Ask A Teamster: Hauling Horses
by Dr. Doug Hammill D.V.M. of Montana
I’m wondering if I may ask your advice on trailering horses and preparing a well-stocked first aid kit.
For a claustrophobic animal like the horse, being confined to a small box while speeding down the highway at 60 miles per hour is a mighty unnatural experience. Each year many potentially enjoyable experiences with horses and mules are dampened or ruined when problems occur during the hauling process.
Luckily, equines are adaptable animals and are likely to arrive in good condition – if – you make preparations beforehand and take some precautions. Here are some tips to help your horse stay healthy, safe, and comfortable while traveling.
BEFORE THE TRIP
Train your horse. In a perfect world, all horses would lead well and follow you anywhere, stand tied patiently for hours, and load into and unload from horse trailers and trucks willingly and comfortably. Though these are actually very basic and essential things for horses to know, it’s amazing how many horse owners neglect teaching them properly and thoroughly. If we teach these things early and practice them often, our horses will not only be ready for pre-planned trips, but more importantly for unexpected outings – such as a trip to the vet.
Please, don’t wait until you must haul your horse to properly train it to loading and being transported. Some great videos and books on trailer loading are available from top natural horsemanship clinicians. One of the best is Richard Winter’s “Foundations.”
Inspect your trailer. Trailers and trucks for hauling horses should be inspected frequently and maintained in good, safe working order. As with training horses to haul, maintenance and repairs should be done routinely so that vehicles are always ready for unexpected trips. A safety check should include things that make the conveyance roadworthy, plus safe and comfortable for horses.
Use solid dividers. Divider panels and doors in trailers make me very nervous if they are not solid from the floor up to at least 48 inches. Horses are notorious for getting feet and legs into open spaces below that level — and sometimes higher. If there is a gap between any divider and the floor I want it to be no more than a couple of inches for the same reason. An animal that wears a 000 shoe can get his feet into openings of 3.5 by 3.5 inches or larger, but may not get them back out. A draft horse that takes a #6 shoe can get a foot though any openings 8 by 8 inches or more. Also consider the risks for the smaller feet and heads of foals, ponies and mini’s if you transport them. If I’m hauling animals small enough to get their feet or heads into existing openings in the truck or trailer, I make sure to block off those places beforehand. Don’t neglect to check the size of open spaces between the roof of the trailer and the tops of dividers and doors. Curious horses and those looking for a way out will test them with their heads and could get trapped and injured or die from choking or a broken neck.
I prefer removable dividers and doors in case a horse gets down or stuck in some way, but I want them with safe, strong, dependable fastening systems.
Strike a balance with ventilation. The challenge with ventilation is to strike a balance in the trailer between cold and drafty and hot and stuffy. I feel it’s safer to keep horses on the cool side rather than too hot, and stagnant dusty air is more of a concern to me than fresh air in the form of some draft or wind.
When traveling long distances, the environmental conditions the horses are acclimated to should be taken into consideration — especially during the extremes of summer and winter. In hot weather, an enclosed trailer that is reasonably comfortable when rolling down the highway can heat up fast as you slow down or stop. Horses that can stay warm moving about outside during winter may need blankets to stand idle for hours in a cold trailer without getting chilled.
Vehicle exhaust fumes can also be a real problem for horses in trailers. Fresh air moving through the trailer helps flush them out, but they can really build up in trailers with poor air circulation.
Avoid bedding. Some folks think they are doing horses a favor when they put a layer of soft, absorbent bedding such as wood shavings or straw in the trailer. But oftentimes fine particles in the bedding get whipped around by air currents and end up irritating the horse’s eyes, nasal passages, throat and lungs. Thick rubber mats provide relief to the legs and feet by cushioning and absorbing shock and are a better choice because they are dust and particle free.
Take a ride. The only way to really understand the conditions your horse is subjected to when riding in a trailer, and what you can do to improve them, is to hop in yourself and have someone take you for a ride. It may not be legal in your state, but I assure you it gives one an appreciation for what your horse endures riding in that tin box.
