Road Ready: Traveling With Horses

Ensure your horse’s safety and wellness as you travel with him this season

Summer is the season to load up your horse and head to your activity of choice, be it a weekend trail ride with friends or a cross-country clinic. But wait: Have you done all you can to ensure your horse arrives safely and in good health?

Read on to learn what experts recommend to keep horses healthy and safe during transport. Following their advice, you can load up and hit the road knowing you’ve done everything you can to prevent and deal with potential travel-related accidents and illness.

Before You Leave

In the days, or even weeks, before your departure, check your trailer. Jenifer Nadeau, PhD, associate professor and extension horse specialist with the University of Connecticut, in Mansfield, recommends a thorough visual examination to find and fix any problems with the following:

The rig Your towing vehicle—a heavy SUV or truck—and trailer should be capable of hauling the combined weight of the horses and equipment; in good repair; and durable enough to endure normal use. The trailer should sustain the abuse of pawing/kicking/leaning horses and maintain its integrity if it’s involved in an accident.

Sharp edges Remove, repair, or cover/pad any protrusions in or on the trailer that might injure horse or handler.

Hardware such as latches, butt bars, breast bars, tie rings, and more These features must be in good working order and strong enough to withstand the wear and tear of the largest, strongest horse you’ll haul. You should be able to remove butt bars, breast bars, posts, and dividers easily in case of emergency.

Floors and underbraces “Horror stories abound of horses’ hooves puncturing the floor of a trailer as it traveled down the highway,” Nadeau says. “Remove mats and check floorboards regularly; manure and feces trap moisture under the mats if not cleaned regularly and oftentimes prematurely rot the floorboards.”

Tire inflation and condition “Make sure tires are inflated to the proper air pressure and in excellent condition, and that valves and valve stems aren’t worn,” she says. “Have the tires balanced and rotated regularly (annually) and check the tires—including the spare—for dry rot.”

Manufacturers recommend replacing tires every five years, regardless of how frequently you haul. Because dry rot starts on the inside of the tire, by the time you notice it, the situation is dangerous.

tow chains

Hitch and chains Proper trailer hitching is fundamental to safety. With tagalong trailers, for instance, the hitch fits into the receiver on the truck frame and locks in with a hitch pin. Chains should be crossed and connected to the truck’s frame with a positive closure hook—not an S-hook, which can come off in an incident.

The emergency breakaway cable should be connected from the trailer to the towing vehicle’s frame. Make sure the battery in this system is working, and replace it every five years or if it stops charging. This is the only system that will stop your trailer if it becomes unhitched and disconnected from the truck.

Loose wires and items Minimize obstacles inside the trailer; pitchforks, hoses, buckets, feed, and tack become like missiles in a wreck and can injure your horse. Look for loose wires, and tape or zip tie them so horses can’t play with them. 

Lights, blinkers, and brakes Nadeau recommends you turn on all the lights and walk around the trailer to make sure they work. Repeat with each blinker, or just turn on your hazards to check.

Haul the trailer a short distance to a flat area such as your driveway or an empty parking lot, and test the brakes to be sure they respond properly. Have your mechanic evaluate your brakes each time you have your tires rotated and balanced.

Before setting out, you’ll also want to replenish your equine first-aid kit. Include a thermometer, standing bandages, pillow or no-bow wraps, duct tape, self-adhesive bandages (Vetrap), a stethoscope, triple antibiotic wound ointment, and disposable diapers to use as compresses or large bandages. Ask your veterinarian if you should have medications such as ophthalmic ointment for eye injuries and non-steroidal anti-­inflammatory drugs on hand for your trip, and contact him or her before administering prescription pharmaceuticals. Be sure you have a spare halter, lead rope, some feed, and jugs of water from the farm. Also pack human first-aid supplies.

Check your vehicle’s roadside kit, as well. Nadeau says it should include serviceable spare tires for both your truck and trailer, plus a jack, tire iron, trailer tire-change ramp (i.e., Trailer-Aid), crowbar, tire pressure gauge that fits your truck (especially if it’s dually) and its pressure range, wheel chocks, wrenches, screwdrivers, fuses, jumper cables, flashlight, flares, a Class BC fire extinguisher, ropes, a tarp, and a reflective high-visibility vest.

Then gather and stow all the travel documents and information you’ll need in your truck, including:

  • Driver’s license, vehicle registration, and insurance for vehicle and trailer.
  • Your veterinary contact(s).
  • Coggins papers and a health certificate issued within the past 30 days if traveling out of state.
  • A brand certificate, if required in your state or the state you’re traveling to.
  • Horse insurance documents if insured.
  • A description of your horse, his markings, and registration papers (so responders can identify him if he escapes).
  • Your horse’s baseline TPR (temperature, pulse, and respiration rates).
  • Names and phone numbers of contacts along your route, including veterinarians and layover barns on long trips.
  • Contact information for your limited power of attorney and instructions for emergency responders in case you’re incapacitated.
  • The emergency response team’s number for each state you’ll travel in (if one exists). A direct call could save time and allow you to describe the situation accurately to emergency responders.
  • Paper and pencil to take notes.
  • Road atlas for if you’re out of cell range and need to locate the nearest town. Be sure you have a car charger for your phone so you can make calls when you are in cell range.

