On the Road Again
For those who heavily travel with their horses—whether for frequent shows, leisure rides, or just as part of a nomadic lifestyle— moving horses regularly or for long distances can be just as stressful, if not more so, for our equines as it is for us. Before you plan your next cross-country trip with your favorite four-legged friend, see what experts from Equine Express Shipping and EquidDoc Veterinary Services, LLC have to share.
When even the most seasoned traveler is trailered they are physiologically stressed, this causes the stress hormone, cortisol, to be released in high levels, according to Caitlin Eaton, DVM, owner of EquiDoc Veterinary Services, LLC. Prolonged exposure to cortisol can impair a horse’s immune system, making the ability to fight infection and recover quickly difficult, which is why both Dr. Eaton and Mike Alexander, President of Equine Express Shipping, agree that it is important for your horse to be healthy, including being up-to-date on all vaccines, before traveling and to also know the horse’s regular resting vitals. This will come in handy if either you or, if using a service, the driver notices something off with your horse.
For personal transport, Dr. Eaton says to do all that you can to prevent injury or illness. To cut down on the chances of getting a respiratory illness, she recommends improving the air quality of the trailer. “If you have the luxury of climate control, fantastic, but you still want to make sure there is fresh air entering the trailer,” she shares, recommending screened windows be open in the trailer even during the winter months. In the summer months, she suggests adding a fan and removing unnecessary dividers for increased airflow.
Supplements can be an option for those who are traveling with a bit of a nervous horse, however, Dr. Eaton does not suggest heavily relying on them. “There is definitely some evidence that [supplements] could help, but consult with your vet.”
For the inexperienced, trial trailer runs can be another way to help prepare you and your horse for longer excursions. Getting the horse used to the trailer will help owners not only know what to expect for the actual travel day, but can also help troubleshoot any preferences/medical issues a horse may have. There is also the loading/unloading factor, where if the horse is nervous, your trip will end before it can even start. “Once the horse is stressed out from repeatedy trying to load, their adrenaline is pumping, possibly making sedation ineffective,” shares Dr. Eaton. For the difficult loader, sedation is best in an already calm horse, since the goal is to use as little sedation as possible so your horse is as coordinated as possible in the trailer, according to Dr. Eaton. The best approach in her opinion is “practice makes perfect.”
Dehydration is another common worry for horse owners when they travel, especially during the summer months. Dr. Eaton recommends making selections to optimize a cool traveling temperature, such as avoiding dark colored trailers that will attract the sunlight, transporting during the cooler temperatures (if you can), and parking in the shade. According to Dr. Eaton, soaking your horse’s hay in water five to 10 minutes before hanging the net in the trailer can reduce the dust factor. Starting the horse on electrolytes even three days before is a recommendation both Mike and Dr. Eaton suggest, especially for the tough drinker. Be sure the horse is still drinking water if using paste electrolytes. For the pickiest horses, Dr. Eaton suggests getting your own tank and bringing your own water. You can also use an additive in water such as apple juice to mask any scents or flavors in the water from your route and destination. Be sure to identify your horse’s preferred flavor before your trip and have a plain bucket of water available just in case.
Once you’ve hit the road, stops are very important for those traveling personally with their horse, as many times horse trailers require the horse’s head to remain elevated during the trip. Dr. Eaton recommends every stop for gas should be accompanied with letting the horse’s head down. “The act of having the horse lower their head down to ground level is a natural clearing mechanism of the respiratory tract and when we have a horse that is tied [in a trailer], their head is not making that motion.”
The drivers at Equine Express Shipping check on their horses every four to five hours to hand water those who need it, replenish hay, and check over the horses. They offer two options for trailering in their large semi-trucks, a box stall or the cross-ties, both of which allow for the horse to lower its head enough to clear the respiratory system, hence why they can go longer without making stops. “The box stall in our opinion is the best way to ship a horse; they can move around, get their heads down all the way to the ground that way, and they can travel in the direction they like to travel, so it’s overall less stress on the horse,” Mike shares. When the drivers notice anything off, such as the horse not drinking by the second stop, they call the owner to ask to add electrolytes. “If they aren’t drinking by the third stop, we start looking for a vet,” Mike says.
With large transport trailers, the design is a bit different than your average two-horse trailer. The horse does not have to work as hard to balance itself because, according to Mike, “in the Air Ride van, you can have a bucket of water that is three quarters of the way full and it won’t even slosh out.” For those who need to ship a tough to trailer horse, a service might be easier on them for this reason.
Taking the break from motion itself is also very helpful for the horses, as some will not eat, drink, or relieve themselves while moving. In the average trailer, “the horse has to actively work to stabilize their body, so it’s the equivalent to them walking,” shares Dr. Eaton. She recommends stopping at least every two-three hours to let the horse relax, even if they remain on the trailer. One of Mike’s sons, Colton Alexander, the Texas Dispatcher, agrees with Dr. Eaton. “When we do stop, the horses are resting for 15-30 minutes. That’s usually good for horses that have been traveling for a couple to three hours and just let them sit there for a bit.”
Colton adds that regardless of how you trailer them, a professional service or a personal trailer, stopping is better than taking the horse off the trailer, which may cause even more stress, as they will have to be loaded back on. If the horse needs to come off the trailer, Dr. Eaton reminds drivers to park in the shade during the summer and also somewhere away from traffic. For the long trips, such as going across the country, the Alexanders recommend having a layover stop, so the horse can take a day or two to be on solid ground and relax before continuing the journey. After In regards to trailering, Dr. Eaton shares, “I’d say one of the biggest health hazards outside of accidents are respiratory illnesses.” One of the more extreme respiratory illnesses is Shipping Fever. The post-shipping pneumonia-like bacterial infection can even be life threatening when not handled properly and quickly. “Fever comes first in almost all forms of infectious disease,” comments Dr. Eaton. “With Shipping Fever, the signs of disease might be subtle—it might just be a slight elevation in temperature, a mild cough, or a little mucus nasal discharge.” The subtleness of Shipping Fever is what makes it so dire, so being heavily observant even days after shipping is key. When asked what the best preventative measure for this, and all bacterial infections for trailering, Dr. Eaton reminds us once again to be sure horses are able to lower their heads to clear their respiratory system, trailer with excellent ventilation, and to check their temperature a few days in a row after trailering; normal temperature is less than 101.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Recovery time for horses who travel for a prolonged period can be up to 24 hours, hence why Equine Express has a layover location set up in Dallas, TX, for coast-to-coast trips to allow horses to recover for a couple of days before finishing their journey.
Impaction colic, usually caused due to dehydration, is another common ailment to fall upon recently trailered horses. As stated above, preventative measures taken to keep the horse well hydrated will definitely help, but Mike’s other son, Caleb, the West Coast and Florida Dispatcher, recommends adding some alfalfa to the grass hay during transport to help keep the stool loose.
Typically with colic, our first step is to walk them, but Dr. Eaton says that might not be the best move after a long trailering trip. “Chances are they are thoroughly exhausted so I wouldn’t immediately rush to walking or jogging a colicy horse. If the horse is not actively rolling and will stand quiet, I would want to provide them with some ample rest time and then begin hand walking to promote gut movement after they’ve rested for a while,” she explains. “The gut is going to move and be stimulated better with actual walking rather than the constant balancing act they do on a trailer.”
When it comes to going on a long trip, being mindful will always make things less hectic. By knowing your route, and your horse, your trip can turn into a lifetime memory. And for those using a service, the same idea applies—by understanding your horse’s health and learning to detect even the slightest change, you can do what it takes to keep your horse healthy and safe during a stressful time.