The Long and Short of Horse Trailering

The Long and Short of Horse Trailering

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

In true summer riding season fashion, horse owners have begun heading down country roads and highways to tackle trail rides and competitions. If you haul your own horse, you'll want to arrive at your destination not only safely but also with the least amount of stress on your horses and yourself. However long or short the journey, planning is key. Two trailering authorities, Neva Kittrell Scheve, author of "The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer"; and Mark Cole, founder of USRider, a roadside service for equestrians, share what it takes to get from point A to B without mishap.

Prepare the Vehicles

Having a broken-down rig by the side of the road certainly qualifies as a stressful situation. Preparing your tow vehicle and trailer prior to departure is tantamount, and Cole says horse people can avoid breakdowns and major accidents with smart planning steps. "USRider gets more calls regarding flat tires than any other (truck or trailer) issue," he says. "Preventing flat tires is a matter of simple maintenance. Check at the beginning of the (show or trail riding) season to make sure the tires on your trailer aren't too old or dry-rotted (and replace tires every three to five years). Most importantly, purchase a tire gauge and know how to use it. Check the pressure before you leave every time, not just once a season. A great majority of tire issues can be solved by simply maintaining proper inflation."

You can find the correct tire pressure for a truck in the vehicle's owner manual. The air pressure for trailers can be found stamped on the tire sidewall. Unlike vehicle tires, trailer tires should be inflated to the maximum pressure indicated on the tire.

Cole also recommends using a tire pressure monitoring system. This wireless device alerts the driver in the cab when the tire pressure drops 12.5% and again when it drops 25%, giving you plenty of time to be proactive and find a service station before your tire goes flat or blows out.

Cole also recommends carrying a second spare tire. "USRider has seen a high number of incidents with two flat tires on the same side of the trailer," says Cole. "When one tire fails, the other tire becomes overworked and fails too." You can mount one spare tire on top of the other, or if you have a tag-along trailer, you can mount one on each side. With a gooseneck trailer you can mount one spare on each side or both under the gooseneck by extending the mount.

The second thing Cole says owners often neglect is the emergency breakaway battery (which locks trailer brakes automatically if the trailer becomes disconnected from the tow vehicle). "It's what is in the black box on the tongue of your trailer," he says. "The great majority are completely discharged and would be of no use whatsoever in an emergency." Some need to be charged, some will charge automatically as you drive, and most need to be replaced altogether. "Don't forget to connect it when you hitch your trailer," Cole adds.

Hitching Checklist

To make the process of hitching up the trailer and loading horses run smoothly, do things in the same order every time (and do them in reverse order upon your return). For example:

1. Hitch trailer.

2. Lock hitch (to keep the tongue of the trailer from jumping off the hitch).

3. Connect safety chains or cable to towing vehicle.

4. Connect battery cable on tongue to towing vehicle's trailer hitch.

5. Connect electrical plug for lights/brakes.

Many people carry a checklist such as the one above (see also a pre-travel safety checklist at in their tow vehicle, so they can run through it before they depart and again when they unhitch. But there are other details owners need to consider. For instance, always cross the safety chains. Crossed chains will catch and hold a hitch if it should jump off the coupler, instead of dragging along the roadway. Note that unhitching can also occur if the trailer and towing vehicle are mismatched; for example, the truck might not be heavy enough for your trailer. So first ensure your vehicle is appropriate for the trailer.

After loading, drive approximately 600 feet, stop, and run through your checklist again. If anything has gone wrong, you'll know it by then. You might have left something detached, dangling, or open. Checking and rechecking might seem obsessive, but Scheve recalls a young woman exiting a showground with horse in tow who had checked everything first. "Fortunately, she decided to check once more and found her horse had untied the lead rope, which was very long, and it had fallen outside and wrapped around the wheels of the trailer," she says. "It was pulling the horse up into the manger at the front of the trailer."

Prepare the Horse

Preparing the horse for travel is just as important as preparing the vehicle. Regardless of trip length, protection from injury and illness is key--particularly leg protection. "You should never put a horse in the trailer without leg protection," says Scheve. "While loading or unloading, injuries can occur if a horse clips or steps on himself. Know how to put on leg wraps properly, and make sure the coronary band is covered."

Explains Nancy Loving, DVM, owner of Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colo., "Injury to the lower limbs occurs when a horse steps on himself, such as might occur with sudden stops and starts as he scrambles to retain his balance. Or, a leg injury can be incurred if he is stepped on by a horse in an adjoining trailer stall."

You have several choices for leg protection, such as standing bandages in combination with bell boots to protect the coronary band, shipping boots that extend over the hoof, and classic quilts/pillow wraps beneath flannel or stable bandages. Hook-and-loop (Velcro) fastener type shipping boots are a good investment, says Scheve, because they are quick and easy to apply, which increases the chances you'll use them every time. The disadvantage of rolled bandages is that they might unravel during the trip if not reinforced properly with tape or bandage pins. At the very least, Scheve says, put on bell boots to protect the coronary band.

Scheve also recommends using a head bumper, which protects the top of the horse's head in cases of a sudden stop or the horse tossing his head up while loading and unloading. However, never assume a head bumper will compensate for lack of headroom if your tall horse is riding in a small trailer. Your trailer must always give your horse adequate head and body room so he can move and balance while on the road. According to Scheve, a trailered horse should be able to stand in a normal position and use his head and neck without any restrictions. He should be able to spread his legs for balance as well as step back and touch the butt bar while tied. If a horse is close to touching the front wall or if his ears touch the roof when he raises his head, then he doesn't have enough room.

