Transporting horses on trailers requires training, preparation and common sense, said a panel of experts during a recent horse expo in Saskatoon.
“For the most part, I would say that people who are professional livestock and horse producers are generally well-equipped, well-prepared and well-educated about transporting safely and humanely,” said Stephen Manning from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Saskatchewan.
Manning was part of a panel discussion held during the Saskatchewan Equine Expo Feb. 16-19.
However, Manning, a veterinarian, added that some horse owners are ill-prepared during an emergency caused by a malfunction while transporting an animal.
Shirley Brodsky from the Sask-atchewan Horse Federation said the profile of horse owners has shifted and that has led to an increase in how often horses need to be transported on trailers.
“There used to be more rural horse owners, but now there’s a lot of urban-owned horses that are boarded at stables and there are not a lot of people who have experience with livestock.
“They are in positions where they need to transport, but are not prepared or don’t know,” she said.
Safety and health concerns for the horse can occur because of the inexperience.
“Every time I get behind the wheel of my truck with horses on the back it’s a huge responsibility,” said Brodsky.
She said she has logged millions of miles transporting her horses to shows over the years.
Manning and Brodsky offered tips on safe and healthy trailering.
“Most of the main reason we’re hauling horses is we’re going to an event or competition. The main focus of a good trip is to get the horse there in good shape and not stressed, and ready to compete. Otherwise you might as well stay home,” Brodsky said.
“You can undo months and months of training and preparation with a bad trailer ride.”
Trailering is a stressful activity for horses who tend to be claustrophobic and don’t like being confined.
“These are big flight animals and their first reaction in stress is to run away. They are not prone to crawling into little spaces. It’s not how they are programmed,” said Brodsky.
“It’s about training and desensitizing and building a foundation of trust.”
Advance preparation before a long trip is high on Brodsky’s list.
“Don’t throw anything new at a horse. If it has never been on a trailer don’t do it the morning you’re leaving for a show. If it’s never worn leg wraps, don’t throw them on the first morning, put them on in the stall. Introduce that well in advance of your travel date,” she said.
Balancing in a moving trailer is a lot of work for the horse, which feels more stress during a long road trip.
A few days before an extended haul, Brodsky takes her horses on a short and gentle trip to get them used to a nice ride. She also thinks every horse should learn to stand in a motionless trailer.
“There are events you will go to where you are not allowed to unload until they see your paperwork. Another good reason to make a horse wait is for biosecurity reasons. Make sure that any manure, or bedding or old feed is removed from the stall before you unload,” she said.
“If he’s happy standing on the trailer, that’s a bonus.”
Manning said the horse’s normal feeding patterns should be maintained to minimize the risk of gastrointestinal issues.
“Bring hay and other feed with you on your trip, if it’s feasible to do so,” he said.
As well, he said taking along water from home that the horse is used to is important.
“Horses are very particular when choosing to drink and they can be very fussy about the taste of the water regardless of quality. So they may choose not to drink strange water even if it’s good quality,” he said.
“It’s all about total dissolved solids with horses.”
Horses should be offered water at least every four hours during longer trips, but they may or may not choose to drink.
“Some would say you should add electrolytes or some sort of flavouring to water to encourage horses to drink. You’d want to start this ahead of time and train them ahead of time before you hit the road,” said Manning.
Brodsky said the morning before a trip she gives her horses a water rich meal.
“Keep the diet the same. But I will make their hay very wet because often horses don’t drink on the road. So the more water I can introduce into their gut the day of travel the happier I am,” she said.
Manning said horse owners should try to feed their animals in a position that allows them to eat with their heads down. That will reduce the likelihood of inhaling dust and reduce the incidence of respiratory disease.
Brodsky said because many horses won’t urinate when the trailer is in motion, it is important to stop to give them a chance to pee.
Temperature inside the trailer is another significant consideration.
Manning advises against trailer-ing in extreme heat or cold if possible.
“If you’re travelling south to Arizona and it’s very, very hot, especially when the horses are not used to that, try to avoid trailering in the midday period when the temperature is very high,” he said.
Added Brodsky, “Often we’re sitting in an air conditioned truck and are kind of oblivious to changes in (trailer) temperature. When you’re sitting in your vehicle, you sometimes forget that there’s guys back there.
“They generate a lot of heat when they’re working on a trailer so they might feel comfortable before they load but if you check them an hour down the road they might be pretty sweaty.”
A useful tip on a hot day is stirring ice cubes into the bedding shavings.
“It cools the trailer and it also stays cool a long time because it’s insulated in the shavings. It will also melt and cut some dust. It’s a lot of natural air conditioning,” she said.
Bedding should also be adequate so that if the horses scuff it around they are not sliding and skidding.
Trailers should have protective stall bars installed, particularly if the windows are down because horses may get their heads out too far.
“Horses have no concept of their own diameter. They’ll attempt things that are not possible,” said Manning.
While driving, Brodsky said it’s important to be sensitive to the feel of the vehicle, as well as lurches and bumps on the road.
“Often it’s an indication that a horse may have scrambled, fallen, or maybe you’ve blown a tire. Don’t just say, ‘that’s OK, it has stopped now,’ ” said Brodsky.
“I had people arrive at a horse show on a rim of rubber on one of their tires. They felt a big bump, but then it stopped so they kept going. They had three very expensive jumping horses on board and if that second tire had gone they’d have probably rolled and possibly killed themselves and all the horses.”
Another important consideration is to have the appropriate trailer size and type for the horses being transported.
Manning said the discussion continues about which position is best for an animal in a trailer.
“There’s pretty good research that says if a horse is loose in a trailer and they decide how they want to stand, most of them will stand facing backwards. Bracing with the hind legs is more comfortable and easier for them to do than with the front,” said Manning.
“I really think it’s about having an appropriate height for the horses you’re transporting, having an appropriate width and length of stall for the horse and whether or not you’re going to tie them,” he said.
“You don’t want them travelling with their head up all the time.”
At the end of an event if time permits, Brodsky often arranges with the show office to stay for a night to give her horses downtime before hitting the road home.
“Give them a little time to unwind and relax before you put them back on the trailer. When we get home we always isolate our show horses for a few days,” she said.
“These are basic commonsense approaches, but they have worked really well for us. The least stress you cause in an animal trailering, the better off. It’ll keep them healthier too.”
More information is available in the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Equines at nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/equine.