Traveling cross-country with a horse can be an ordeal under the best of circumstances. Add in the geriatric factor, and the potential for problems is immediately compounded.

The aging process takes a toll on all horses, and with that war of attrition, the problem potential when traveling rises in disproportional fashion. If the older horse has weak kidneys, problems with its respiratory system, or some past bouts with colic, you might be touching a match to a medical tinderbox when you load him up and head off for a destination hundreds of miles away.

This is not to say that older horses can't travel many miles and still be fit and healthy at the end of the journey. The key is starting with a horse which has had good care and sound nutrition throughout its life. If the horse's system has been compromised as the result of neglect, stress, or overwork during its formative and maturing years, it is a poor candidate for most any endeavor, travel included.

A part of the equine anatomy often adversely affected by the aging process, says Gunda Gamble, DVM, of Riverton, Wyo., is the kidneys. Therefore, it is important that the older horse drink plenty of water during the trip.

This is sometimes easier said than done.

Horses, according to Gamble, have a tendency to refuse water when they are stressed, and very often, travel will stress them. When traveling with the older horse, she says, one should stop every two hours to give the horse an opportunity to drink.

This still might not solve the problem as horses frequently turn up their noses -- literally -- when presented with a pail of water that smells and tastes different than what they are used to at home.

There are about as many solutions to getting a horse to drink on the road as there are travelers. For Gamble, a can of ordinary soda pop is often the answer. "I don't think the carbonation has anything to do with it," she says. "I think it is the sweetness of the pop that overrides whatever other flavors might be present."

Whatever the method, the bottom line is that it is extremely important to get water into the geriatric horse's body during the trip.

Without a proper intake of water, the horse loses potassium and other electrolytes. An undue loss of potassium can bring on muscle tremors and weakness.

If there is any suspicion that the older horse has kidney problems, Gamble says, a veterinarian should be asked to run a BUN (blood, urea, nitrogen) test before the trip is taken. It is, she says, a direct measure of kidney function. If the test shows a reading that is below the satisfactory level, it might be necessary to add fluids to the horse intravenously for a day or two in an effort to flush the kidneys, both before and at the end of a trip.

Another cause for concern with all horses which are trailered is the amount of bracing they must do to maintain balance. We must bear in mind that they can't see that sharp turn coming up and thus cannot prepare in advance for it. Nor can they see the flash of brake lights on the car just ahead that indicates a sudden stop is in order. All they can do is react after the fact to what they feel and perceive from their position inside the trailer.

On curving roads and in heavy traffic, this can be exhausting. This is especially true in heavy traffic as the horse must first brace its feet for a stop when a red light is encountered, then shift weight as the trailer moves suddenly forward again and perhaps makes a sharp right or left turn.

This constant bracing will take its toll on any horse and is compounded when the traveler is in its senior years. The exhaustion problem is compounded even more if it is hot inside the trailer and the horse is sweating.

The only way a horse can cool itself is through sweating, and when the water supply within its body is at a low level, it has lost that capability and overheating and dehydration loom ominously in the wings. That means the trailer conveying our older warrior should be very well ventilated.

"In most cases," says Gamble, "stock trailers are actually the best because the open sides provide plenty of ventilation."

However, many horses, especially those traveling to and from shows, are conveyed in enclosed trailers.

Often, horse owners worry about the discomfort of their horse when traveling in cold weather. They close windows and vents and cover the horse with a blanket. This, says Gamble, has the potential to do far more harm than good. The air within the trailer becomes stale and laden with dust particles and ammonia, all of which serve to compromise the respiratory system.

In fact, says Gamble, the number two concern when traveling with the older horse is its ability to get an appropriate amount of oxygen into its system. Many older horses, she notes, suffer from some degree of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and this condition often is exacerbated when the horse is loaded into an enclosed trailer.

Unless there is sufficient flow of air through the trailer, she says, the ammonia from urine can be very damaging to aging lungs. The key there, she says, is to keep the trailer clean. If possible, after the horse has urinated, the urine-soaked material on the trailer floor should be removed at the next stop. At the least, it should be removed at the end of each day of travel and replaced with fresh material.

That brings up the debate concerning what material is best for absorbing urine and receiving fecal material.

Research has shown, says Gamble, that peat moss is the best material available to absorb urine and cut down on the ammonia released into the air. Second best, she believes, are shavings, and last on the list is straw.

The drawbacks to straw are several-fold. For one thing, it will produce many more dust particles and also seems to compound, rather than alleviate, the ammonia problem.

The bottom line is that the trailer should be kept as free of urine and manure as possible, and there must be an unimpeded flow of air.

Heat is a major problem when traveling in the summer. High temperatures often are mitigated while the trailer is in motion, but the temperature can build up quickly and severely when the trailer is stopped.

A trailer that might have a comfortable internal temperature of 75 or 80 degrees Fahrenheit while in motion can quickly shoot to 110 degrees when parked without shade on concrete or asphalt. This is a problem for all horses being trailered, but becomes an even more severe one for the geriatric horse.

