Avoiding Travel Fatigue

The competitive season is in full swing and a lot of horses are on the move. Travel can be like any other experience we have one that is positive and beneficial or one that produces health-threatening stressors and fatigue depending on the choices we make.


It is vitally important to the safety and well-being of the horse that he be taught to load without anxiety.

Although most horses seem to tolerate travel it is a stress to some degree to all horses. Horses lose body weight and run the risk of respiratory disease during travel. Because of the risks no matter how seasoned the showman moving horses can be a stress for most horse owners as well.

When the horse or human is faced with a stress and copes with it successfully he is better equipped to cope successfully again in the future. Thoughtful preparation can help one cope with stress and avoid fatigue or an assault to health. Long before the trips begin you can help your horse get ready for a season on the road.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable yet significant things one can do is to learn TTEAM TTouch. This gentle circular massage with the finger tips can have a profound effect on your horse's behavior and his relationship to you. This technique is designed to stimulate circulation and relax muscles but it also can enhance the communication and bonding between you and your horse. Using the finger tip circles to induce a state of deep relaxation in your horse on a daily basis will have a long-term positive effect on his health. In that deeply relaxed state the body has an opportunity for repair.

Optimizing nutrition will prepare your horse for the impact of travel. A horse should enter the travel season in top health to avoid becoming physically or mentally overwhelmed. Taking the steps necessary to minimize stress is not difficult and will prevent you from facing a difficult situation.

Step One in Avoiding Travel Fatigue: Packing

Packing the trailer and truck for a trip can be an exhausting experience. True it is real physical work to carry a lot of heavy tack feed and assorted other gear out to the trailer but the exhaustion can be traced to mental stress. In the back of your mind there is the worry that you will forget to bring something important or that you will need a spare girth or some other piece of equipment and it won't be in the trailer.

Much of this anxiety will be reduced if you make a packing list before show season starts when you have plenty of time to think about everything you will need on the road. Start your list preparation by simply writing down everything you could possibly need for your horse and yourself when away from home. Make the list as all-inclusive as you can. As you work with this list when trailering to a lesson or some other less anxiety-provoking event you can eliminate the things that are not really needed.

Once you get your list perfected categorize the items according to whether they are tack stall trappings clothing feed and water first aid kits for horse or human or truck and trailer maintenance needs. Type the list neatly and have it encased in plastic laminate. Keep one list on the bulletin board in your tack room and one list in the truck. When you pack simply go down the list.

Step Two In Avoiding Travel Fatigue: Loading

Getting the horse into the trailer might be the most stressful and fatiguing part of the trip. It is vitally important to the safety and well-being of the horse that he be taught to load without anxiety.

When a horse shys away from the trailer he is saying that he believes he will be harmed by going near it. We respond by using a whip or broom confirming his belief. There are several things that can be done to make a trailer a non-threatening object for the horse. Ideally these steps are taken long before travel begins. Working with the horse as a foal will give life-long comfort in this situation.

A prime motivator for any living thing is to get food and water. Park your trailer in the field and hang the feed tub and water buckets from its sides for several days. If you are beginning with a problem horse put the buckets near the trailer and gradually move them closer every day until they are hung on the trailer. Feeding the horse on the ramp and eventually in the trailer will help instill in his mind that this is a place of comfort not of danger. When the horse is fed in the trailer it is important to stay with him to help him back out of the trailer when he is finished eating. Do not lock him in the trailer but back him slowly out after he has finished eating. Of course this is contingent on the horse knowing a command for backing and feeling comfortable doing this. A bad experience getting out of a trailer can lead to rushing out which is very dangerous for horse and human.

At every step towards desensitizing the horse to the trailer lavish affection and praise on him to let him know you genuinely appreciate his behavior. If you have established yourself as the alpha leader your horse will desire your approval of his actions. Establish yourself as the alpha leader through an attitude of firm confidence and consistency of action and your horse will trust you and look to you for protection from danger. Out of trust in his master a horse will do many things that are against his will. Ideally though the horse gets into a trailer because he has found it to be a place of comfort.

