Moving horses from place to place is recorded to occur as far back in history as 3,500 years. At that time, horses were transported by sea and either were confined in boxes to the bowels of the boat or placed in slings on the deck of the boat. Even then, it was noted that transport was a stressful event that came with inherent health risks, and with a high mortality rate in horses shipped below deck. (Boats of that time were assumed to have extremely poor ventilation below deck.) It was noted that horses shipped on the deck, in the open air, survived the journey better than those below deck. In addition, it appears that the first reported research regarding horse transport was performed by General William Carter of the United States Army Veterinary Corps. Carter, who was in charge of transporting the Army's horses to the Philippines by sea in the early 1900s, experimented with various methods of tethering. Carter's studies led to the discontinued use of slings for the support of horses in transit. There is an excellent series of drawings depicting the early sea-transport of horses on display in the museum at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington, Ky.
Loading is considered to be one of the most stressful aspects of transportation.
In 1905, a British veterinarian by the name of J. Wortley Axe spoke of the problems associated with rail transport of horses and called for research in an effort to improve the situation. Even in this era, merchants, as they do today, were reported to do a strong business in the selling of leg wraps, shipping boots, and head bumpers. Although trains are largely an equine mode of transport of the past, horses still are occasionally shipped by rail. This fact reminds me of the perils of a friend of mine who was attending to a group of horses being shipped by rail about 15 years ago in France. They were at a rail stop, and he thought that would be a good time to go and get some water for the horses. He told the railman his intentions and apparently the railman (who could not speak a word of English) nodded in a "yes-yes go about your business" manner. When my friend returned with the water, he could just see the caboose rounding a curve--and the train was gone. A blazing, no-speed-limit-in-France car ride to the next stop reunited my friend with his horses (but did not replace the gray hair he'd developed!).
With the discovery of the internal combustion engine around the time of World War I, the transport of horses once again returned to the road. From the 1920s to the 1950s, most was "short-distance" transport. However, by the 1950s, there was development of motor vehicles mechanically capable of hauling horses over long distances. Over the almost 50 years that followed, every possible combination of truck/trailer/van has been experimented with and made available to the consumer. There is everything from the standard half-ton pickup truck/simple two horse trailer combination to $100,000-plus tandem-axel tractors pulling 15-horse streamlined trailers with super air-ride suspension, and all varieties in between.
In addition to water, rail, and road, the horse also has taken to the air as a means of transport. I was unable to find a specific reference as to when the first horse became airborne, but it has without question become a somewhat common mode of transportation for many equids. There is quite a triangle of flight among New York, Florida, and California, with Kentucky somewhat in the center and horses coming and going internationally from these and numerous other points in the United States. Air transport of horses is an obvious necessity for those horses with international aspirations, but also is a viable modality for those going long national distances. A six-hour flight from New York to California can be a lot less stressful than a 72-hour van ride. Planes can carry everything from two to four horses in the cargo hold of passenger 747, to 80-plus horses on a modified 747 cargo plane. (I have had the opportunity to fly with horses a number of times, but there is always something a bit strange about being 30,000 feet in the air with a bunch of horses on board.)
Research On Transport
Now that we have had a brief overview of the history and types of horse transport, I'd like to spend some time reviewing what was a natural flurry of research evaluating the effects of transport on horses.
As horse transport shifted from rail to road, there were no fewer complications related to transport. In 1982, Sharon Cregier, PhD, then of the University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island, Canada, published an extremely comprehensive article entitled "Reducing equine hauling stress: a review" in the November/December issue of Equine Veterinary Science. Cregier lists 66 earlier references related to the subject. This article will draw on Cregier's review as a general reference, in addition to related articles that will be mentioned along the way.
So, just what are the major stressors involved with hauling a horse from one place to another? There are many factors that can generate stress related to the transport process. Such factors include handling, loading, unloading, removal from familiar surroundings, confinement, constant vibration and road noise, variations in temperature and relative humidity, poor ventilation, the inhalation of exhaust fumes or urine fumes, decreased function of the immune system, and potentially deprivation of water and food.
