Trailering Your Horse with Safety in Mind

Trailering Your Horse with Safety in Mind

While it’s just common sense to ensure that your horse has been trained to load and unload well in advance, proper planning ahead for any trip can ensure that the entire transportation process goes smoothly and is safe for both horse and handler.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

If you own horses, it’s likely that you'll need to trailer them at one time or another. Whether it’s a short distance to nearby trails or several hours’ drive to a competition, with a bit of care, planning, and attention, you can safely get your horse to where you’re going and minimize the possibility of any mishaps or undue stress.

“No matter the distance, trip planning is the key to successful journeys, including knowing the weather conditions, road construction, etc.,” says Penny Lawlis, humane standards officer with the Animal Health and Welfare Branch of the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food, in Guelph, Ontario, Canada. Lawlis also currently sits on the National Farm Animal Care Council and teaches a graduate level course in practical animal welfare assessment for the University of Guelph.

When transporting a horse, it’s important to plan out the route ahead of time, avoiding peak times in busy areas to avoid sitting in traffic. Also, be aware of any possible inclement weather. If the weather could make driving difficult, reschedule the trip for another day.

Lawlis also stresses the importance of trailering only when the horse is healthy. “One of the issues we encounter frequently is animals [including horses] that are loaded and transported when they are not fit to be transported,” she says. “Unfit horses must not be loaded unless they are being shipped on the advice of a veterinarian to a vet hospital for treatment. Compromised horses should not be transported mixed in with fit horses in the same compartment.”

Learn to assess your horse for health and fitness before trailering. Check and record your horse’s vital signs—such as temperature, respiration, and pulse—as well as how much he drinks ahead of time. This provides important personal information as to what is normal for your horse and will assist in spotting any problems on the day of travel and upon arrival. If in doubt, check with your veterinarian.

Trailer Basics

Whether you haul your horse in a straight load, a slant load, or a stock trailer depends on which trailer construction you prefer. While some horses will load more easily into a stock trailer because of its openness, make sure it offers sufficient head room for the height of your horse; some trailers designed with cattle in mind might be too short for a horse to fit safely and comfortably.

“When it comes to stock trailers, smaller horses ... can safely fit, but (it might be) considered ... unsafe for taller breeds such as Thoroughbreds, Warmbloods, drafts, etc., (if) there is insufficient head room,” says Lawlis. “Too small of a space will hinder your horse’s ability to move and balance itself and could increase the likelihood of your horse injuring itself during transit, as well as developing loading problems.”

Handling Travel Emergencies

Even with the best intentions, sometimes mechanical breakdowns or even accidents can occur. Thus, it's best to have a working knowledge of how to handle emergency situations on the road.

Additional Resources

For additional information on preventing and hangling roadside emergencies, see the following resources on

Horse owners should inspect the trailer before every trip to make sure it is safe to operate and safely hitched to the truck. “Always check your trailer before starting out and recheck it after each stop, and always carry first aid kits for your horse, yourself, your vehicle, and your trailer,” advises Michelle Staples, the author of Save Your Horse! A Horse Owner's Guide to Large Animal Rescue.

In an accident when emergency responders are called in for assistance, chances are their knowledge of horses will be limited and they will be looking to the horse owner or handler for guidance. Staying calm and quiet allows you to think clearly in emergency situations.

“Safety is the No. 1 issue in an accident,” says Staples. “If you are hysterical or interfere with a rescue in a way that makes the rescue more difficult or less safe, you will be set aside and disregarded.”

In the case of a trailer rollover, Staples advises to check out all people and pets traveling with you so you know what to report to the 911 dispatcher. “Take note of where you are and advise them that emergency assistance is required and you may possibly require transport for your horse, and that you need a large animal veterinarian dispatched immediately,” she says. “While waiting, your first inclination is to open up the trailer and go in to help your horse, but that’s an action that can get both you and your horse killed. An open door is an invitation for it to try and escape. Instead, find the smallest opening possible to peek in. Stay calm."

Staples said many horses "survive rollovers if they’re in a well-maintained, sturdy trailer.”

Emergencies on the road, like most situations with horses, should be treated individually--the best and safest course of action for one emergency (whether or not to remove horses from the trailer, for instance) might not be indicated in other scenarios.

Take-Home Message

When it comes to trailering, make every trip a positive experience by planning it out ahead of time to ensure that your horse arrives safe. Have a contingency plan available to address unexpected difficulties. Learning to be proactive rather than reactive goes a long way toward minimizing stressful situations for both you and your horse.

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