Take special care loading and unloading. Most trailer-related injuries to horses — and people — happen while either loading or unloading, or shortly after loading when horses become claustrophobic in the trailer and panic.
Take extra care and time during these critical periods. Hurrying to get horses loaded or unloaded, or taking off in a hurry immediately after loading up before the horse is ready, has caused a lot of wrecks. The less noise, confusion, excitement and activity during the loading process the better. Horses take their emotional cues from us. If we are over stimulated, in a hurry, concerned, anxious, intimidated, frustrated, impatient, angry, fearful, etc., we cannot expect our horses to be otherwise. Everyone involved in the process of loading and unloading should radiate the quiet emotions and relaxed behavior you want to see in your horse. Out of consideration for the horse and in the interest of safety I will ask emotionally charged people to stand back and not help, or sometimes even to leave the area.
Secure the rear before tying the head. Once you’ve got your horse loaded, never tie his head until after his hindquarters are secured. It’s important to maintain control of the head, but always fasten the butt bar, butt chain, or other rear barrier before you tie his head. I recommend having one person hold the lead rope by hand while another secures the back of the trailer. If you are alone, use an extra long lead rope and run it through the tie ring and back to your hand to control the head while you work at the rear.
Without a rear barrier in place, a horse that is tied solid may try to back out of the trailer and be jerked to a stop by the head. This can easily trigger the reflex panic reaction in horses which causes them to fight and pull back. When this happens to a horse he typically struggles blindly to get free, often throwing his head from side to side and bashing it on the trailer. At some point a horse that is pulling back is likely to lunge forward blindly. This action can result in further head and neck injuries, and often feet and legs tangled in the manger and perhaps injured. Horses lucky enough to avoid physical injuries during such an episode invariably suffer psychological trauma nonetheless.
Contrary to what some people think, horses don’t pull back when tied because they are idiots or stupid. Horses pull back because of a crucial reflex called “the opposition reaction” or “positive thigmotaxis,” a self-protective reflex that’s hard wired into every horse’s nervous system.
Once the rear barrier is secured behind, you can tie the horse without the risk of him backing up far enough to tighten the rope and trigger pulling back. If your horse is short in length relative to the length of the trailer compartment, tie him to an appropriate, safe place on the side of the trailer so when he backs up, he will feel the butt barrier before the tie becomes tight.
When it’s time to unload, always untie the horse before you release the butt bar, butt chain or rear barrier. As always, monitor and control the head after untying the horse.
Admittedly, calm well-trained horses don’t usually panic under such circumstances, but trailers and travel involve a variety of factors that can result in unexpected behavior. Please keep in mind that any horse can blow up in a trailer — even after the rear barrier is in place and the head is properly tied.
Be sure your horse can be tied in a variety of situations. As with all other training, horses should be trained to tie in a variety of locations and situations. This is called generalization. Just because your horse accepts being tied in the usual place(s) around home is no guarantee that he will feel comfortable and safe tied elsewhere — in a trailer or in a new location — unless training to be tied has been “generalized.”
To prevent wrecks and injuries horses should be tied high and short, but not so short as to cause them to feel restricted to the point of claustrophobia. Ideally, horses should be tied at a point at least as high as their withers, and preferably higher. Tying lower than the withers significantly increases the risk of injuries to the neck and back if the horse acts up while tied. This is especially true for foals and horses under two or three years of age — they should always be tied higher than the withers. Horses tied too low and/or too long are also at risk of getting a leg over the rope, throwing a fit, and hurting themselves — or someone else. They can also get their head down and catch a front or rear foot or the heel of a shoe in the halter while pawing or trying to scratch their head or ear. This often results in injury or death — just as when horses are turned loose with halters on.
The tie rings in mangers of horse trailers are usually placed too low for tying horses safely. I avoid using them, preferring to tie to rings located higher on the walls or to other sturdy structural pieces at the appropriate height. In fact, most of the hitch rails, tie rings, and other places to tie horses that I see in my travels are too low, and most of the horses I see tied are tied too long — often much too long. Typically, the horses can get their muzzles down to below their knees or further.
