Trailering a Horse Long-Distance

Horses on Trailer
My horse is going to have to make a 15 hour trip in the trailer this summer. I am going to break it up into two parts, but it is still not going to be any fun for him. He is a 16 year old QH gelding, and very sound. But I want to make him as comfortable as possible, as I know such a long trip is a lot to ask of a horse physically and mentally. What can I give him to help make it a little less stressful? Aches, anxiety, and digestive problems are what worry me most. If it helps, his SmartPak is SmartFlex Senior and Mega-cell.

—RC, Alabama

Dear RC,

I agree, a 15-hour trailer ride in the summer is not going to be any fun for your horse. But with some planning, you can make it more bearable for him and ensure a happy, healthy horse when you arrive at your final destination.

My go-to resource for trailering horses is Guidelines for Horse Transport by Road & Air, edited by Catherine W. Kohn. The contributing authors in this book provide a plethora of information on getting your horse from point A to point B safely. Here’s some of their advice for before, during and after ground transport.

Before the Trip

  1. Health status of horse—make sure your horse is healthy before attempting a long journey like this
  2. Familiarization to confinement and training to load—also make sure he’s comfortable loading and standing for long hours in the type of trailer you plan to ship him in
  3. Competent handlers—whether you plan to drive him yourself or hire it done, anyone handling him must know their way around a horse
  4. Medications—bring any pharmaceuticals he’s currently receiving and ask your veterinarian if you should have additional medications on hand. A first aid kit is a must.
  5. Vehicle inspection and route plan—in this day of GPS we sometimes neglect to map out routes ahead of time. Since your horse will appreciate a smooth journey, try to stick to interstates and other main roads as much as possible.
  6. Emergency preparedness—when it comes to horses, if it can go wrong it will go wrong. Be ready for anything!
  7. Blankets and bandages—obviously your horse won’t need a sheet or blanket if you’re hauling in summer and in the southeast region of the US. Only use protective boots and bandages if he’s already accustomed to them.
  8. Recovery period—for short trips (less than three hours), turnout in a paddock or handwalking once you get there may be sufficient. But experts recommend giving your horse up to three days to get back to normal on a long trip like yours.

During the Trip

  1. Duration of journey—the guidelines here are not to haul more than 12 hours at a time; going no more than 8 hours is preferable. Then your horse needs 8 hours of rest off the trailer. Of course, you’ll still want to check on your horse more often than that, ideally every 4 hours.
  2. Feed and water—try to bring your own hay, grain and water for the duration of the trip. Hay should be soaked to reduce dust, grain should be limited, and water should be offered every four hours. A water caddy is an excellent method of encouraging horses to drink on the road by providing water from home that they’re used to.
  3. Head posture—Research shows that tying horses heads up makes them prone to respiratory disease since it makes it harder for them to clear their airways of debris and mucus. If your vehicle allows you to safely haul loose, then you won’t need to tie him and restrict his head and neck movement.
  4. Bedding—dry, dusty bedding that flies around is a major cause of respiratory problems in shipped horses. Only use as much as you need to soak up urine and make sure it’s as dust-free as possible.
  5. Ambient conditions and transport vehicle environment—it’s generally a good idea to avoid the summer months for a long trip like this, so at least plan to travel in the coolest, least humid parts of the day and provide as much ventilation to your horse as possible.
  6. Monitoring during transport—A 30-minute stop (without unloading) is recommended every 4 hours, but you can keep an eye on him all the time with a video system.

After the Trip

  1. Expected condition on arrival—studies indicate riding in a trailer uses as many calories as walking and twice as many as resting, so expect some weight loss and dehydration
  2. Monitoring—check his temperature, weight, appetite and look for any cough or nasal discharge for the first few days after arrival
  3. Recovery times—while 1 to 2 days might be enough for most horses to feel like themselves again, plan on a minimum of 3 days before any training or competition
  4. Return journey—you don’t mention whether this is a one-way trip or something you’ll be returning from. Experts recommend waiting a least a week before hauling this many hours again.

In addition to this advice, since you are particularly concerned about digestion, consider adding a supplement with support for the GI tract. The fact that he’s already on SmartFlex Senior (which also has some probiotics for the digestive system) should help with any discomfort he might have. Avoid non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as bute when hauling since NSAIDs are a risk factor for ulcers. Finally, you can probably omit grain entirely since you feed a pelleted multi-vitamin/mineral.

Travel safely!

Lydia F. Gray, DVM MA, currently serves as the Medical Director/Staff Veterinarian for SmartPak Equine. Prior to joining SmartPak, Dr. Gray served as the first-ever Director of Owner Education for the American Association of Equine Practitioners. She has authored numerous articles in publications such as The Horse, Horse Illustrated, Western Horseman and a variety of veterinary journals and magazines. Dr. Gray is also a frequent speaker at horse expos, veterinary conventions and other locations. After graduating with honors from the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine and receiving her Master's Degree in Interpersonal and Organizational Communication, she practiced at the Tremont Veterinary Clinic for several years. Dr Gray is active in the American Veterinary Medical Association and Illinois State Veterinary Medical Association and enjoys training and showing her trakehner Newman in her spare time.  Find Dr. Gray on Google+

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