Obviously, different horses will react differently to some of these stress factors, but there are some things of which we can take control, and perhaps reduce the chance of illness or injury. All trips start with getting the horse on the trailer or van--an unpredictable and sometimes adventuresome task. I do not want to enter an in-depth discussion on how to deal with the problem loader. (A good article addressing this problem was published by Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, from the behavioral science clinic at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Cornell University, in volume 4 of Equine Practice in 1982.) There are a few basic principles that can quickly solve the problem or at least reduce the stress of loading.
Loading is considered to be one of the most stressful aspects of transport. In fact, numerous studies that utilized heart rate as an indicator of stress in horses and other species of animals (cows and pigs) have shown that heart rate is substantially elevated during the loading process. Some of these studies also indicated that the steeper the ramp, the greater the stress. It also has been stated that horses in general are fearful of entering enclosed, dark spaces. Interestingly, it has been noted when using trailers that horses can back into, there appears to be less reluctance and stress-the horses would back into an enclosed dark space more freely than they would walk into it head-first.
There also is an experience factor, such that more experienced and early-trained horses experience less stress during the loading process. It should be noted that even seasoned travelers demonstrate elevated heart rates during the loading process and find the event stressful. (Houpt offers that accustoming the horse to loading as a foal might prevent behavioral problems associated with loading later in life.)
Factors over which we have control include the loading environment. Obviously, a quiet location should be selected--easier said than done sometimes. Make sure that the footing on the ramp is good and will not slip, and that the surrounding footing also is good (grass is better than pavement). I have seen more than one horse go to the ground due to a slipping carpet (and the like) used for footing, or go down on pavement after backing off the ramp rapidly. In addition, make an effort to make the ramp as level with the ground as possible and ensure that side-walls are secure and will not get blown into the horse half-way up the ramp. Do anything possible to make the inside of the trailer open, bright, and inviting. If partitions can be opened, open them and make sure that excessive clutter in the trailer is kept to a minimum. Also, think ahead and make sure that the interior of the trailer is well-lighted (and that the lights actually work prior to needing them some dark night).
It also has been shown that heart rates are substantially lower when the trailer/van is stationary as opposed to being in motion--a fact that supports the hypothesis that the vehicular motion itself is yet another added stress factor. Improper driving can greatly enhance the motion stress factors, if not flat-out lead to an accident. If you are uncomfortable with the trailer rig or the size of a van, seek the tutelage of an experienced driver and practice driving long before your first equine passenger.
Probably one of the biggest mistakes people make is driving the van or trailer like a car. Remember that with all the extra weight, everything is increased (i.e., stopping distance, the number of car lengths you should be behind the vehicle in front of you, etc.), and your reaction time must be sharp! No map reading, no eating the fast food meal sprawled out on your lap, and no use of the cellular phone while driving (remember there is a 30% greater chance of being in an accident if driving and cell phoning).
If you do not have a co-pilot to help with these things, then stop the vehicle to get them done safely. The stopping distance can double (or more if conditions are bad) and the number of car lengths you should be behind the vehicle you are following also should double (remember the rule-of-thumb of one car length of space for every 10 miles an hour--a current joke in our society). Be aware of approaching tractor-trailers; when they pass you, the air currents will tend to push the vehicles apart, and you should be ready to compensate for that. Try and watch what the cars are doing as far ahead as your line of sight will allow--if you see a brake light come on, back it down--even if the vehicles immediately in front of you don't (they might not be as aware of what's going on as you are!). Always watch for sharp curves and traffic merging to and from on-ramps--remember, any sudden moves you make will bounce your precious cargo around. If you do have to slow down fast, it is generally better to do it in a straight line rather than around a curve. In other words, if you are approaching a curve too fast, it is better to brake hard in a straight line, then enter the curve more gently, than to brake hard while in the curve.