Plan your route, including feed, water, and rest stops, and leave a copy of your itinerary with someone at home.

Loading Up

Barbara Padalino, PhD, associate professor at the University of Bologna, Italy, who has studied equine transport-related problems, found through her research that horses expend less effort to maintain their balance during transport when loaded in a backward position, allowing at least 20.5 square feet per horse. Only load horses backward, however, in trailers built for rear-face hauling. Unbroken horses, she adds, should travel loose in a small group and only for short distances.

Nadeau recommends protective apparel for traveling horses. “It’s best to apply shipping boots if possible,” she says. “You definitely want to cover the horse’s coronary band since damage to that area will affect hoof growth. I’d also recommend applying a head bumper to prevent him from hitting his head and a tail wrap if the horse tends to lean on the butt bar.”

However, Padalino cautions owners to only use protective apparel on horses that have been habituated to each item and to check them frequently while traveling. You might install a camera to monitor your horse en route and see how well he is tolerating the trip.

In addition to injury protection, consider your horse’s overall health. Padalino says that next to injuries, pneumonia is the most common transport-related problem. She recommends providing water and dampened free-choice hay throughout your trip, positioned at a low (knee) level. She adds that horses should not be cross-tied but, rather, tied loosely so they can lower their head and neck while traveling to minimize the risk of transport-related pneumonia. However, avoid tying your horse with a rope so long he could hang a leg in it. Also use a breakaway tie or tie the horse to a piece of twine that will break in the event of an emergency.

Gastric ulcers can develop in horses while traveling, Padalino adds, due to the stress associated with transport. Therefore, acclimatize your horse to trailering and ensure he has access to forage and water to minimize the effects on his gut.

On the Road

Consider your horse’s comfort during transport, including temperature, ventilation, and feed, water, and exercise intervals. “Also, drive smoothly, and keep noise inside the trailer to a minimum,” Padalino says.

“If it’s hot, consider traveling early in the day or at night,” says Nadeau. Avoid transporting horses when temperatures exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit, if ­possible.

With a well-ventilated and insulated trailer, however, your horse can remain comfortable even in warm weather. Consider purchasing an electronic ambient weather station that tells you the current temperature and humidity within your trailer, so you can monitor comfort levels and make hauling decisions accordingly.

When driving, try to avoid sudden stops, and leave yourself plenty of room to slow down to a stop, she adds. Signal for turns sooner than you would without a trailer, and remember to keep a greater distance (3 to 4 seconds) between you and the vehicle in front of you. 

Nadeau suggests stopping to rest every three to four hours for at least 15 to 30 minutes. “Be sure your horse is drinking regularly, and inspect boots and wraps and reposition shifted headgear such as fly masks (used to protect your horse’s eyes and face from flying debris—a must if you use a stock trailer or don’t have screens on trailer windows),” she says. “Also make sure your horse is properly tied. Every 7 ½ hours, stop for 45 minutes to replenish your horse’s hay supply and remove manure- and urine-soaked ­bedding.”

She recommends hand-walking your horse or turning him out if you have overnight paddock access but cautions against unloading your horse in any area that might be dangerous to animals or humans or where reloading could be difficult.

“Nervous horses may spook and become loose, creating a dangerous situation,” Nadeau says. “Use your judgment when choosing to unload your horse. Many commercial haulers don’t unload horses during transport due to concerns about their ability to reload the horse and the potential danger of a horse’s reaction to an unfamiliar ­situation.”

Special Situations

Here are some steps to take if you encounter the unexpected:

Traffic Nadeau recommends adhering to your schedule as much as possible. “If you have to pull off for a rest stop before you reach your planned location, do so,” she says. “Just make sure to park in a safe place and consider the temperature and other conditions.”

Inclement weather Check the forecast before heading out, Nadeau says, and, if possible, avoid driving in bad weather. “If you’re stuck in a storm, slow down, increase your following distance, and try to get to a safe location to wait it out.”

Accident Follow the same procedures you would for a car accident: Call 911 right away. Give the dispatcher a detailed description of the trailer size, number of horses and people involved, any injuries, and location (e.g., mile markers, intersections, direction of travel). Don’t unload horses unless absolutely necessary or you’re in a very quiet area, Nadeau says. If a horse is loose, resist chasing him, which could cause another accident. Don your high-visibility vest, entice the horse with feed, and have a vet check him out after.

Take-Home Message

No one wants to arrive at their destination and realize their horse has gotten sick or injured along the way. By following our experts’ advice, you can rest easy knowing you’ve done all you can to prevent potential travel-related accidents and illness and can enjoy your time together at your destination.