If you need to feed your horse on the ground while he’s tied it’s necessary to temporarily tie him longer. Tie him so he has to take all the slack out of the rope to just get his muzzle to the ground — again, shorter than most people think (photo #1). When he’s tied like this, stay close and watch him so he doesn’t get into trouble. In addition, feed him only small amounts of hay at a time, and re-pile the hay often as he noses it out of reach. When he’s done eating, re-tie him high and short again.
To tie or not to tie?
Some people routinely do not tie their horses in trailers — especially in the comparatively spacious compartments of stock trailers, but often not in the individual compartments of divided trailers either. Basically, I feel that trucks and trailers are more roadworthy if the animals are tied and can’t move around and vary the weight distribution too much. If a horse is well trained to tie I’m convinced he’s less apt to get into trouble if he’s properly tied in a trailer or truck.
On the other hand, I feel horses that are not well trained to lead and tie should be hauled loose (not tied), or not hauled at all. A truck or trailer going down the road is not a place I want a horse tied that is not ready for it.
But, let me emphasize that I will not haul loose horses in certain types of trailers or trucks. For example, hauling loose with an open top is unacceptable, and hauling loose in quarters that are too small is definitely asking for trouble.
I want only horses that will tie in the tight quarters of single horse sections of trailers, because I’ve known of too many that got into serious trouble when they weren’t tied. Some of them sat down and flipped over backwards, while others tried to turn around and ended with their head and neck stuck along their side in the narrow quarters, or flopped over on their side on the floor.
If I must haul horses that are not well halter broke and trained to tie, I haul them loose in a stock trailer, or remove a divider to give them room to turn around safely, but never in the single compartment of a horse trailer unless they are small enough to turn around in it. When I haul horses loose, as when we move the untamed Spanish mustangs used in my Gentling and Round Pen Training Workshops, I try to make the size and number of horses fit the space in the trailer or make the space in the trailer fit the size and number of horses. My goal is to give the horses enough room to shuffle around a bit and not feel claustrophobic, but not so much space that their moving around or bunching up disturbs the weight distribution and balance of the truck or trailer.
When I transport a mare with a young foal, I tie the mare but generally not the foal. The foal can nurse, move around a bit, and even lie down. Some of you are no doubt wondering about the mare stepping on the foal. If the mare is not calm and careful you can put a makeshift divider (3/4 inch plywood works well) between her and the foal. Be sure it is durable, has smooth edges, sits on the floor (no space under it for little legs to get caught), and is well secured – so it’s not torn loose causing injuries. Design it so the foal has room to nurse over the top of it at the mares flank without danger of getting his head hurt if the mare moves.
Load the horses last. I like to have everything else entirely ready to go, and then load the horses last. This way I have a choice whether to let the horse(s) stand in the trailer and get comfortable before departing, or whether to take off right away so an anxious horse is distracted by moving and the need to keep his balance, etc. This decision is sometimes a difficult judgment call. Some horses benefit from time to relax and adapt before being subjected to the noise and movement of leaving, while others get impatient and may act up or panic if allowed to remain idle too long. Figure out what works best for your horse(s). With repetition most horses become more comfortable and flexible with it all — if you do right by them.
Secure all trailer doors. Some of the most tragic and gruesome injuries to horses that I dealt with as a veterinarian occurred because horse trailer door latches failed in some way and allowed doors to open and horses, or parts of them, to spill out on the pavement. One horse was tied in but stepped out a back door that came open with his hind legs. He lay stretched out on the trailer floor with his rear end under the butt bar and his rear legs dragging for miles. He had to be euthanized. Because I know firsthand that such things occur, I always, always, always secure trailer doors with a padlock (photo #2), padlock and chain, or at least a stout rope or wire. The fact is trailer doors unexpectedly and inexplicably come open at times. Please secure your trailer doors. Enough said.
Don’t over feed. Digestive upset is one of the more common problems for horses when they travel. To compensate for the lack of activity during travel, reduce caloric intake. Severely limit — or even better — cut out all grain and concentrate feeding during the trip, and then gradually bring them back up to former levels when you arrive at your destination.
