Traveling with Horses - Tips for Smart and Safe Trailering

Updated July 27, 2023
Rear view of two horses loaded on trailer.

Thinking about hitting the road with your horse? Whether you’re heading to a horse show, going on an overnight camping trip, hitting the local trails, or moving your horse to a new barn, there are several hauling concerns to keep in mind. We’ve put together our top tips for traveling with your horse on short or long distance trips to help ensure that you’re ready to hit the road!

1. Plan Your Route and Breaks Ahead of Time

In this day of GPS, we sometimes neglect to map out routes ahead of time. While it’s easy to pull over to double-check your route or turn around when you make a wrong turn in your car, that can be a little trickier to do when you’ve got a loaded trailer behind you. Even if you’re planning to use your GPS while you’re on the road, map your route out ahead of time and familiarize yourself with the major roadways you’ll be taking. Since your horse will appreciate a smooth journey, try to stick to a route that includes interstates and other main roads as much as possible.

Carefully review the recommended route that technology like Google Maps provides. It’s important to consider traffic, bridges, major cities, mountains, parkways, and other streets that have restrictions on the height and weight of vehicles. For example, your phone’s map could send you through New York City, which you’ll most likely want to avoid at all costs.

Plan When and Where to Take Rest Stops

Truck and horse trailer stopped at a gas station for a water break.

As you determine your route, plan for any rest stops that you’ll be taking along the way, whether they’re short stops to fill up on gas and offer your horse a drink of water or an overnight stop on a longer trip.

Generally speaking, while trips over three hours are considered "long-distance" and require more planning, "short-distance" trips under three hours should still be well thought out to keep your horse’s stress at a minimum.

How Long Can a Horse Travel in a Trailer?

During a long-distance haul, you’ll want to check your horse and offer water every four hours. Try to spend only about 15-30 minutes at each stop because horses only truly rest once they’re unloaded. For some horses, the stress of stopping – let alone being loaded and unloaded, if you choose to do so – is more than the stress of the trailer ride itself.

To help you plan when to take your rest stops, consider how far you can travel with your trailer on one tank of gas. Stops to get gas or use the bathroom add up quickly and can make a long trip even more tiring.

Overnight Stops for Long Distance Trailering

If you’re going to be traveling with your horse for over 12 hours, you also need to consider overnight rest stops. Experts recommend that horses not be trailered more than 12 hours in one day. If the entire trip is longer than this, horses should be unloaded and allowed eight hours of rest and recovery before continuing. That’s because standing in the trailer is a constant balancing act for your horse. Research has shown that riding in a trailer is real work and uses as many calories as walking and twice as much as resting.

Places to Stay: Choosing the Right Horse Motel

A paint horse on a trailer looking out the window.

Finding a place for your horse to stay overnight can be as simple as downloading an app or booking a horse motel online. There are a variety of horse motels and bed and breakfast options for horses (and sometimes for horse and rider), but you’ll need to do your research to make sure the facility will be suitable for your horse’s needs and located along your travel route. As you research horse motels and begin talking with the barn manager or owner of the property, we recommend asking about:

  • The property’s proximity to the highway and to local hotels.
  • The size of the stalls and the set-up of the stalls, such as whether they have a window or attached paddock.
  • Whether shavings and water buckets are included.
  • If there is a lighted and/or covered area where you can hand walk your horse if you arrive at night or in poor weather.
  • If you park your trailer at the property overnight.
  • If someone is on-site overnight.
  • If there are paddocks available for you to turn your horse out.

Once you’ve finalized your route, determined where you’re going to take your rest stops, and booked any overnight stops, create and print out a schedule for your trip. Whether you’re traveling with a partner who will be helping you navigate, or you’ll be traveling alone and double-checking your upcoming plan at each rest stop, it’s always helpful to have a copy of your plan on-hand at all times.

2. Know What Travel Documentation Your Horse Needs

Whether you’re taking a short trip or a long-distance trip, your next step is to consider the health paperwork that your horse needs to travel. Depending on your reason for travel and your final destination, you may need the same kind of documentation for intrastate, interstate, or international travel. If you’re traveling to a horse show or other event, it’s likely that organizers will ask to see a copy of your horse’s negative Coggins test, the most used means of finding antibodies for equine infectious anemia (EIA). A negative EIA test is required for entry into all 50 states, and the test must be performed at an accredited laboratory.

Talk to your veterinarian and find out exactly what vaccinations, blood tests and paperwork you will need for your trip–different states have different rules. Then make sure the horse's health record goes with him, whether you’re driving or you’ve hired a driver. Read our article on what documents, tests, and paperwork your horse will need before traveling.

3. Practice Makes Perfect

A grey horse being loaded onto a horse trailer.

If it’s been a while since your horse has been on a trailer or he’s never been on your trailer before, spend some time before your trip ensuring that he’s comfortable loading, unloading, and even riding on the trailer. Lots of treats as rewards every time your horse loads on and off will help ensure your horse is comfortable with the trailer.

If you can’t practice on the exact trailer your horse will be riding in, reach out to your friends and local horse community to see if there are folks who have several different types of trailers, with different loading, unloading, and standing arrangements that you can practice on. Having a variety of shipping experiences may help your horse be more comfortable in any trailer he rides in. For example, while you may not be able to practice loading into a big-rig horse van, if your horse is used to going up and down ramps, is able to navigate a step-up without hesitation, and is comfortable and relaxed in a straight or slant load, he’ll be more likely to march right on to the big rig, only concerned about where the hay net is!

