Being in a trailer for a long distance can be stressful for horses. Learn how to keep your equine companion healthy when traveling, and be prepared for any emergencies along the way.
When putting your horse in a trailer, a lot of things can potentially go wrong. It’s actually a bit terrifying, if you think about it too much. The good news is that preparation can prevent problems. The goal is to take a step-by-step approach to the most common problems that can occur when traveling with horses. The most important of these steps is to think about preventive measures you should take, how you would respond to certain situations, and what to discuss with your veterinarian.
Each time a horse enters a trailer he is at risk. He may receive minor bumps and bruises just from being loaded. He may injure himself during the trip because he becomes frightened or loses balance. Illness or a trailer accident can create a life-threatening situation. Most of these problems can be avoided just by taking suitable precautions. Some horse people like to boast about how many successful trips they’ve taken without “all the extra fuss”; but when those same people finally experience being on the road with a sick or injured horse, they don’t forget their hard-earned lesson.
Any time your horse is loaded into a trailer, whether for a short or long trip, these fundamental measures should be taken:
Training – Train your horse to load calmly and accept the trailer as non-threatening. Forceful training will only teach him that the trailer is a bad thing and he will never be able to completely trust it.
Maintain a safe trailer – Only use the proper hitch, and make sure your brakes and lights are working and conform to legal safety standards. Check the trailer floor and frame. Look for sharp edges and potential hazards inside and out.
Drive carefully – Accelerate and decelerate slowly so your horse can keep his balance. Also, if your trailer is not level, he will always be fighting for balance and his movement can interfere with your driving,
Inoculations – Current inoculations will protect your horse from exposure to other horses. Have a current health certificate if you are crossing state lines, and a current certificate of negative EIA (Coggins).
Wrap his legs – An improperly wrapped bandage can cause injury or come undone in the trailer. Make sure you know how to wrap correctly.
Ventilation – Open the trailer vents and windows. If you are afraid your horse will get cold, put a blanket on him that is appropriate for the temperature. Do not let him get too hot.
First aid kit – Keep one in your trailer and make sure it is always ready and up-to-date. A proper first aid kit includes an adequate water supply. Learn how to bandage wounds in various locations, control blood loss, and recognize signs of dehydration/heat exhaustion, and colic. Your veterinarian is your best source of information.
Vital signs – Practice taking your horse’s temperature, pulse, and respiration rate when you are both relaxed at home, so you know what is normal. If your horse is sick or hurt, you can give the veterinarian his current vital signs when you call.
Backup supplies for long trips – Pack plenty of water (for drinking and cleaning), ample hay and grain, blankets, etc. Having an auxiliary light that plugs into the cigarette lighter and a backup flashlight with working batteries is a good idea.
Medical ID – Always carry a durable, visible, medical ID that lists your doctor, veterinarian, and a contact person. If you are incapacitated in an accident, it can be important to contact someone who knows you and your horses.
Preparing for longer trips
As a general rule, when the trip is 12 hours or longer, more aggressive precautions should be taken to avoid “shipping fever” and other stress-related problems for your horse. In a stressed body, nutrients (i.e. vitamins, minerals and water) are used up at a much higher rate. Therefore, we must preload the horse’s system if we are to help him at all. For instance, if your horse will not drink on the trailer, you may have to schedule stops along the way where you can safely take him off the trailer for a rest and a drink.
The following are guidelines, not absolutes. Use them as a starting point for a discussion between you and your veterinarian.
Electrolytes – Increase two to three days prior to shipping. This is most important when traveling in warm regions.
Vitamins – Add extra for a week prior to shipping.
Antibiotics – When the trip will be longer than 12 hours, discuss the administration of antibiotics with your veterinarian.
Body clip – When taking your horse from a cold climate to a warm one, a body clip is recommended. Since this is a source of stress for the horse, clip at least a week before departure – no sooner.
En route emergencies
Despite your best efforts, problems can still arise on the road. If you have assembled your emergency kit, and have discussed how to use the items with your veterinarian, you will be in a much better position to handle a crisis.
Three of the most common life-threatening problems encountered on a trip are dehydration/heat exhaustion, colic, and major cuts with blood loss. If you take precautions, hopefully you will have a happy, healthy horse when you reach your destination. But accidents happen, and sometimes horses get sick no matter what we do!
Dehydration / heat exhaustion
If water loss is extreme, dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion and even circulatory “shock”. Initial symptoms are increased body temperature and sweating. These may progress to include increased respiratory rate and, in severe stages, weakness and incoordination. If you suspect your horse is suffering from this condition, take his temperature, check his heart (or pulse) and respiratory rate, do the skin pinch test, and check capillary refi ll time (CRT). Convey these vital signs to the vet on the phone. A cold water bath (or alcohol and water) is an appropriate treatment until the vet arrives.
This is a condition made worse by being on the road. Recognizing the early symptoms – pawing, increased respiratory rate, lip flipping, looking at sides – will aid you in getting help before the problem gets too severe. If colic arises, you can only help with symptomatic treatment – a veterinarian should always be called.
Occasionally, life-threatening lacerations occur. You must act calmly and quickly to get blood loss under control. A well applied pressure bandage is usually the best response. Take a stack of 4”x4” gauze squares and put them directly over the wound. Hold them in place by wrapping with your roll gauze. Firmly apply a quilt and outer wrap (standing bandage) over the top. If the wound location prevents the use of roll gauze and an outer bandage then you must utilize a tape-like bandage.
A little knowledge and preparation can go a long way in preventing and managing potentially disastrous situations for your horses and yourself while traveling. Armed with the right equipment and know-how, you’ll have a much better chance of making sure everyone arrives at their destination safe and healthy!
A final word on safety
Equine health and safety while traveling is important, but we must also mention the issue of human safety in an emergency. An injured, panicky horse can create a very dangerous situation for the people around him. In order to protect yourself and others, you must keep your own safety in mind if faced with the kind of emergencies we have discussed in this article. If you have prepared yourself, and are confident in your knowledge, your chances of handling any situation without injury to yourself will be greatly increased.