Also remember all the safety items. If your trailer has brakes, make sure they work and are adjusted appropriately. Make sure that all the trailer lights are working and that there are enough of them on the back. This can help reduce the chance of a rear-end collision. Also make sure that you have an approved fire extinguisher along for the ride. Don't take anything for granted--sitting on the road side for two hours as traffic blasts by because the spare tire was worthless or non-existent can be an additional, dangerous, and unnecessary stress. A cellular phone is mandatory should problems occur, and the use of a CB radio can be beneficial for early warnings of awaiting road hazards.
Forward Or Backward?
The answer for this age-old question of which way is best to face your horse while traveling is backward (away from the direction of travel), if possible. When I was involved in the transport of large groups of horses, we figured out (eventually) that there always were horses in the barn which would spend half the trip trying to kill themselves when facing forward, but when flipped around, were significantly calmer.
There also is objective research that supports this phenomenon. There were two individuals in the history of horse transport that made this observation and followed through with study. In 1962, a horse trainer/engineer from California by the name of Wentworth Tellington noted that untethered/cross-tied horses being transported in trailers or vans (in box stalls) chose to turn to the rear, facing away from the direction of travel. Tellington then made observations in more than 500 horses, noting in transit demeanor, heart rate, fecal consistency, and condition on arrival, and concluded some interesting findings. The horses hauled in this untethered, rear-facing position "had normal fecal consistency, relatively little nervous sweating, heartbeats only slightly above normal" and "no difficulty maintaining their balance." In contrast, "horses facing travel direction in the usual way demonstrated the customary signs of travel stress, such as liquid feces, considerable sweating, and heartbeats well above normal."
Shortly after Tellington's interest in horse transport developed (1966-67), a horse trainer/automotive engineer from New Zealand by the name of David Holmes conducted research leading to similar conclusions and, ultimately, the development of a rear-facing two-horse trailer. In Cregier's Equine Veterinary Science article, she related her extensive studies on the physics and ideas regarding rear-facing transport in an effort to validate (and making a strong argument to that effect) the observations previously noted by Tellington and Holmes.
More recently, there is conflicting research in regard to average heart rate with respect to direction of travel, but one study noted increased "rump-resting, a lower head and neck carriage, and a 35% reduction in the frequency of shifting position" in horses facing backward. There appears to be a mounting body of evidence that it is less stressful for horses to face backward (if possible) while being transported.
Preparation, Stopping, And Layovers
The first step in safe trailering that is obvious, but frequently overlooked or taken for granted, is equipment maintenance. I speak from experience, as it is no fun being broken down out in the middle of nowhere USA for part of the night with a truck load of horses. Many breakdowns are unavoidable, but do everything in your power to prevent them. Have the mechanical aspects of both the truck and trailer or van kept in peak condition and make sure the appropriate emergency equipment is on board. Plan the trip well and make sure you are aware of some options along the way in case of trouble. There are several national directories of stables, veterinarians, and emergency services available to the equine traveler. Remember to pay attention to the weather conditions--especially if preparing for a long journey.
In addition to the equipment, make sure to determine if your horse is ready for the trip. If relocating to an area where he will be exposed to other horses, it is generally a good idea to make sure your horse is up to date on all vaccinations. Obviously, the day before the trip is not a good time to get this done as the vaccination process itself can be a stress on some horses and put them off for several days. Make sure that your horse's water intake is maximized prior to long trips by allowing constant access to fresh water and by offering warm water in the winter months. Remember that the offering of warm water in the cooler weather has been shown to increase significantly water intake in some horses.
Make sure your horse is healthy before transport--especially before long trips. Keep an extra close eye on his attitude, appetite, and body temperature prior to hauling. Taking the body temperature twice a day for two to three days (normal equals 99.5-100.5° Fahrenheit) and watching for any nasal discharge or coughing prior to a trip are good ideas. Prior to shipping long distances, it might not be a bad idea to have your veterinarian perform a physical examination (you might need a health certificate anyway) just to be sure. If your horse has any signs of illness, you really want to evaluate very carefully the need to transport him; the best thing for an ill horse would be to delay the hauling.
