Retrofit Your Rig

Of the many things you ask your horse to do, few are as totally unnatural and potentially hazardous to his health as asking him to climb into a metal box and trundle down the road for hours on end. To make the trailering experience as low-stress


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Of the many things you ask your horse to do, few are as totally unnatural and potentially hazardous to his health as asking him to climb into a metal box and trundle down the road for hours on end. To make the trailering experience as low-stress and as safe as possible for your horse, new trailers offer a bevy of special features, from bright white interiors to high-tech suspension systems. But if you own an older trailer, or a less-expensive model, there are a few retrofits or even neglected maintenance items that could improve your horse’s hauling experience.

In particular, there are two overriding health concerns to focus on during a trailer makeover, says James Hamilton, DVM, a partner at Southern Pines Equine Associates in Southern Pines, N.C. Hamilton, along with being a horseman himself, is co-author of Equine Emergencies on the Road, and he has been heavily involved with the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Disaster Response program.

The first trailer-linked health concern, says Hamilton, is shipping fever. “Statistically, 20-30% of horses in trailers for more than eight hours develop shipping fever,” he says. “Of that population, about 25% develop pleuro-pneumonia. And of that 25%, half ultimately die.”

The second concern is injury to the horse in or around the trailer, he says. For instance, a horse could sustain anything from a minor wound to a torn ligament to a broken bone during a traffic accident, as a result of an abrupt stop or turn, or even when loading or unloading from the trailer. The driver’s skill definitely plays a role. But, says Hamilton, some trailer overhauls can also decrease the risk.

Air Quality Control

Factors linked to the development of shipping fever include opportunistic viruses or bacteria, stress, inflammatory challenges to the lungs, and inhaled contaminants, says Hamilton. You can impact at least the last three of these factors with thoughtful trailer upgrades.

Creating a trailer environment that keeps the air as clean and free of foreign bodies as possible will obviously reduce the contaminants inhaled by the horse. That could lower the risk that your horse might develop shipping fever, notes Hamilton. Unfortunately, he adds, many trailers lack proper circulation. That poor airflow causes the horse to inhale ever-increasing amounts of contaminants and higher levels of ammonia during lengthy trailer rides.

Adding vents and windows to your trailer can improve circulation. The caveat is that vents and windows can also allow debris to enter from outside the trailer. Not only could that affect your horse’s respiratory system, but it might pose an eye hazard.

“It’s not uncommon for me to treat corneal ulcers after a long trip,” says Hamilton. Window screens might be another good add-on. Another option, he notes, is to put a quality fly mask on your horse during travel–one on which the eye screen won’t bend in the wind to rub against the horse’s eye.

Manger Management

“There is good data to suggest that we’d like manger-style hay containers, positioned down low, rather than nets,” says Hamilton. Traditional hay nets, he explains, can lower air quality and increase the amount of debris a horse inhales during transit.

Newer-style mangers–basically sack-like canvas containers held in place with eye-hooks–can help solve the problem. While traditional hay nets are typically hung right in front of the horse’s face, these new mangers typically hang at or below the horse’s shoulder level. This allows the horse to keep his head clear of the hay and means that a breeze is less likely to send particles flying around the trailer.

In addition, some studies indicate that when a horse is allowed or encouraged to lower his head in the trailer, he can better keep his respiratory passages clear. Ultimately, that leads to less contamination of–and stress on–the respiratory system during a trip.

Water Wise

“One element that predisposes horses to shipping fever is dehydration,” says Hamilton. “Yet, I find that many people don’t take adequate amounts of water (on long trips).”

To make it easy to haul ample aqua, Hamilton encourages people to add water tanks to their rigs. They can be placed over the wheel wells or the tongue, in the trailer’s tack room, or even in the pickup bed.

Having plenty of water aboard means you’ll have familiar-tasting fluid for your horse to drink at rest stops during a long haul. It also means you’re prepared in case a roadside emergency leaves you and your horse stranded. In such a scenario, the on-board water supply means that not only can you give your horse a drink, but you can also sponge him off, helping him to stay cool and potentially reducing his stress level, says Hamilton.

Anti-Stress Solutions

Stress during trailer rides is another factor that can put your horse at risk for shipping fever and other health problems. For instance, says Hamilton, “Approaching 90% of racehorses and 60% of show horses have gastric ulcers. And it’s purely stress-related.”

Thus, anything you can do to lower stress levels is a good thing.

When it comes to trailering, Hamilton believes that light-colored, well-lit interiors help. “I don’t have any numbers to back that up, but it’s my gut instinct,” he says.

Similarly, giving your horse the smoothest ride possible can help ease both mental and physical fatigue. Besides working on your own driving skills, you can make a difference by replacing an older leaf-spring suspension. Today, says Hamilton, rubber torsion suspension systems are the industry standard and can give your horse a softer, less jarring ride that will be easier on his body and his nerves.

Ramp It Up

Hamilton ranks ramps high on his must-have list. While the ramp vs. step-up debate might rage on around him, Hamilton stands firmly in the ramp camp. He notes that wounds sustained by horses getting on or off a step-up style trailer are among the most common injuries he sees.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that a step-up is an inherent risk that can be mitigated by adding a ramp,” Hamilton says. “That’s a retro-fit you can do to add to the safety and value of your trailer.”

