Safe Travel in Winter
You’re driving a loaded horse trailer in winter despite rain, snow, ice, and a low wind chill factor. Why? Unfortunately, schedules for breeding, competition, and sale require that horses be transported in all seasons and weather despite increased risks. Another possible reason to haul horses in winter might be to evacuate because of a natural or man-made disaster. Yet another reason might be a medical emergency.
Hauling horses in winter escalates the hazards for driver and animals. The challenges are to maintain your horse’s health and arrive safely–and on schedule. The risks of winter require more preparation than the same journey in other seasons. Use common sense in balancing your need to meet a schedule with the hazards of transport. An important planning step is investigating weather conditions at your destination. “We like to minimize great changes in weather when we can,” says David Jensen, DVM, of San Marcos Equine Practice in Los Alamos, Calif., who handles long-distance horse shipping. “Pay attention to weather when you can. Don’t ship a horse right after he shows or races in Florida, and then go to colder weather in New York.”
Keeping Horses Comfortable
The trailer shelters your horse from wind’s chill, rain, snow, and hail. However, you can make a horse uncomfortable even in this shelter, especially if you close up the trailer tightly to keep out the bad weather. Analyze each phase of your trip–before you leave, determine how you’ll maintain a comfortable temperature inside the trailer.
Jensen explains that horses thrive in cooler temperatures, around 50-60°F (12°C). Overheating is a more hazardous, and a more typical, problem for horses being hauled than getting chilled. Heat inside an enclosed trailer can build up quickly, increasing the humidity. The horse then sweats more, leading to added fluid loss. Also, many people over-blanket horses in trailers in cold weather, which adds to their discomfort.
Jensen says that good ventilation inside the trailer can help keep horses from overheating. This is a must whether you are hauling in winter or summer. Air should circulate, but the trailer should not be drafty with wind blowing directly onto the horse. In frigid temperatures, the open sides of a stock trailer can permit too much cold wind on horses.
“Without proper air circulation, condensation builds up and the horses end up breathing all that moisture in the air, which can lead to serious respiratory problems,” says Jack Williams of Beacon Hill Horse Transportation in Wingdale, N.Y.
The first step in providing proper ventilation is to check your trailer’s vents. Along with windows, vents aid air exchange and help the trailer “breathe.” Ideally, each stall will have a roof vent. The two-way ventilator can be adjusted to scoop air from the front or rear.
“Run the roof vents in reverse (opening to the rear) so they will draw all that steamy, dead air off the horses,” advises Dave Dalzelle of Jamco Trailers. “You can get quite a breeze at 70 miles per hour. People often open the vents (forward) and blast air down on top of the horses, right down on their heads or backs. Leave the windows open and reverse the vents.”
Another important step is to inspect a trailer’s sliding windows. Make sure that they slide easily, aren’t cracked, and close completely. As heat increases inside, you want to be able to adjust ventilation by “cracking” a window an inch or two, or opening it fully if it’s very hot inside.
Jim McKague of Jamco Trailers says, “Most of today’s trailers seal up tightly when you close them. In close quarters, you do get condensation. Don’t open your storm doors in winter, but use windows to allow air to escape. The windows should have screens to stop any snow or moisture from coming in with the horses.”
Your trailer’s insulation also affects the interior environment. Insulation in a double-wall construction keeps heat in and cold out, and you might need to adjust the windows and roof vents to compensate.
Watering is another important part of winter travel, as dehydration can be more likely to occur in cold weather. Some horses naturally drink less in winter, and drivers might not want to take the time to locate, haul, and offer warm water to each horse in a trailer. However, hydration is essential to health–plan to stop every three to four hours to water your passengers.
If it is very cold, you might need to blanket your horse(s), but cold isn’t the only factor. “If there is a full load in the truck, a sheet would be fine,” says Williams. Several horses’ body heat keeps the inside of a trailer pretty warm. However, “If you only have a few horses on, and the temperature is cold, you may need a blanket, too.”