There is little question left that transport challenges the immune system (especially within the lung--see below) and that starting out in the best shape possible is a smart thing.
A common question is: should the horses be fed hay in transit? A properly filled hay net is a good way to give the horse something familiar to do (eat!) and help to separate side-by-side horses. Keep in mind, though, that if a hay net comes loose and drops down within leg range, a horse easily can get a foot caught and cause a big problem. Great care should be taken when hanging a hay net. In addition, as the hay net becomes empty and the horses' heads are not over-restrained (see below), a nasty fight over the remaining stems can ensue. If on a long journey, extra hay should be brought along to refill the bags so horses can share without fighting too much. The down-side of hay nets is that they add to the inhaled particulate matter in the air and act as a source of irritants that can blow into the eyes. For short trips (generally less than two hours), I usually skip the hay net. It is my preference not to feed concentrates (grain) while in transit.
How often should you stop for a rest break (for the horses)? It is generally recommened to stop every four to six hours for 15-20 minutes or so. During this time, the horses' conditions can be evaluated and water should be offered. If the drinking habits of your individual horses are unknown, you might have to experiment with this one. As many of you know, some horses are very finicky drinkers, and others don't miss a drop in transit. Truck-stop water might not be that appealing. In fact, any new water source can be a turn-off for many horses. Sometimes, water from home can entice one of these "poor-drinkers" to at least take in some water on the road. In addition, many male horses will not drop their penises to urinate while the vehicle is in motion, so the rest breaks will give them a chance to urinate and hopefully become more comfortable.
Another great debate is whether to layover after 12-18 hours of driving, or continue the journey after a rest period if your final destination is beyond that time. Your own health and well-being are important, too, so if you need a break to keep the trip safe, do it. The real down-side to a layover is that you can expose your stressed, potentially more susceptible, horse to a cast of awaiting pathogens in the new environment. You should treat your layover like a mini-quarantine and prevent (or at least minimize) any contact with local horses. In addition, make sure that the layover stalls are clean, and perform your own disinfection on them prior to putting your horse in the stall. Also, try to find out if there are any sick horses on the property and stay as far away from them as possible. Don't forget to monitor your horse while there. Keep track of body temperature. Be aware that transport alone (depending on the ambient temperature) can elevate a horse's body temperature, so you might need to re-check it several hours after settling in.
The aforementioned layover procedures are really a good idea for the final destination, as well. It has been speculated that after a "long" journey (probably eight hours or more), the horse's immune system might not be up to par for several days. It is therefore a good idea to plan this "recovery" period into your schedule and let the horse do just that after he arrives. Keep a close eye on him and provide lots of fresh water (also keeping accurate track of how much of it he drinks) as post-transport dehydration is common. It is wise to limit exercise to hand-walking for several days. Rectal temperature monitoring might give you the earliest warning sign of a problem.
Shipping And The Respiratory System
I remember, from a number of years ago, when we were shipping large numbers of horses by truck from the Northeast to the Southeast for the Florida winter show circuit. The early weeks always were somewhat tense. Grooms and trainers were nervous and kept a close eye on their horses while keeping an ear open for the first rumors of which of the few thousand translocated horses would come down with respiratory disease. I can say from personal experience that the incidence of so-called "shipping fever" was much higher 20 years ago than now. We have learned a lot about the right way and wrong way to ship horses, but concern and caution still are warranted.
With respect to the respiratory system, there are a number of known factors that can predispose an individual horse to respiratory disease. Many of these factors have been heavily researched, and others are just hypothetical, but make good sense and have been distilled from the wisdom of generations of horse trainers and people specializing in horse transport. The phenomenon of respiratory disease secondarily associated with transport is not special to the horse. Stress and illness associated with transport have been well documented in cows, pigs, sheep, and even rats.