This brings to mind a basic point when hauling the older horse, or any horse for that matter -- make certain that both the trailer and the vehicle pulling it are in excellent condition. Unforeseen and unpredictable problems are going to arise in the best of circumstances. We should lessen the possibility by starting the journey with truck and trailer that are in good mechanical order.

As I mentioned, even with proper planning, problems can arise. Some close friends recently traveled from Minnesota to Wyoming to visit us. They were driving a new, powerful diesel and pulling a new trailer, complete with living quarters.

They got as far as Sioux Falls, S. D., when a part of the truck's transmission broke down. With them was their six-month-old son. This was not a major problem as the trailer had spacious living quarters, complete with air conditioning. That, however, didn't help the horses.

Our friends got to a garage and dealership that handled their make of truck. To this point, no problem for the horses. They were in comfortable stalls and had both food and water. The evening was cool.

Potential problems surfaced when our friends were told by mechanics the next morning that the part needed to repair the truck was not in stock. It could be flown in, but that would still require a day's wait. Our friends knew no one in Sioux Falls, so were faced with the prospect of going to the yellow pages in an effort to locate a truck, trailer, and stable.

Fortunately, the dealership recognized their plight and took some direct action. It happened to have the same model of truck on the lot as the problem vehicle. The mechanics removed the needed part from it, installed it in the ailing truck, and our friends soon were on their way without ever having to unload the horses.

The frequency with which a horse should be unloaded and exercised when traveling also is a topic for debate. There are some who say that merely stopping the motion of the trailer for a half hour or an hour at a time is sufficient and that it is unnecessary to unload, no matter how long the trip. Gamble disagrees, especially for the older horse. She feels that one should stop at least every three hours to unload and exercise the geriatric traveler. This allows the horse to relax its muscles and limber stiff joints.

Another problem that can arise when horses are left in a trailer for long hours involves urination. In some cases, they can't or won't urinate while in the trailer. If this goes on too long, the problem might persist even after the horse is unloaded.

The symptoms are similar to colic. The horse will demonstrate discomfort and often will kick at its sides. I recall an incident on a trail ride where a participant brought a stallion that would spend one of its first nights tied to a hitching post outdoors instead of being in a box stall. Shortly after arriving at the ride site, the horse demonstrated the classic symptoms and the owner became very concerned.

Fortunately, my stable was only about 20 miles away, so we hauled the horse to the stable and put it into a box stall that was bedded deeply with straw. The stallion walked around for a bit, then urinated.

The problem when traveling cross-country is that a box stall usually is not just around the corner.

Feeding On The Road

Another question that is debated when horses, especially older ones, are being transported is the matter of feeding. Some feel that providing feed while the horse is inactive is an open invitation to colic. Gamble disagrees. It is normal for a horse to eat often, she says, and if feed is withheld, the horse might become stressed to the point that a bout with colic could be initiated. Unlike people, she said, horses never become car sick. Thus, there is no chance that the horse will vomit and aspirate partially digested matter.

However, she adds, a lack of exercise also can bring on a bout of colic. In a pasture or wild setting, she said, horses normally will eat a bit, then walk to another spot and eat a bit more. The exercise helps to keep the digestive system working properly.

However, when the horse is confined to a trailer for long hours, it is deprived of this necessary exercise and can colic. The risk of colic from lack of exercise, she believes, increases with age.

Thus, she repeats, it is important when traveling with the geriatric horse to feed it, but also to stop every three hours to unload and to exercise the animal.

Gamble does not believe in tubing a horse with mineral oil before beginning a trip. Running a tube through the nostril and into the stomach, she says, is a stressful act and one that should be used only when necessary. Besides, it is her opinion that the oil is unnecessary to digestion and elimination of fecal matter when traveling.

Leg Lessons

Also suffering from a war of attrition in the aging horse are the legs. Gamble feels that the legs of the older horse should be protected from injury that might be sustained as the result of banging against the trailer wall or partition. However, she quickly adds, that protection should never be in the form of tight leg wraps.

Leg wraps, she explains, compromise the proper functioning of the tendons. When the tendons are released from the bandages and the horse is exercised, she said, they are in a weakened state and risk of a bow is increased.

I remember helping a friend in Kentucky unload her event horse at a competition. Both front legs were tightly wrapped. As she removed the wraps, we were dismayed to see telltale swelling on each of the tendons.

Tight wraps can cut off the flow of blood, Gamble says, particularly the return flow through the veins. Congestion of blood in the foot where the hoof wall does not allow for expansion is fraught with danger.

The leg protection Gamble sees as appropriate involves a loose-fitting boot that will protect the leg from the knee down, but does not inhibit natural tendon flexing or restrict the venous flow of blood.

By the time most horses reach their senior years, they are veteran travelers, but if they still are stressed or agitated by the experience, Gamble recommends a light dose of Acepromazine. A dose of two or three ccs in an adult horse administered by your veterinarian, she says, is often enough to calm it, but not enough to have an effect on balance.

At the end of a trip, she says, the horse should be examined carefully, especially the legs, to make certain it has not suffered injury.

One can travel safely with the older horse, but some special precautions often are necessary.

About the Author

Les Sellnow

Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More