- Sep 13, 2001
Many horse people tend to think of equine transportation vehicles in the same way that we classify automobiles: There are the stripped-down economy models, which are perfectly okay for getting us from point A to point B, but won't elicit envious stares at traffic lights. There are the respectable midsize models, which offer more room and comfort, but which don't draw attention to themselves. And there are the over-the-top luxury models, with nearly every possible feature and gizmo and price tags to match. Choosing among the options is a matter of deciding what we can afford and what is important.
Your horse doesn't care whether his trailer matches the truck pulling it, or whether your living quarters boast glass shower doors and a state-of-the-art stereo system. He only cares whether he can load and offload without slipping or scrambling, ride as comfortably as possible, breathe fresh air (with a minimum of dust and exhaust fumes), rest during long trips, and put his head down once in a while to clear his respiratory passages of inhaled particles.
Some trailers are designed with the equine occupants' well-being in mind; others seem to place more emphasis on looks or human convenience. If you're hauling your horse across town, that cramped, stuffy trailer might not pose as significant a threat to his health (although he could well bump his head or otherwise injure himself). If you're traveling a longer distance, or if you do a lot of trailering, you run the risk of placing undue stress on his joints, his immune system, and his respiratory system if you continue to use a less-than-adequate trailer.
In this article, we'll explain why new research shows that trailering can jeopardize your horse's health, and what suggestions leading experts have made in terms of improving transport conditions to minimize the risks. We'll take a look at some of the higher-end and custom-built vehicles to see why they cost more. Finally, we'll give you some tips for evaluating your current trailer's safety and comfort, and for shopping for an upgrade.
Is Transport Hazardous To Your Horse's Health?
As The Horse reported in "Transportation Alert!" (July 1999), a forward-thinking task force consisting of A. Kent Allen, DVM, Catherine Kohn, VMD, and Leo Jeffcott, MA, BVetMed, PhD, FRCVS, DVSc--the same threesome that spearheaded the development and execution of the successful heat and humidity stress studies prior to the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games--has been going beyond the "conventional wisdom" to discover exactly what factors make road and air travel stressful to horses' bodies and minds. The researchers had plenty of anecdotal evidence that frequent shippers suffer more cases of respiratory ailments, injuries, and colic than do their stay-at-home brethren. What they didn't know was why or what it is about transport, exactly, that's to blame.
With the 2000 Sydney Olympics fast approaching, the researchers had a real incentive to find some answers: Practically all of the world's elite equine athletes which qualify for Sydney will have to endure a grueling trip by air to reach the competition. The Allen-Kohn-Jeffcott task force held an international workshop on equine transport in February 1999, and the American Horse Shows Association is publishing the study results. Some significant findings:
Long trips require longer rest periods.
"If a horse is on the road for 10 or 12 hours or more, he really needs a six-to-eight-hour overnight stop," says Allen. "In the past, it was thought that half-hour stops every four hours or so were enough to allow the horse to recover from travel stress; our research indicates that such short breaks don't allow sufficient recovery time."
Longer trips equal greater risk of infection.
The transport task force found (not surprisingly) that long journeys took a greater toll on horses' immune systems than did short trips.
Ventilation is a key design factor.
Whether they're being shipped via truck or plane, horses endure similar conditions: close, enclosed quarters and--at least some of the time--a setup that forces them to stand with their heads tied and held high. A common result is that they breathe dust from hay and bedding, vehicle exhaust, road dirt, and fumes from their own urine and feces, sometimes for hours on end, and are unable to lower their heads and necks to help expel the gunk from their airways. Properly ventilated trailers or "air stables" (shipping crates used on aircraft) would do much to prevent the accumulation of such contaminants, as would a design that allowed horses to lower their heads. Unfortunately, says Allen, ensuring good ventilation isn't simply a matter of installing windows or fans. "We're trying to design a model that would mimic the conditions of road transport," he says. "We're working on coming up with recommendations as to how to improve trailer and air-stable ventilation, but it's actually quite difficult to understand the air-flow system during transport. You would think it's easy to understand, but it's not." And practically all of today's trailers and horse vans are designed so that horses stand heads-up and tied--the opposite of their natural stance.
Clearly, discrepancies exist between the current standards and practices and what is the ideal. Of course, shipping of any kind is inherently unnatural for the horse--as are most other common horse-management practices. But riders and horse owners aren't likely to stop going to shows, competitions, and competitive or other trail rides any time soon, so let's take a look at what current trailer features can help keep your horse as safe and comfortable as possible on his journey.