Feed just enough hay to keep them busy and moderately full, but not overfull. I prefer to feed small amounts of hay frequently. I put a little hay in front of them at each stop. You can run into problems if you allow them to get too full or stay too empty.
Before, during, and after traveling avoid hay that is fine and rich, and/or high in alfalfa or other legumes. Combined with the stress of travel such high powered hay can lead to gastrointestinal upsets such as diarrhea and colic. Conversely, hay that is over mature, coarse and dry can result in impaction, especially if the horses don’t drink enough water — which is often the case when traveling. Feed them moderately well on hay overnight, but give them only a light feeding in the morning before they load up for the day’s ride.
Spike the water. Getting your horses to drink enough water on the road and at your destination is often a challenge, and even more so when they don’t like the taste of unfamiliar water. To help ensure the taste of different water doesn’t slow their intake, spike your horses’ water at home with a dash of vinegar. Then add the same kind of vinegar to the water you offer during your travels. This will make it all taste the same and keep them drinking better. The key, however, is to have them on the vinegar laced water long enough before the trip so they accept it and are drinking it well. I suggest a week. Some folks prefer to carry a supply of water from home when practical.
During the trip, I frequently offer horses water from a bucket at stops during the day. Some horses will drink well in the trailer and some won’t. If they are unloaded mid-day for exercise, they tend to be more apt to drink. I offer water both before and after a midday walk.
Keep leg wraps handy. Horses’ lower legs sometimes swell (stock up) from lack of exercise during travel. To control this many people routinely wrap the legs on horses for transport. However, I prefer to prevent circulatory congestion in the legs with exercise whenever possible, using leg wraps only when necessary. Many horses can ride day after day without stocking up, while others must be wrapped or unloaded midday and hand walked to prevent it.
Leg wraps also protect the legs. If you need to haul a horse that is likely to traumatize his legs when loading, while he’s in the trailer, or during unloading, I recommend conditioning him to leg wraps ahead of time and wrapping his legs for the entire trip.
Whenever leg wraps are used they should be removed, left off for a time, and the legs re-wrapped at least once a day. Massaging the legs or even running water on them between wraps is a good practice. If you use water, be sure the legs are dry before re-wrapping. If leg wraps or bandages are too tight they can interfere with circulation and cause tissue damage. If they are too loose, they are ineffectual. It’s a bit of an art to get them just right so have someone with experience coach you at first.
Let them stretch their legs. Lack of exercise can become an issue when you travel for more than a day or so. If you feel it’s safe, unload your horse(s) midday to walk and trot them around a bit if possible. In addition, when you stop overnight, try to find a corral or paddock where they can be turned out instead of confining them to a box stall or tying them. If you must tie them or confine them to the trailer overnight, I recommend frequent hand walking with some trotting during the layover. Stopping for exercise is often a good investment of time that pays dividends in the health and well being of the horses.
Be a safe, considerate driver. Each time you start to move the rig, do so slowly, gradually building speed to give the horses time to balance themselves and get their “sea legs” working. Throughout any trip with horses it’s very important to start, stop, speed up and slow down gradually, and keep the speed down on rough roads, curves, and turns. Allowing lots of extra distance between you and vehicles ahead of you will give you more time to slow down gradually and smoothly when something happens ahead. These are very important considerations that will add to the comfort and safety of your horses during their ride. Unless you have ridden with a horse in a trailer pulled by an inconsiderate, erratic driver, as I have, it’s difficult to imagine what an unpleasant experience it can be for horses.
TYING TO TRAILERS
Trailers make poor hitch rails. I’ll be frank again. Tying horses to the outside of trailers is responsible for some of the most common and serious injuries treated by veterinarians. Sadly, it happens more often than you might think. If for any reason your horse rubs, paws, rears, pulls back, panics, or throws himself down when tied to a trailer, the resulting injuries can be devastating.
