Whether it’s to a show, a campground or an indoor arena when the weather is inclement, many of us transport our horses. Learn how the stress of travel affects your horse physically and mentally and what to do to keep him comfortable on the road.
Considering a horse’s natural instincts, transport is inherently stressful. Transport impairs every natural survival instinct your horse has: sight, sound, smell and flight. While many load willingly, horses are stoic by nature and don’t always exhibit outward signs of stress.
Add lack of forage to this equation and you’ve just exposed your horse to two of the most common causes of gastric (stomach) ulcers. Ulcers can develop in as little as 24 hours and recur just as quickly.
Thankfully, you can be proactive by reducing travel stress and providing forage (in the form of hay, pasture or soaked hay pellets) during three key intervals: 1) prior to departing, 2) during transport and 3) once you arrive at your destination. If you’ve been instructed to withhold feed due to a medical condition, by all means do so! But in most cases, this simple solution can keep your horse healthy on the road.
While it has become common knowledge to never exercise your horse on an empty stomach, to the best of my knowledge, little has been published about the adverse effects of transporting on an empty stomach. It’s important to remember that horses, donkeys and mules produce gastric acid continuously in preparation for constant uptake (think natural grazing behavior). Chewing and swallowing activate saliva production (an alkaline substance), which buffers gastric acid by increasing the pH of the stomach.
Providing forage prior to departing, during transport and once you arrive at your destination keeps gastric acid at bay and eases stress. Just be sure to avoid any changes in the type of feed your horse gets normally. You want to reduce digestive upset, not add to it.
Why feeding forage prior to departure is beneficial
The equine stomach can empty in 20 minutes to 2 hours depending on the type of feed and rate of consumption.
Loading with an empty stomach allows accumulated gastric acid (unbuffered due to lack of saliva from chewing) to slosh and bathe its lining. The fiber that forage provides creates a mat of sorts, which prevents acid from splashing in the stomach.
Why forage during transport is optimal
Transport is an extended isometric exercise for your horse, requiring your equine friend to constantly balance by engaging the abdominal muscles. Contraction of the abdominal muscles forces acidic gastric juices up into the non-glandular (upper) region of the equine stomach, where it can induce ulcer formation or exacerbate existing ulcers.
Chewing on forage while in transit benefits your horse by:
- Producing saliva, which buffers the gastric acid.
- Relaxing the jaw. Tension in the jaw can radiate throughout your horse’s body when standing still. Consider the implications of balancing with a clenched jaw while acid splashes around in your stomach.
- Reducing mental stress by redirecting attention to food.
Why forage consumption helps after unloading
Stress persists upon arrival because your horse is in an unfamiliar setting with a heightened sense of survival instincts engaged. Whether tied outside your trailer, placed in a corral or stall in a strange environment or put into exercise immediately, your horse is experiencing many stressors.
Continued chewing and swallowing help to:
- Maintain a lower (more alkaline) pH.
- Renew a protective layer of fiber to prevent the splashing of acids.
- Redirect your horse’s attention to food.
To help keep your horse hydrated during transport, drench your hay with water and let it drain prior to loading into your trailer hay bag.
Take water from home and offer it along the way (horses that are reluctant to drink water may be even more reluctant to do so if the water tastes different).
If you can’t take water with you, start adding something to flavor the water at home in a separate bucket (to experiment with your horse’s preferred flavor) such as herbal tea leaves or diced ginger. Once you discover your horse’s favorite flavor, take it with you to mask the taste of unfamiliar water sources.
Additional tips for reducing travel stress
Beyond offering forage, there are a number of other steps you can take to reduce your horse’s stress while traveling:
- Buddy up and take a familiar companion in the trailer.
- Ensure your horse trailer shocks provide the smoothest ride possible. Use caution when applying brakes and making turns.
- If you tie your horse, ensure the lead rope has enough length to allow your horse to balance.
- Provide clean shavings on the floor for traction. Mist with a spray nozzle to minimize dust inhalation.
- Ensure maximum ventilation.
- Provide forage to last the duration of your trip – you may need a slow feed net or bag to accomplish this.
- Stop at least every 3–4 hours to offer water and give your horses a break from balancing themselves.
Understanding your horse’s natural survival instincts allows you to incorporate measures to minimize the physical and mental stress of transport. Being empathetic to your horse’s needs helps to ensure a happier, healthier companion on the road and at home.