If you are loading two or more horses, keep the offloaded horse within view of the loaded one to allay stress. This will help minimize both animals' anxiety levels and might prevent the loaded horse from bolting out of the trailer before being tethered or secured by the butt bar.

There are many differences of opinions as to whether you should tie your horse in the trailer or leave him untied. Loving recommends tying the horse: "A halter is important to have in place for control of a horse when loading and unloading, and for tying in the trailer. Without the head restrained, some horses attempt to turn around--head and shoulders can become wedged with no easy way to get free."

Scheve also prefers leaving the horse tied, but with a breakaway halter. "Put a second halter underneath with a short lead rope dangling--a foot or so in length," she suggests. "This allows for a means to catch the horse if he happens to get loose."

Scheve recommends securing the trailer tie or lead rope to a knotless tie ring (e.g., Blocker Tie Ring) or using one with a quick release snap. This type of tie ring provides some resistance but pays out the line in case the horse falls or jerks back.

"The horse should be tied so he has enough room to use his head and neck for balance, can stand in a comfortable position, and can touch the butt bar so he's aware of where his parameters are," says Scheve.

If you are traveling long-distance from a cool climate to a warmer one, clip your horse about a week before you leave (the clipping process can be stressful for some horses, and you want to minimize horses' stress before travel). If you are heading toward cooler climates, pack blankets/sheets of varying thickness to switch onto your horse as the temperature changes, keeping in mind that the trailer might become significantly hotter than the ambient temperature, depending on the time of year and trailer ventilation.

The Trailer Environment

One of the risks horses face when being shipped is contracting a respiratory infection commonly called "shipping fever," which can appear up to three days after hauling. This ailment occurs when bacteria--such as Streptococcus zooepidemicus, normally found in the nose and throat--and other breathable particles in trailer air make their way into the lungs and aren't cleared. Usually a horse's lungs can clear well, but when you ship a horse in a posture that doesn't allow him to lower his head, this usual clearance function doesn't work as well. Also, since shipping can be inherently stressful to the horse, his immune system might not be as prepared to fight the bacteria. Providing fresh, clean air to the horse being shipped is paramount to avoiding shipping fever.

Proper window ventilation using screens also is important, and a roof fan that draws out stale air can add ventilation. Open all the trailer vents while hauling, particularly during the summer. If shavings are used, dampen them to keep them from blowing about and to reduce the amount of particles your horse inhales. Wood shavings mixed with wood pellet bedding are an attractive bedding option because the pellets are highly absorbent and dust-free.

"On long trips, cleaning the manure and urine (-soaked bedding) from the trailer whenever possible will keep ammonia to a minimum," says Scheve. High ammonia levels can increase your horse's susceptibility to respiratory infection.

Your horse's breathing zone, which is the two-foot sphere around the nose from which he draws his breath, should be clear. Providing your horse hay while traveling is helpful as a stress-reducer but, according to Loving, increases the amount of inhaled particles in his breathing zone. Dampening the hay can help minimize dust. If you use a hay net, place it high enough so your horse won't get his foot caught in it if he were to paw or move around, but still within reach. Scheve prefers using feed bag trays, which place the hay below the horse's head. Then, as he eats the hay it doesn't fall over his head and into his eyes (possibly scratching them) and airways.

Research has shown that approximately 10% of horses become ill when shipping long distances. Catherine Kohn, VMD, Dipl. ACVIM, professor at the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at Ohio State University and editor of "Guidelines for Horse Transport by Road & Air," states that shipping horses less than six hours will generally not induce many health problems; shipping them for less than 10 hours might cause a slight risk; and shipping for more than 12 hours in one day might increase the health risks. Scheve says, "As a general rule, when a trip is 12 hours or longer, more aggressive precautions should be taken to avoid shipping fever and other stress-related problems." Thus, try not to have your horse on board for more than eight hours. On particularly long hauls plan to stay overnight at a stable.


"Trailer travel over long distances is fraught with hydration problems since a horse has little opportunity to drink while at the same time exerting his muscles to balance in the trailer," says Loving. "If you feed hay en route as well, water is necessary for proper digestion."

Lack of water can cause intestinal problems, so on long trips (more than six hours) stop every four hours to offer your horse water and to let him relax. Scheve says adding electrolytes or flavoring such as Kool-Aid to your horse's water might encourage him to drink, particularly if he doesn't like the smell or taste of unfamiliar water. If your horse refuses to drink on the trailer, plan ahead for horse-friendly places to unload your horse, such as a facility listed in the "Nationwide Overnight Stabling Directory" (available for purchase at and major book retailers). "Do not unload your horse in rest areas," warns Scheve. "Some places near highways may treat their grass with chemicals you don't want in your horse's system. They are also close to the roadway, and if he breaks away from you he could get hit by a car."

Always bring at least 20 gallons of water on both long and short trips. You can use the water for drinking, treating possible wounds, or cooling your horse off.

Take-Home Message

Horse owners need to take the right approach to trailering and be prepared for anything--be it with the vehicle or the horse. For the best possible outcome, "People need to be more proactive rather than reactive when it comes to trailering their horses," concludes Cole.

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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