Trailers seem innocuous enough, but don’t forget that most parts of horse trailers are made of angular or sharp metal that can strip a leg to the bone. In addition, horses can easily fracture a leg if it slips under the trailer or gets caught in the wheels, springs, tongue, safety chains, various braces, etc.
A rounded pipe frame or rubber bumper (photo #1) in the back under the doors is less apt to cut or scrape than angular metal, but legs can still be fractured if they slide underneath. Ramps tend to eliminate this danger, but if your horse gets off to the side of the ramp, feet and legs can go under the ramp itself.
Because of their design and construction some trailers are safer than others to load, haul, and tie horses to, and some locations around a trailer are safer places to tie than others.
I try to never tie to the trailer if I have any better option. If you must tie your horse to a trailer, the center of the back is often the least dangerous place to tie — but only if the trailer is hitched to a vehicle. Otherwise a horse could pull the trailer backwards if he hauls back. An exception is when the door latches are in the center on the back where the halter or a leg could get hung up on them.
Ironically, the most dangerous place to tie a horse is the most common place you see them tied — on the sides next to those leg- and head-shredding fender edges. Cat Beardsley from Colorado was kind enough to send me photo #1 which shows her innovative solution to the dangerous fender problem. During my career as a horse doctor, literally hundreds of my patients could have been spared serious injury or death if their owners would have protected the sides of their trailers like Cat does.
With fender protection I could be convinced to tie a well-broke, sensible, patient old veteran to the side of a trailer. But, with young, foolish or impatient horses — no way. I absolutely will not tie them to the outside of a trailer at all.
IN CONCLUSION: a story
Joe was a tall, lanky cowboy type and self-proclaimed part-time horse trainer who pulled into my vet clinic back in the ’70s to have a horse tube wormed. The receptionist saw him go to the back of his two horse trailer, open the left door, and just stand there staring inside, and looking like he’d just swallowed a wad of snoose. When I got to the trailer the horse was still inside. Peering in, I saw the rear end of a nice sorrel quarter horse on the left side, and the front end of a very similar looking horse facing towards the back on the right side. It took me a minute to realize that they were parts of the same puzzled looking horse.
Before leaving home, Joe, like always, had pointed his horse at the trailer, told him to “load up,” flipped the lead rope over his neck, slapped him on the rump, shut the door behind him, and headed for my vet clinic. Now Joe’s trailer had an escape door for skinny people in the center divider — up front near the manger. As luck would have it that narrow escape door was unlatched and standing open, so ol’ Trigger, not having anything else to do on the trip stuck his head through, then his neck. With a little push and wiggle he forced his shoulders through the opening and was headed for the back door. Things were getting mighty tight but his ribs flexed enough to squeak by, and then sprung back out just before his hips stopped him cold.
Talk about flexion! That horse was wrapped around the center divider like a barrel racer’s dream. He didn’t know if he was comin’ or goin’.
Truth is he could do neither. His hips were too wide to go through the escape door and after his ribs sprung out on the other side there was no way they would go back the way he came.
The trailer was built like a battleship and naturally the center divider was inextricably welded in place. Even though the horse had been amazingly calm up to that point, hardly ruffling a hair, I sedated him for the next episode, and my brother, Dennis, went for the hack saw. After cutting through titanium-hard upright posts in four places we manhandled the center divider out of the trailer and extracted the horse. At first he could only walk in circles, but soon straightened out a bit and wasn’t tracking half bad. While I dewormed the horse Dennis and Joe repositioned the divider, welded it in place, and cooled the metal with a hose.
Ol’ Trigger loaded himself as always, receiving the customary slap on the rump from Joe. For perhaps the first time in years Joe tied his head, and then did something I’d bet money he’d never done before — tied the escape door with a twine after latching it.
As he climbed in his pickup, Joe made a threat on our lives if we ever told anyone. Knowing Joe all too well, I only tell the story now because I outlived him.
Stay safe, have fun, and enjoy those horses and mules, Doc.
Doc lives in Montana and helps people learn about horses through his writing, workshops, demonstrations, and horsemanship video series. www.DocHammill.com