Get Your Horse Comfortable in His Shipping Gear

A woman putting a fleece shipping halter on a horse.

Along with getting your horse accustomed to the trailer, you also want to be sure that he’s comfortable with any protective gear that you want to use during the trip. If you’re planning to use leg wrapsshipping boots, a padded shipping halter or halter fleeces, or a head bumper, be sure to try them on your horse ahead of time.

Whether you choose to use protective gear or not is a personal choice, and every horse owner has a different opinion about what a horse should wear when he’s traveling. Some factors to consider when you’re making your choice include:

  • how long the trip is
  • whether your horse is comfortable with protective gear
  • if your horse tends to paw or kick while in the trailer
  • if it will give you peace of mind to know that your horse has that extra protection

4. Keep Your Trailer in Tip-Top Shape

Rear view of a horse trailer with a sign reading "slow horses."

Your trailer is carrying precious cargo, so you want to keep it in tip-top shape at all times. To keep your trailer in good working order and get ahead of any potential issues, create a regular maintenance plan, and stick to it. Your maintenance plan should include an annual or biannual appointment with a trailer specialist, a routine check before every trip, and a routine check after every trip. Here, we’ve outlined some of the tasks that you may want to include as part of your maintenance plan. But keep in mind that every trailer is different, so you should check the owner’s manual of your particular trailer for a complete list of maintenance guidelines. Click this link to read or our horse trailer maintenance checklist and schedule.

5. Know the Health Risks of Transporting Horses

When you’re traveling with your horse, there are more risks to watch out for than what’s on the road in front of you. Taking a drive may sound nice and relaxing for you but trailering and changing environments is stressful for your horse. Even if he seems un-phased on the outside, he could be at risk for serious issues on the inside. As you prepare for your trip, be aware of your horse’s overall health and take steps to support him before, during, and after travel. Read our full article on horse health while traveling for tips on how you can help your horse cope with the stress of travel, support digestive and gastric health, and prevent dehydration.

6. Make Your List and Check It Twice

A packed blanket storage bag hanging on a horses stall front.
A blanket storage bag can double as a handy travel bag for packing your horse's blankets, boots, brushes, and more.

The best way to ensure that you don’t leave anything behind is to make a list of everything you need to bring with you and check each item off as you pack it. Everyone has their own method of packing and making lists. You could lay each item out on the ground and check it off your list once and then pack each item into its bag or container and check them off a second time.

To make your departure as smooth and easy as possible, be sure to pack everything into your truck and trailer the day before if possible. The only thing you want to be loading at 5 o’clock in the morning is your horse!

Besides the essentials like a first aid kit, every rider’s packing list differs depending on whether they’re heading to a show, going on a camping trip, or moving barns. Check out our trailering checklist to get yourself organized for your horse’s trip!

7. Play It Safe on the Road

Horse trailer tires on tire changing ramp.

Now that you’ve done all of the preparation for your trip, it’s time to load your horse up and hit the road! As you get ready to load up, the first question that may be on your mind is whether or not to tie your horse. The answer to this tricky question is, like many things in the horse world, that it depends.

The design of some trailers means you have to tie your horse for safety reasons, however, if possible, transport horses in box stalls that allow them to face the direction they prefer and, more importantly, put their heads down. Not only does this help them balance, but it also helps them clear their airways of debris, bacteria and viruses, and discharge which could lead to respiratory disease. You can help reduce the amount of dust, molds and other allergens floating in the air by wetting the hay he will be eating in transit and using the most dust-free bedding possible.

When you’re on the road, remember that standing on a trailer is a constant balancing act for your horse. To make the ride as smooth as possible for your horse, be sure to drive slowly around turns and make any changes to your speed as gradually as possible. If you’re a first-time trailer driver, it’s a smart idea to practice with an experienced trailer driver before your trip to get driving tips and ensure you’re comfortable driving a trailer.

8. Give Your Horse Time to Recover

A chestnut horse looking out of his barn stall door.

As we’ve noted already, standing in a trailer is hard work for your horse! Due to that, it’s important to give your horse time to recover from the trip. Once you arrive at your final destination, it’s important to first check your horse from head to hoof to make sure he’s healthy and sound. Look for any injuries or signs of stress that may have occurred during loading, traveling, or unloading and make sure he’s bright, alert, and responsive.

Next, help him unwind with 30 minutes of hand walking or turnout in paddock if available, along with the opportunity for a drink or a bite of hay or grass. If your trip was less than six hours, this may be all the recovery your horse needs! For trips longer than six hours, your horse may need a whole day to rest before he’s ready to go to work. Further, horses who have traveled more than 12 hours may need two or three days before they can be expected to perform.

During this time, continue to observe your horse for signs of disease or illness. When you’re monitoring your horse for changes in his health, you’ll want to check his vital signs: temperature, pulse, and respiration (TPR). It’s much easier to see if something is amiss when you know what your horse’s TPR are normally, so be sure to monitor your horse’s vital signs before you leave to get a baseline, too.

No matter where you and your horse are traveling to, we hope you feel confident that you’re ready for your next adventure! Have a great drive!

The information provided in the Horsemanship Library is based solely on our SmartPak authors' opinions. SmartPak strongly encourages you to consult your veterinarian or equine professionals regarding specific questions about your horse's health, care, or training. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat or cure any disease or behavior and is purely educational.

Originally published May 11, 2010