I have found that a brow band magnet is a great aid to relaxation for the horse. I think the magnetic field puts the horse in a calm frame of mind. A strong magnet is housed in a neoprene brow band so that it sits on the middle of the horse's forehead. I use magnetic brow bands every time I treat a horse to ensure that the treatment session is a relaxing experience. After the second or third time I put the brow band on the horse he begins to close his eyes and drop his head as I put it on. He has learned that with the brow band comes tranquility. This simple device can turn an anxious horse into a calm one and help a resistant horse learn a new skill. The brow band magnet can help your horse cope with the unusual noises and sights of the stabling away from home. The deep relaxation will help him get the rest he needs while in new surroundings.

How do I think the brow band magnet works? When worn correctly the magnet rests on the frontal bone over the cerebrum of the horse. The pineal gland located in the third ventricle of the cerebrum secretes melatonin a hormone that regulates sleep and mood among other functions. The pituitary gland is located at the base of the brain and is responsible for regulation of other glands of the body. Magnetic field stimulation of glands or other structures in the brain might play a role in message conveyance such as "increase melatonin production." The magnetic field is thought to modify the local environment of the cells changing transmembrane fluxes of molecules such as calcium or other substances important in cell function. Calcium movement through cell membranes affects the cells' metabolic activity.

The magnetic brow band sits on acupuncture sites used for tranquilizing. This area of the forehead is called the "third eye" in Eastern spiritual tradition and it is considered the gateway to the inner self. Eastern medicine says that stimulating this area of the forehead increases intuitive thinking and helps the mind focus. According to Ayervedic tradition adjusting the resonance of the third eye increases one's intuitive abilities and has a "grounding" effect. It is interesting that humans the world over touch this area of the forehead when calling upon the power of concentration. Using the magnetic brow band does not make a horse sluggish or unpredictable as tranquilizers do.

Prior to introducing the horse to the trailer apply a brow band magnet up to one hour before a trailer schooling session. It is important that you prepare your own mind as well to avoid reacting with anger or distress. You must eliminate your own negative behaviors of impatience tension and turmoil to complete the entire process of mastering the skill of trailering your horse.

Step Three In Avoiding Travel Fatigue: Your Rig

Any time you hit the open road you run the risk of having trouble with your truck or trailer. Who hasn't felt a wave of anxiety as you pull onto the highway? You wonder if the hitch is secure. You wonder if your tail lights are working. You wonder if all the fluids in the truck are at optimal levels. You wonder if your tires are all right. You also wonder why you waited until now to think of these things. Once again that pre-trip check list laminated in plastic and kept in the truck will help you to be as prepared and efficient as an airline pilot before a flight. Items that should be on this mechanical check list include the following: fluid hoses in truck engine trailer and truck brake systems; trailer and truck lights; fluid levels in the truck and trailer; and truck and trailer tire tread and air in tires.

Should you need to stop when traveling on the interstate try to get to a truck stop an access road or large parking lot that is as far off the interstate as possible. This will ensure your safety as you make the checks or adjustments necessary. Also it will help your horse stay calm. Horses can be startled by the noise and rush of wind when a big semi-truck races past the trailer. It is scary for me too! A startled horse often pulls back feels the tension from his tie and starts the fear-pressure-fear cycle until he gets into trouble in the enclosed space of the trailer. Pulling off the interstate as far as possible will be helpful if you have to unload your horse to change a tire or wait for a mechanic. It is unlikely that the horse will be willing to get back on the trailer with the distractions of roadway traffic so try not to stop until you are well off the road.

The horse should be taken as far away from the roadway activity as possible and allowed to graze. This might require having someone else with you to handle the horse while you handle the repairs. Having a travel companion can be a stress reliever in itself. A mobile phone and a list of phone numbers are not only useful if needed but a source of comfort.

Some other considerations before you leave include determining how long it will take to reach your destination; whether one person can safely drive the distance or is another driver needed; where stops should be planned during the drive for rest or for an overnight stay; whether or not there are facilities available for rest or overnight stabling along your route. (The Horse Source has a list of layover farms with their phone numbers in each state.) Also are your health papers (Coggins and health certificate) up to date?