Match the warmth of the blanket to the horse’s coat. A horse which is body-clipped will need increased warmth in cold weather, while one with a heavy winter coat might need no extra covering at all.
At each watering stop, check the horses for overheating–don’t just peek in to make sure they’re still standing. Catherine Kohn, VMD, in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at The Ohio State University, recommends, “Check under blankets frequently–the horse is too hot if he’s sweating under the blanket.”
“A horse that sweats is damp, and a draft is more dangerous,” says McKague. He also advises looking for sweat on the horse’s neck and shoulders.
Angelo Duvall of Rock A Doo Farm in Bradford, Ill., hauls Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds. He says, “I prefer them blanketed in the winter, and I definitely have the windows open. Even in the winter, horses sweat because they are nervous.”
Getting Ready to Go
If you’re traveling right after a competition or other equine activity, take care of your horse before you load. McKague advises, “If your horse was worked heavily and heated up, cool him out before you transport–especially if your trailer isn’t enclosed.”
Horses should be trained to load and unload calmly, despite the weather. This will save both of you a lot of stress and time out in the cold. To make things easier for both of you, load and unload in well-lighted settings to avoid missteps and horses refusing to load into that large, dark cave we call a trailer. If you can, park so the ground near the loading door is dry. This will help keep the ramp and trailer floor from getting wet and slick. If the trailer has a ramp, make sure that the matting isn’t slippery or in poor condition for loading and unloading. Be sure to secure any doors or swinging windows when loading/unloading and traveling by latching them so the wind won’t unexpectedly blow an open door shut or vice versa.
What if Weather Stops You?
Sometimes you must stay off the road because of bad weather, no matter how important it is to get to your destination that day. Investigate weather and road conditions before leaving so you can plan ahead for potential stops. Have a Plan B before road conditions become impassable.
These locations should have accommodations for your horses out of the weather, and there should be accommodations for yourself nearby. It’s good to call ahead to see if stalls and rooms are available if you think you might need to stop.
Duvall frequently hauls horses through the Midwest. “Watch the weather,” he advises. “If bad weather is coming, we can start for a layover place. You want to get horses off the road when you know bad weather is coming. We haul quite a lot of racehorses–Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds–as well as stallions, so we want to watch out for the horse’s best interests. If I know bad weather or snow is coming, I make it clear that I need an extra day.”
Truck and Trailer Safety
Your horse’s health isn’t the only part of winter travel that you should consider– severe weather can drastically affect the way you drive your truck and trailer. Heavy rains mean muddy roads, wet streets, or flooded intersections.
You might have to drive through low visibility conditions, such as a whiteout during a snowstorm, heavy rain, or hail. In northern climates, snow and ice can slow or even halt highway traffic, leaving you and your horses stranded. Assume your extra responsibility for safety by anticipating all of these risks.
As you drive on less-than-ideal roads, continuously check your truck and trailer’s performance. Reduce speed when the road is icy to assure yourself that you still have full control of truck and trailer. If you drive through a flooded intersection or dip in the road, test your brakes before you need to stop for traffic or other hazards to see if they’ve become wet and “grabby.”
Additionally, a heavy horse trailer moving at a good clip can slide a very long way if the tires lose their grip on ice, so you need to drive more slowly and plan even farther ahead on icy roads.
Always use your trailer’s safety chains when you hitch up. A strong wind or a slippery road can hamper your control of the trailer, so you want it to remain firmly hitched to your truck even if the primary hitch fails.
Should you use chains on tires? They can cause a rough ride, but Laurie Allred of Ketchum, Ohio, uses them for additional grip on slick roads. “We chain the rear wheels of the pickup, and the brake wheels on the trailer,” she says. “That helps keep you from fishtailing.”
With proper planning for winter trailering, you can keep your horses (and yourself) safe and healthy.
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