Practice safe trailering with advice on in-trailer tying, how to safely secure your horse outside the trailer, and what to do in an emergency.
As with most things in life, doing everything you can to prevent a trailer accident is far better than dealing with the problem after the fact, especially if you or your horse are seriously injured. In my large animal emergency rescue course, I include a focus on preventing trailering accidents.
Far too many of these injuries arise from how horses are secured inside their trailers. Should you tie your horse in at all? There are arguments on both sides. I’ll give you trailer-tying pros and cons, plus six tying-related safety tips. Then I’ll tell you how to tie your horse safely outside the trailer and what to do in an emergency.
Tying Pros and Cons
Tying your horse in the trailer is supposed to help prevent him from hurting himself, turning around, and/or biting/ disturbing a neighboring horse. A loose horse can seriously injure another that can’t defend himself, and can cause a wreck as the injured horse seeks to escape from the attack.
Tying your horse also prevents him from lying down, crawling under a divider, and/or from putting his head down under a barrier, then panicking when he raises his head. Tying also controls the head of a fractious or aggressive horse or stallion.
Your horse can catch a foot (or trailer obstacle) in the tie rope, then panic and injure himself. However, note that you can tie him tightly enough to prevent him from catching a foot (and annoying his traveling buddy), yet still give him enough slack to balance himself.
You might also forget to untie your horse before opening the trailer door, which can lead to panic and injury. It’s extremely important to untie your horse before opening the door. You also should teach him an unloading cue, so he knows when you expect him to start exiting the trailer.
6 Trailer-Safety Tips
When you trailer your horse, even a short distance, follow these tying-related safety tips.
• Provide feed carefully. If your horse is tied, provide hay in a bag that he can’t get his feet into, nor wrap around his head. If he isn’t tied, place the hay on the floor so he’ll be able to maintain a more natural head/ neck position. By putting his head down, he can drain debris from his respiratory system, which helps to prevent respiratory issues.
• Avoid bungee cords. If you decide to tie your horse in the trailer, don’t use a bungee-type stretch cord. This type of cord, used in this manner, is dangerous to horses and humans. I know of one horse that was able to get out of a fourhorse trailer while still attached to the cord — then it broke! I know of numerous horses and humans who have lost eyes and had faces cut open using these products.
• Use a breakaway tie rope. To avoid a trailer-tying tragedy, use a tie rope that will break under pressure, such as one made from leather or a hay string. Or, invest in a high-tech option, such as Davis Turtle Snap Cross Ties or safety-release trailer-tie products from JEMAL Escape Mechanisms. Attach the breakaway tie rope directly to the trailer’s attachment or ring so it will function properly.
• Leave some slack. One trailer-tying myth is that the tie rope will help your horse balance, and will even keep him from falling down if he loses his balance. This is false. To see how your horse balances in the trailer, get a trailer cam, and watch how he balances during turns, stops and acceleration. Your horse needs some slack in the rope so he can use his head and neck for balance. Standing up inside the trailer while it is in motion requires constant minor adjustments of his musculature, even on the interstate at a constant speed. Short ties in particular would make it almost impossible for him to balance with his own weight and normal methods, or to rise after a fall.
• Watch the rope ends. If you choose to tie your horse in the trailer, make sure the tie-rope’s loose end can’t get outside the trailer. Outside the trailer, the rope end could become wrapped around the axle or another object. This scenario will likely lead to a tragic death.
• Train your horse. Train your horse to safely load and unload with the help of a reputable trainer. Train your horse specifically to yield to pressure and exit the trailer only when given a specific cue. Practice loading him not only for routine trips, but also so that he’ll learn this essential evacuation skill. He’ll then load regardless of inclement weather and other adverse conditions.
Note: Loading your horse in the trailer is one of the most difficult and dangerous activities you’ll ever attempt. Owners get crushed, kicked, stepped on and run over by horses, while horses themselves get nasty lacerations, entrap their heads and legs, and then get scared, which contributes to future unwillingness to go in the trailer at all. While loading and unloading, stay out of the way of your horse at all times, and patiently teach him to load with the help of a professional.
Outside the Trailer
Horses are well known for getting their legs and hooves into dangerous places — and the side of a trailer has many potential traps for those fragile structures. Tragic injuries include a hoof trapped between tires, through the windows or in vents, or a halter caught on a protruding obstacle, such as a hasp, door hinge or bucket hooks.
Other common scenarios include panicked pull-backs that may cause the horse to fall and become hung by the halter and tie against the trailer, or even underneath it. Here’s how to safely secure your horse outside the trailer.
• Tie high. Tie your horse higher than his withers to limit the leverage he can place on a tie.
• Use an overhead tie. Use a trailer-tying product that will give him more room, while keeping him further away from the trailer than straight tying would. I recommend the Overhead Spring-Tie.
• Use a safety tie. Alternatives include a mechanism that releases your horse after a specific amount of pressure is applied. I recommend the JEMAL Safety Release Trailer Tie or Safety Release Cross Tie. Safety products that prevent your horse from getting loose include blocker tie rings, the Spring Tie, the HiTie Trailer Tie System, and the Tie-Safe Cross Tie.
• Place the panic snap. A panic snap is a good idea, but be sure to attach it at the far end, away from your horse, and not onto his halter. If he starts to panic, you shouldn’t get close enough to get hurt. • Have a weak link. Have something in the tie system that will break if your horse really struggles. This could be a leather latigo, a hook-and-loop fastener, a piece of hay string, or even a cheap metal clip. • Prevent boredom. Give your horse plenty of hay to minimize injury-causing behavior problems, such as fiddling, pawing, playing with buckets, etc.• Give multiple horses room. If you’re tying more than one horse, give them plenty of room, so they don’t kick each other, or get wrapped or tangled in each other’s ties.
• Consider alternatives. If you’re staying in one place for a while, consider high-lining your horse instead of tying him to the trailer. Or, use a temporary pen.
In large animal emergency rescue training, I emphasize to emergency responders that no one should be allowed inside a horse trailer for any reason, especially one flipped on its side or roof with terrified and injured animals inside. This includes owners, bystanders and veterinarians who may wish to go into that confined space to save the horses.
It’s better to wait for trained emergency responders, such as firefighters, to arrive at the scene. They’ll perform an external rescue using tools to extricate the animals.
Your job is to remain calm, call for help, and assess the situation. By performing these basic response techniques, you can be extremely useful during an emergency and can actually learn to save your own horse.
On the side of the road, responders will be more worried about your safety than that of your horse — and for good reason. This is a very dangerous situation to be in with traffic passing by.
Most horses survive trailer wrecks amazingly well if they stay inside the trailer and avoid being ejected. They tend to injure themselves attempting to stand up, which is why a breakaway tie strap is recommended.
Rebecca Gimenez, PhD (animal physiology), is a primary instructor for Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue. A major in the United States Army Reserve, she’s a decorated Iraq War veteran and a past Logistics Officer for the American Veterinary Medical Association’s Veterinary Medical Assistance Teams. She’s an invited lecturer on animal-rescue topics around the world and is a seasoned equine journalist.