Divided They Stand

Another potential trailer trouble spot is the trailer divider. One that goes all the way to the floor, Hamilton explains, limits the space a horse has to widen his stance–a key factor in maintaining balance.

“If you watch 100 horses and see how they balance themselves in a trailer going down the road, you’ll find that many exaggerate a base-wide stance, standing with their legs pretty far apart,” he says. “If a horse is limited in how wide he can spread his legs, that can play a big role in how easy it is for him to keep himself upright and comfortable.”

Swapping out a floor-length divider for one that stops 18 to 24 inches above the trailer floor can improve your horse’s stability and thus his safety, says Hamilton. While he acknowledges that the higher divider could allow adjacent horses to step on each other’s legs, he believes that’s a lesser risk than inhibiting the horse’s ability to maintain balance during travel. Use protective legwear during travel reduces the chance of your horse being injured.

Under Foot

What horse owner hasn’t heard horror stories of injuries sustained by horses falling through broken trailer floors? There’s no question that ensuring your trailer has a solid, sturdy floor is an essential safety element. In Hamilton’s opinion, the type of flooring material (typically wood or aluminum) matters less than the condition it’s in, what’s on top of it, and how well you care for the whole package.

Covering the trailer floor with thick, non-skid rubber mats can help protect the flooring from damage caused by horse hooves and manure. In addition, mats can give your horse added traction and provide some shock-absorption qualities to reduce the bone-jarring impacts of a long trailer ride.

Hamilton encourages owners to routinely check the trailer floor for rotting or other signs of weakness. Replacing part or all of the floor could be one of the most important makeovers you undertake.

If the floor is in good shape, cleaning it after every use can help it stay that way, says Hamilton. He encourages owners to not simply pick out fresh manure piles, but clear the entire floor, then pick up the mats and hang them up, allowing the floor to thoroughly dry.

One for You

One of Hamilton’s pet peeves with trailers has less to do with the horse’s direct safety and more to do with convenience for the humans working around the trailer during low-light hours. The lighting capacity of most trailers, says Hamilton, is disappointing and somtimes unsafe.

He’d like to see trailers with auxiliary lighting for interior and exterior use. It could come in handy, for instance, if you have a roadside emergency or need to load/unload your horse in the wee morning hours or late at night. In addition, if you do find yourself stranded along the road in the dark, having some extra bright lights on will make it easier for passing vehicles to see and avoid you–an obvious safety enhancement for you and your horse.

The Bottom Line

Hamilton acknowledges that “all of these things play a bigger role the longer your horse has to be in the trailer. If all you ever do is go five miles down the road, this may be somewhat of a moot point.” Nonetheless, whether your travels take you a few miles or a few hundred miles away from home, keeping your horse safe, comfortable, and healthy inside the trailer will go a long way toward encouraging him to get back inside every time, and to ensuring your peace of mind. In short, it’s a makeover that’s likely to be worth the money.

DO-IT-YOURSELF? Makeover Labor

Some trailer makeovers are simple do-it-yourself projects even for novice handymen. For instance, laying down rubber mats, adding new canvas hay mangers, or replacing a divider could be easy tasks for you to handle. But unless you’re experienced with mechanics, electronics, and body work, you should leave the more complex retrofits to professionals.

For instance, cutting out pieces of wall and installing windows, adding auxiliary lights, or swapping out suspension systems are jobs you should hand off to the folks at a reputable trailer service center. To find such a facility, talk with local equestrians whose judgment you trust and whose rigs always seem to be in top condition. A good service center can also help you find trailer accessories and parts for do-it-yourself projects and can assist with annual safety checks and maintenance chores.–Sushil Dulai Wenholz

TRAILER SAFETY CHECKLIST: Be Prepared for Anything

Whether your trailer is new or used, straight from the manufacturer or upgraded and customized, one of the smartest steps you can take is to conduct a safety check before every ride. Be as thorough as possible and make sure to cover at least these points:

  • Tires (tread, air pressure, general condition; remember to check the spare);
  • Floorboards (check for weakness or rotting);
  • Ramp (make sure it opens, closes, and latches properly);
  • Doors and windows (make sure hinges and closures work and there is no broken glass);
  • Hardware (make sure that all screws, bolts, nails, etc., are tight and not protruding);
  • Lights (turn signals, brakes, taillights, headlights, and interior lights);
  • Hitch (welds, safety chains and snaps, hitch ball and socket);
  • Brakes (make sure they’re working properly before you load horses);
  • Interior surfaces (check for rough areas, sharp edges, ripped padding, etc.); and
  • Safety kit (make sure you have easy access to a trailer-appropriate jack and tire iron, tire sealant, trailer chocks, safety reflectors/triangles, and first-aid supplies; drive-up blocks are also handy).

Annual inspections are another wise safety move and should include the above plus:

  • Frame and body (check for cracks, rotting, and rusting);
  • Wiring (check for loose connections, frayed coverings);
  • Hinges and springs (make sure they’re properly greased);
  • Wheel bearings (pull to check, then repack);
  • Spring shackles (look for wear); and
  • Brakes and emergency breakaway equipment.–Sushil Dulai Wenholz

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