Ventilation And Drainage
The importance of adequate ventilation cannot be stressed enough. There are a number of factors about air quality that impact the respiratory system. The first fact is that ventilation is often compromised due to the desire to provide our horse with a warm and cozy environment while transporting them during the cooler months. The need to close the windows and air vents in the trailer or van often is greatly over-estimated. I hate to say it, but we often assume that just because we are cold, that our horses are cold--a human trait known as anthropomorphism. So, there are the horses with double baker blankets on and all the ventilation shut down in the trailer. Soon after loading, you can see the condensation forming on the closed windows, and occasionally even see steam emanating from small cracks, indicating an overheated trailer.
In this situation, there are two stressors going on. Not only is the air quality decreasing, but the overheating places additional stress on the horses. Occasionally, I have entered such trailers in the dead of New York winter to find the horses sweated up under the blankets. The fact is that horses are self-contained furnaces of sorts. It has to be remembered that a substantial portion of the horse's digestive mechanism is dependent on the fermentation of fiber (hay)--a process well-documented to produce a significant amount of heat. It has been shown that feeding a higher fiber diet during the cold months will generate more heat than a diet based more on concentrates (the exact opposite of what many horse owners think). So, if you pack two or three of these mini-furnaces under heavy blankets into a small confined space with all the ventilation cut off, the risk of overheating is a real one--especially if it is not bitterly cold outside.
Don't get me wrong. I am not suggesting that wide-open, head-on ventilation/drafts on naked horses when it is zero degrees out is a good idea either, but there is a comfort zone. The comfort zone will depend on several things: the size of the trailer, the number of horses in the trailer, the number of blankets on the horses, and the degree to which the trailer is ventilated. The goal should be to reach somewhat of a comfort zone while still providing adequate ventilation of the trailer. We also generally would advise that if the horse is going from a cold climate to a warmer climate, it might be best to wait for body clipping until the destination is reached. It seemed easier to keep the hairy horse under a light blanket in the comfort zone while still allowing for adequate trailer/van ventilation.
Is there an easy formula? No. Many times you will just have to learn what conditions require what for your individual set-up, but keep in mind that airflow throughout the trailer/van is important. The optimal design allows for adequate ventilation within the trailer/van without a gale force draft directly on the horse and a total drenching should the weather become wet.
Another aspect of this is to ensure that potential factors that might have a negative impact on the air quality within the trailer/van are minimized. The exhaust system of the vehicle should be inspected and determined to be sound. If the truck has a vertical exhaust similar to that on a tractor-trailer, it should be higher than the trailer or at least not be in the immediate vicinity of an intake vent. In addition, it should be noted that diesel exhaust can be more harmful than gasoline exhaust, and keeping either engine in proper maintenance can decrease its emissions. Breathing of excessive exhaust fumes could have a negative impact on the respiratory system in addition to being a general stress factor.
Another factor can be urine-soaked bedding or poor drainage of urine from the trailer. As most of us know, when urine starts to break down in bedding, a substantial amount of ammonia fumes can be generated. Excessive breathing of ammonia fumes can be a significant respiratory irritant that can predispose the horse to pulmonary problems.
Lungs At Risk
There have been several studies evaluating the direct effects of transportation on the internal environment of the lungs. In the June 1997 issue of the Australian Veterinarian Journal, S. L. Raidal, et al,. from the Department of Veterinary Pathology, University of Sydney, New South Wales, published a paper entitled, "Effect of transportation on lower respiratory tract contamination and peripheral blood neutrophil function." The study looked at six horses which had been transported by road for 12 hours. A sample of fluid was obtained from within the trachea (wind pipe) prior to and immediately following transport. This procedure, called a trans-tracheal aspiration, is commonly performed to evaluate the health of the lungs (see article on trans-tracheal wash in The Horse of March, 1997). When compared to the pre-transport controls, the post-transport tracheal fluid contained signs of inflammation and an increased number of bacteria. Research also showed that of the bacteria found, a Streptococcus species was more predominant (Streptococcus is a common pneumonia-causing bacteria in the horse). In addition to the evaluation of the tracheal fluid, researchers also evaluated the function of a type of white blood cell--the neutrophil. The neutrophil will migrate out of the blood to sites of infection and, in a Pac Man-like way, kill and eat invading bacteria. Raidal demonstrated that the ability of the neutrophils from the blood of these horses after transport had a significantly reduced ability to "eat" and kill bacteria. His conclusion was that "bacterial contamination of the lower respiratory tract occurs as a routine consequence of transportation of horses and is likely to be an important determinant in the development of transport-associated respiratory disease."