Must-Have Trailer Features
What's the ideal trailer, from your horse's point of view? One that:
- Gives him plenty of room to move around and help him balance without undue effort. This will decrease the likelihood of injuries, and minimize post-travel stiffness;
- Provides for draft-free ventilation to minimize him having to inhale dust and other contaminants;
- Soaks up the inevitable bumps and jolts of the road;
- Maintains a comfortable interior temperature, particularly in hot weather--research indicates that heat is more stressful to horses than cold;
- Has a light and bright interior so he's less likely to think you're asking him to enter a cave when he loads;
- Features internal lighting to help "block" other vehicles' headlights from startling him during night hauling, and external lighting, which you'll appreciate if you ever have to load or unload after dark;
- Offers securely affixed, non-slip footing that won't shift as he moves--preferably covered with a layer of fresh, dust-free shavings to absorb urine.
Fortunately, you can find all of these features in trailers of any size, from two-horse tag-a-longs to the giant 12-horse tractor-trailers. You will pay a little extra for such features, and you also generally get what you pay for when it comes to trailer construction, says trailer and truck dealer and custom-trailer designer and builder Frank DiBella of Frank DiBella Deluxe Horse Vans in Pottstown, Penn. For the ultimate in durability, ease of maintenance, and equine safety and comfort, he recommends that trailer buyers look for the following:
- A galvanized-steel frame, for structural strength;
- Full insulation, to help reduce interior temperatures and absorb sound and any interior rattles;
- A rubber-lined interior, to help protect your horse from injury (and the trailer's interior from hoof damage);
- A non-corrosive exterior surface, such as stainless steel or aluminum;
- Pressure treated wood floors (most trailer manufacturers use pine) that "breathe" and drain (unlike aluminum floors), help dampen road noise, and don't conduct heat or cold;
- Large, double-sliding windows that offer a variety of adjustment options yet don't create direct drafts that could chill your horse;
- Plenty of interior and exterior artificial lighting.
Surprised that lush interior padding--the apparent equivalent of cushy automotive upholstery--isn't on the list? In truth, padding offers little in the way of actual protection, DiBella says. Trailer manufacturers include it--and tout their super-duper padding on their luxury vehicles--simply because "it appeases the owner's mind. If your horse really threw a fit, the padding wouldn't help at all." If you can't bear the thought of precious Dobbin standing back there in a bare stall, by all means buy a trailer with padding. It won't hurt him; and, as DiBella points out, anything that helps give you peace of mind while you're on the road is probably a worthwhile investment.
Beyond The Basics
Some folks consider the following trailer features to be luxury items, but--as the horse-transport studies have shown--those luxuries soon might be regarded as necessities. To help ensure that your horse steps off the trailer as relaxed and happy as he went on, look for a trailer that offers:
- Roomy stalls. A trailer whose stall size and ceiling height is more than adequate for the size horse you'll be hauling offers the most in comfort and ease of travel. On short to mid-length trips (of one to eight hours), a generously sized single stall or a double-wide stall should be adequate. On longer journeys, your horse would really prefer a bona fide box stall--generally available only on tractor-trailers--so he can move about freely and face whatever direction he rides the easiest. You'll appreciate the extra room, too, if you have to adjust a blanket or check a shipping boot.
- Adjustable interior configurations. Research has shown that most horses seem to prefer to stand at an angle facing either toward the front or back. If your trailer allows for a variety of stall set-ups, you'll be able to find the one that makes your horse the happiest.
- Extra stall and storage space. Why buy a four-horse trailer if you own just two horses? Because you'll invariably need room to store extra hay bales and other stuff, because you might want to take a friend's horse along sometime, and because horse owners have a tendency to accumulate horses! The same goes for features such as dressing rooms. According to DiBella, most customers who opt for a bare-bones, two-horse model later tell him they wish they'd sprung for the extra space.
- On-board water tanks. Some horses are notoriously picky drinkers; even the old trick of flavoring the water at home and using the same substance to mask the taste of the strange water won't work on them. Many seasoned competitors install large water tanks on their vans and trailers to avoid such problems. It's a good idea to have water on board while you're on the road, anyway--you never know when you're going to get stuck in traffic or fall victim to a mechanical difficulty.
- Interior fans. You don't want them positioned so that they'll blow dust and other particles into your horse's eyes, but they can help cool your horse on hot, sticky days.
Ready To Splurge?
The kind of trailer we've described doesn't come cheap. A deluxe two-horse bumper-pull model with a dressing room and a stainless-steel or aluminum exterior will set you in the high four-figure or low five-figure price range, DiBella estimates. A high-end two-horse gooseneck model with a dressing room goes for $12,000 to $15,000; a four-horse gooseneck, from $22,000 to $26,000; a six-horse gooseneck, from $26,000 to $31,000. But if money isn't an issue and you truly want the ultimate in towing comfort, safety, and convenience, you'll want to explore the following options.
