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.