Another study that carried this research a little deeper was reported in the May 1997 issue of the American Journal of Veterinary Research. A paper by S. Hobo, et al., from the Equine Research Institute, Japan Racing Association, Tokyo, Japan, entitled "Effect of transportation on the composition of bronchoalveolar lavage fluid obtained from horses," presented research evaluating the pulmonary effects of 41 hours of transport in 20 horses. The bronchoalveolar lavage is a technique that evaluates the state very deep within the lung itself.
If one were to think of a tree as a lung, you could get some idea of the construction. The main single trunk coming from the ground is the wind pipe (trachea), and all the thousands of branches are the bronchi. Now, if all the leaves were little air sacs, they would be the structures called the alveoli.
It is the tiny alveoli where the oxygen is transported from the air to the red blood cells. So, the bronchoalveolar lavage involves passing a hollow tube down the trachea into one lung and past about four or five branches of the bronchi. Then, saline is flushed into the tube down into some of the alveoli and sucked back out and evaluated. This technique, therefore, reflects the health of a small portion of lung tissue itself--a slightly more focused version of the trans-tracheal aspiration. What Hobo demonstrated was that there were four times the number of cells indicating inflammation in the samples from transported horses as compared to controls. In addition, researchers also demonstrated a decrease in the concentration of a protein that "may reduce the pulmonary defense mechanisms in the alveolar region, possibly resulting in infection."
Head Position Affects The Lungs
The aforementioned research indicates that transport alone can have effects that might predispose the horse to respiratory infection, but the situation can be made even worse. How often have we tightened up the cross ties on two horses because of fighting in a trailer? After reading this, you might look for another way to stop the rivalry.
Raidal, et al., also published a paper entitled, "Effects of posture and accumulated airway secretions on tracheal mucociliary transport in the horse" in a 1996 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal. The mucociliary transport system is a self-defense mechanism in the lungs. Essentially, there are billions of microscopic, hair-like structures called cilia lining the bronchi and trachea. The surrounding cells produce a mucous liquid that "floats" on the cilia, collecting all the dust particles, bacteria, and everything else that is inhaled all day. The cilia move in a coordinated fashion out of the lung and up the trachea, transporting the mucus and all the garbage right along with it mostly to be swallowed or coughed up (the body is an amazing thing!). There are lots of things that potentially can decrease the mucociliary transport: ammonia fumes, exhaust fumes, and head posture.
Radial demonstrated that horses confined with their heads elevated for 24 hours developed an accumulation of inflammatory airway secretions that were associated with increased numbers of bacteria in the lower respiratory tract. These findings "have implications for management practices where horses are prevented from lowering their heads, such as transportation and cross-tying, which may therefore contribute to lower respiratory tract disease in horses."
Penicillin And Bute For The Road?
I have come across many people who request a dose of penicillin and a shot of phenylbutazone prior to a long haul. There are several reasons why this is probably not a good idea. Raidal, et al., also published a paper entitled, "Antibiotic prophylaxis of lower respiratory tract contamination in horses confined with head elevation for 24 or 48 hours" in a 1997 issue of the Australian Veterinary Journal. The study demonstrated that the "prophylactic administration of penicillin before or during confinement did not reliably reduce bacterial numbers or prevent the accumulation of purulent (inflammatory) lower respiratory secretions in horses confined with their heads elevated."