Step Four In Avoiding Travel Fatigue: Travel Comfort

Recently research has looked at the effects of transporting horses while they are facing either forward or backward. Heart rate monitors were used to record the heart rate before during and after the journey and the horse's behavior was observed. Two studies observed that horses' heart rates were significantly lower when they were transported facing backward and they also tended to rest on their rumps more. In the forward-facing position the horses moved more frequently and tended to hold their necks in a higher than normal position and to vocalize more frequently. The study concluded that the horses seemed to find transport less physically stressful when they were facing backward than when they were facing forward. (See references 1 and 2.)

I recently had the pleasure of talking to Ramey Peticolas-Stroud a trainer of champion endurance horses and authority on how to keep a horse comfortable in a trailer. He choreographs long distance travel with horses so there is a rest stop every four hours. The horses are able to get out of the trailer for movement and massage. They are fed and watered as well as walked or lunged. After a massage and some stretching the horses go back on the trailer in a new position. If they were traveling on the left they travel the next segment on the right side of the trailer. If they were facing forward they travel the next segment facing backward. Changing their positions and massaging them during the breaks works well to control fatigue of the gluteal muscles. His horses arrive fresh and relaxed with no stiffness from long hours of standing in one position.

The front and back legs should be wrapped with protective bandages to avoid leg injuries as the horse moves around trying to maintain balance. Shipping bandages should cover the hoof to protect the coronary band.

The trailer must be large enough that the horse will not feel trapped and will not bump his head. Horses like people are bigger than they were 20 years ago and trailers built back then might not be large enough.

Overheating and excessive sweating can become a problem in a closed trailer or van. The windows should always be open even in winter. Good-quality air flow during transport directly affects the horse's state of health upon arrival and for several weeks after the trip. Also the horse must have access to water at regular intervals during the trip to avoid dehydration. Monitor your horse's water consumption carefully during the trip.

Step Five In Avoiding Travel Fatigue: Respiratory Disease

It is well known that travel increases the horse's risk of contracting respiratory infection and other contagious diseases. Of the various stressors that can affect the horse during transport air quality plays a significant role in the horse's ability to cope with travel.

Breathing in gases such as nitrous oxide carbon monoxide ammonia and hydrocarbons could compromise the ability of the lung to remove foreign particles or bacteria. This is due to a breakdown in the barrier between the alveolar gas spaces and the lung's capillary blood. Disruption of the barrier allows an increase in permeability to bacteria. This invasion of bacteria coupled with immune suppression brought about by transport stress might be important factors in respiratory disease and even death following transport. (See reference 2.)

An interesting study published in 1996 evaluated whether an immune system stimulant given prior to shipping could reduce the incidence of shipping stress-related respiratory disease. EQ-STIM a product that has shown evidence of stimulating the immune defense system was given to 217 horses five and two days before transport. No medication was given to 233 horses which were shipped with the treated horses.

Of the treated horses 10.6% were ill upon arrival while 31.8% of the untreated horses were ill. Seven days after shipping 18.4% of the treated horses were ill and 60.9% of the untreated horses were ill. Based on the data the researchers concluded that the immune system stimulator could reduce the incidence of respiratory disease in horses transported over long distances. (See reference 3.)

For those of you into natural treatments for yourself and your horses you might want to build up your horse's immune system with herbal immunostimulants such as garlic and vitamin C during the weeks before a trip. Garlic can provide anti-fungal and anti-bacterial protection. Stacey Small of Equilite Botanical Blends suggests feeding echinacea for two weeks before a trip to boost immunity. She also notes that the homeopathic ignatia or relaxing flower essences such as Bach Flower formulas or Natural Vibrations could be used to suppress anxiety.

Horses have been hauling us around since the beginning of our relationship with them. Horses pulled crude chariots carried man from America's Eastern side to the West and were integral in inter-city transportation until the early 1900s. (See reference 4.) Now we subject horses to our travel desires putting them in trailers vans trains and airplanes as well as on ships. A thoughtful horse owner will identify the stressors affecting his horse and endeavor to eliminate them. The horse's well-being and his state of health depend on it.

About the Author

Mimi Porter

Mimi Porter lives in Lexington, Ky., where she has practiced equine therapy since 1982. Prior to that, she spent 10 years as an athletic trainer at the University of Kentucky. Porter authored The New Equine Sports Therapy, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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