horse is standing beside another horse and they don’t have solid partitions, it’s probably a good thing (to bandage him) because there is a possibility that the other horse might step on him or he may overreach and step on himself.”

As hard as it can be on a horse’s internal systems, some horses may also find traveling to be physically exhausting – and with good reason, Dr. Kohn says “People need to realize that for a horse to stand in a trailer, it actually requires muscular work,” she says. “It’s work to stand there and make the posture adjustments that are necessary to keep steady.”

Some horses find it easier to face the back of the trailer, while others prefer to stand facing the front. Dr. Kohn suggests that horse owners have their horse hauled in a box stall, and travel behind the trailer to determine their animal’s preferred stance before embarking on a long journey.

Some owners prefer box stalls, which allow horses to lower their heads and drain the mucous and bacteria from their throats and noses. Merry, who has never shipped in a box stall, prefers standing stalls precisely because they limit the horse’s movement.

“To me, it’s much safer because there is a lot of bumping and jostling in the trailer,” she says. “I like to keep them tied with a quick-knot, so that if there is an emergency, I can get them off the trailer in a hurry.”

The bedding in the trailer should be as dust-free as possible and protect the horse’s legs from undue stress. Carolyn likes to see lots of rubber matting.

“It’s important to make sure that the heat of the highway isn’t affecting the horse; putting down double (the number of) rubber mats is more important than the actual bedding,” she says. “The bedding should absorb the urine and manure. The best thing that I can say about bedding is to make sure that it isn’t dusty – buy high-end shavings or straw.”

Not only must competitive horses be in good enough shape for travel, they must be in peak condition once they arrive at the show. This requires riders to devise an effective competition strategy.

“It’s an art to get the horse trained to the point at which he is going to peak right at the time of the competition,” Dr. Kohn says. “If the competition is halfway around the world from where you are training, quite a lot of effort needs to go into how good he is before he ships so that when he gets to the competition site, he is able to peak again.”

The rigors of travel combined with the possibility of jet lag must be taken into account.

After a long haul, horses require time to recover before they begin work.

“If you have been on the road for two or three days, you probably need two or three days for the horse to get back on his feet,” Dr. Kohn says. “How tedious the journey has been is your clue to how long you have to ease him back into his performance level.”

Road Safety

It’s in the tires (and the training, and the driving).

“If the ride is real bumpy, it’s going to make the horse work even harder,” Dr. Kohn says. Installing good shocks and ensuring that there is enough air in the tires can make the trip go a lot smoother.

So, too, can well-planned routes; Kohn suggests finding the smoothest, straightest roads. “Driving on a curvy little road that throws the horse around makes it a lot harder for him.”

Merry plans her trip carefully before hitting the road.

“When traveling, I don’t ever want to be in a hurry. I want to know the road conditions and if there are any detours or road closures,” she says. “I don’t want to get into a big city rush hour, so I have to take that into consideration when I plan my trip.

Merry also inspects her vehicles for any loose parts or flat tires.

“I check my fluid level and tire pressure, turn signals and brake lights,” she says. “I want the trailer hitches to be in safe condition, and every couple of months, I check under the mats to make sure that the floor is solid.”

Finally, Merry takes care of herself.

“I want to be well-rested and alert,” she says. “I am carrying valuable cargo, after all; their lives are in my hands.”

Merry, who has had her truck blow up while hauling several horses, emphasizes the importance of training horses to calmly load and unload.

“I don’t want to put a horse on a trailer if they are not going to get off,” she says. “If there is an emergency where you have to get your horses off quick, you don’t want to be sitting in a trailer with a horse that won’t back out and you have three horses in front of him.”