In addition to these research findings, the use of a single dose of penicillin could be considered indiscriminate and, given the ever-growing problem with bacterial resistance related to the indiscriminate use of antibiotics, considered unwise. As for the phenylbutazone, one of the most sensitive indicators of infection is the development of a fever. If you are giving an anti-inflammatory drug such as phenylbutazone, there is a chance you could mask a mild fever and miss this early warning sign. My personal preference is to skip the drugs.
Transport In Extreme Situations
If you own horses, you should think ahead and be prepared to ship in an emergency situation. If you have your own trailer, make sure that it is in working order at all times and always have a back-up plan. Be prepared to make the trip at a moment's notice, having vehicle safety equipment in order well in advance. In addition, remember that a cell phone can be an amazing tool in these situations, and don't forget to know where you are going (preferably in advance). If you are in reliance of a commercial shipper or friend, know well in advance whom to call and always have a back-up.
Shipping A Colic
In my experience, shipping a horse with a severe case of colic can be a dangerous and harrowing experience. If at all possible, the horse should be seen by a veterinarian and stabilized prior to transport. The horse might require intravenous fluid therapy, pain medication, and appropriate sedation prior to transport. As mentioned above, great care should be taken if a sedative/tranquilizer is to be administered. If the horse is in shock, many of those drugs can have a negative impact on the horse's status. But at times those risks must be taken if the horse is violently painful and transport in that state would be dangerous.
Every horse has an extremely variable response to pain, and some horses in great pain can be extremely dangerous to be around. They can lash out with their front feet, kick viciously, and spontaneously throw themselves to the ground (despite your being in the way or not). As a result of this unpredictable nature when a horse is in extreme pain, the back of the trailer or van can be a very dangerous place to be. In addition, driving the vehicle also can be hazardous if the horse suddenly (and violently) shifts weight in the trailer or goes down and thrashes. The driver always should be prepared to react should this occur.
Many times people will want an attendant to ride in the back with the horse. Riding in the back of a van or trailer with an extremely painful horse can be very dangerous. Even with the best of handlers, the horse could go down, and if the space is limited, a person could be injured. In addition, in many states it is illegal for a human to ride in the back of a horse trailer.
Shipping An Injured Horse
This situation commonly involves shipping a horse which has severe lacerations or a potential fracture. The important thing is to remain calm and think the situation through. Many injuries are made worse by not taking the appropriate course of action prior to shipping the animal to a veterinary clinic. If the animal is severely injured and a veterinarian can evaluate the horse at that location, it is preferred. If the horse has severe blood loss, a fracture, and/or is in shock, supportive therapy is probably necessary prior to transport. You will want to keep a record of the horse's vital signs while waiting for veterinary assistance. In addition to keeping the horse (and yourself) calm, applying pressure bandages to control any bleeding, or the placing of a limb splint, might be necessary while waiting for veterinary assistance or prior to transport.
I would strongly discourage administering any type of sedative drugs (unless absolutely necessary) as most of them (especially the ones common to most barns' medicine cabinets) have a negative impact on the health of an animal in shock. If a veterinarian is unavailable to come to the farm, you should attempt to reach one by phone and at least consult with him or her regarding your horse's condition.
For many horses with lacerations (usually on the limbs), once the wound has been bandaged, they generally can walk into a trailer or van under normal loading conditions. For the horse with a splint on the leg, it can be a completely different story.
There are types of lower leg lacerations (typically those involving the tendons and/or ligaments) where the application of a splint can be of great benefit. For a horse suspected of having a fracture, it is very important that the leg have a splint properly placed prior to transport.