- Bigger is better. "Nothing rides down the road like a big tractor-trailer with air-ride suspension, bigger stalls, and good ventilation," says DiBella. "Nothing is as secure or as 'crashable' if it gets into an accident, because it has more structure." These big rigs can hold as many as 15 horses, but you'll want to configure your interior so it holds just 10 or even five, for maximum room and comfort. You'll need a commercial driver's license (CDL) to drive a rig this big (or you could hire someone to drive it for you). Expect to spend a cool quarter of a million dollars for a custom-built cab and tractor-trailer.
Too much? A new deluxe six-horse van costs around $80,000, and a three- or four-horse model is $60,000 or so.
- Living quarters. "A complete living quarters would include most of the things you have in your house: TV, shower, full bath, a queen-size bed, dinette, oven, microwave, refrigerator, air conditioning, and heat. You can have practically any amenity you want--a washer and dryer, a trash compactor...it becomes a question of dollars and cents," says DiBella. The average buyer spends between $15,000 and $20,000 to install complete living quarters in a gooseneck trailer, he says. If you want top-of-the-line everything, of course, the sky's the limit. Installing living quarters might seem like an extravagant option, but to horse owners who relish the peace of mind of always being just steps away from their animals, or who have had it with high hotel and restaurant bills at horse shows, living quarters might be a worthwhile investment--and one that's economical in the long run.
- The latest in tow vehicles. Truck manufacturers introduce new features and options every model year. Some that might appeal to horse owners are a diesel engine (preferred by serious haulers due to its fuel economy, longevity, and higher resale value, according to DiBella), cruise control, tilt-wheel steering, ergonomically correct seats with lumbar support, cup and change holders, a hands-free cellular phone, a good stereo system, heated exterior mirrors, and "king cabs" with full back seats or at least extra storage space behind the driver's seat.
Do You Need A New Trailer?
If you own a trailer and you're not sure if it's still road-worthy, take it to a trailer dealer who offers maintenance and repair services and ask for a thorough evaluation.
If you don't live near such a dealer, ask horse owners in your area for the name of a mechanic who works on their trailers. A reputable professional will tell you what (if anything) needs to be fixed or serviced to make your rig safe and legal.
Having regular annual maintenance done will prolong the life of your trailer and gives the mechanic a chance to spot and fix minor problems before they become major ones.
What about your trailer's "stress factor" for its occupants (including you)? Is it cramped and stuffy, with low ceilings, slippery floors, poor ventilation, and insufficient lighting? Consider your horse's size and the frequency you haul him. Then take a look at newer vehicles. Are they substantially larger with brighter interiors and bigger and better-placed windows or ventilation systems than what is on your current trailer?
If the answer is yes, and particularly if you do a lot of hauling, you might decide that a new (or newer) trailer is a worthwhile investment in your horse's health, comfort, and safety. (Be on the lookout for your July issue, when our Equinomics article feature tips on buying a good used trailer.)
What’s new in trailers this year? Frank DiBella, owner of Frank DiBella Deluxe Horse Vans in Pottstown, Penn., reports that today’s trailer buyers want higher-end models—rigs with more room and more features—than in years past. A strong economy has led to more people getting into horse sports, and participants are buying costlier mounts and want the kinds of vehicles that will ensure their safety and comfort, he says.
Better ventilation and increased size are the trends at Eby Trailers of Blue Ball, Penn., which builds customized, all-aluminum rigs for such high-profile customers as sport-horse breeding farm Iron Spring Farm in Coatesville, Penn. When this article went to press, Eby was preparing to introduce a still-unnamed two-horse side-by-side trailer that’s wider and higher than before, says Darryl Breniser, Eby’s director of sales and marketing. The new model is 20 feet long and 7 feet wide—a full six inches wider than most trailers, he says—with front and rear ramps for easy loading and unloading.
Eby is building trailers with larger windows than in the past, for better ventilation; extra head room (at least 7’ 6", with some models boasting eight feet of head room); moderately angled ramps for ease of loading and unloading and to minimize the chances of a horse’s slipping; and washable interior materials, says Breniser.
"We’re also seeing a trend toward the installation of video cameras in the trailer, so the driver can see what’s going on with the horses at all times," Breniser adds. It’s much more economically feasible today to install a simple video camera in a trailer than in days past, he says. He knows of people who have had cameras installed for as little as $300 or $400. That’s a small price to add to the total cost of a trailer, therefore cameras are becoming more common even in small rigs, he says.
About the Author
Jennifer O. Bryant is editor-at-large of the U.S. Dressage Federation's magazine, USDF Connection. An independent writer and editor, Bryant contributes to many equestrian publications, has edited numerous books, and authored Olympic Equestrian. More information about Jennifer can be found on her site, www.jenniferbryant.net.
POLL: Managing Working Horses