The importance of a splint's being properly placed on a limb with a fracture is extreme. I can't emphasize that enough. The fact is, unless you have the financial backing to attempt a fracture repair, the prognosis is typically unfavorable. But, if an attempt will be made to repair a fracture, it is important that the broken bones are stabilized to decrease the ongoing damage that would otherwise occur. It also is important to prevent any of the fractured bones from penetrating the skin (assuming they have not already done so). If the skin is open, it will allow contamination of the fracture site with bacteria and decrease the prognosis significantly even in the face of exquisite surgical repair. The proper application of a splint can affect the overall outcome of a fracture, but, the improper application of a splint can cause more harm than good. If at all possible, a veterinarian should be consulted regarding the application of a splint prior to transport.
Shipping a horse with a splint on his leg can pose some problems. Generally, once the horse is in the van or trailer, things are OK--it is the getting in and out that can be difficult. If at all possible, a trailer or van with a ramp that has a very shallow angle to the ground should be used. In addition, you will want to look for a spot to park the van or trailer so that its ramp has a rise, thus making the ramp as parallel to the ground as possible. The horse should be able to have a relatively straight shot into the vehicle.
Again the big question: Do you ship the horse facing forward, backward, or in a box stall (if you have the choice, that is)? Obviously, you make do with what you have, and for many of us it is a simple facing forward two-horse trailer, and that certainly will work. As previously mentioned, if you have the ability to let the horse ride facing backward, there is evidence that this is less stressful and might give him better stability with respect to balance. It has always been my impression/opinion that these horses are better off in a standing stall versus the box stall as the partitions/wall in combination with the breast/butt bar will give them something to support themselves on in transit.
There also are a number of transport companies that specialize in equine rescue and transportation of the critically injured horse. These specialists are starting to have a presence at many national equestrian competitions. Among their arsenal are attendants specially trained in the handling of critically injured horses; trailers that can lower to become flush with the ground or are equipped with special skids (to load down horses); and harness/sling equipment so that horses with fractures can be transported in a non-weight bearing state.
Dealing With A Trailer Accident
Having an accident with a van or trailer that has a horse in it is a nightmare you don't want to have. Always do everything in your power to prevent a vehicle accident with horses (or any time for that matter). As previously mentioned, take all the safety precautions and pay attention.
If an accident does occur, it will be very important to get aid as quickly as possible. The presence of a cellular phone or a CB radio plays an important role here. Remember that not all parts of the country have cellular service, so a CB radio is a good back-up. Pay attention to the road signs and know what cell phone number will get you directly to the state police. Also know that truckers and other road warriors use CB channel 19, and that many emergency agencies and state police monitor CB channel 9. Make sure that whomever you end up talking to knows that you have injured horses and that a veterinarian is requested.
If the trailer or van is in the upright position and the horses can be safely accessed, you will want to evaluate them and apply any first aid that might be required. Be extremely careful opening any door on the vehicle (even the little people doors). If the horse has broken lose from his ties during the accident, he might be free in the vehicle. If panicked enough, he will attempt to jump out of any escape route possible. You do not want to unload the horses on the highway. There have been incidents where a frightened horse has broken loose from a handler and run into on-coming traffic, causing horse and human fatalities. Wait until the police arrive and supervise/stop traffic if it is necessary to unload a horse. Hopefully, if the situation involves a fire, you will have a fire extinguisher and enough people will stop to assist so there will be no need to unload on the side of the highway until it is safe to do so.
If the trailer or van is overturned, as difficult as it might be, you should not attempt to rescue any trapped horses until safety crews appear on the scene and advise. The inside of a vehicle with a trapped horse is an extremely dangerous place. In addition, the emergency crews should have the appropriate equipment to "extract" the horse safely. Depending on the animal's injuries, the safest way (for people and the horse) to extract the animal might be for a veterinarian to place him under anesthesia for the removal process. If possible, a veterinarian should work with the police and rescue personnel to develop a plan of action. Oddly enough, many horses are reported to lie rather quietly while trapped, only struggling intermittently, while their rescue is organized.
Remember, the most important thing is to get emergency help immediately and not make the situation more dangerous by using rash judgments.
About the Author
Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.
Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
POLL: Rehabbing the Injured Horse