Trailering Your Horse: The Movable Feast

Alas not only are horses dedicated herbivores but the average horse trailer doesn't fit that easily into a fast-food drive-thru. Other solutions must be sought. If you travel with your horse in tow whether it's to the local Sunday morning gymkhana or all the way up the Alaska Highway you need to address his dietary needs. Doing so isn't difficult fortunately--but it requires some care and preparation.

When you reach your destination observe your horse's attitude closely.


Shipping Stress

Traveling means stress. There's no escaping it. Along with the fatigue that comes with bracing and balancing himself in a bouncing vibrating trailer your horse might find himself in an environment that is too hot or too cold for comfort or breathing stale air in a trailer with inadequate ventilation. In addition shipping represents a disruption of routine--and as equine nutritionist Lori Rice PhD of the University of Florida points out "Horses love routine." All of these factors can add up to one road-weary road warrior.

Most short trailer trips of a couple of hours or less are not likely to have a significant impact on a seasoned traveler but for a young or nervous animal even a short weekend trip can be enough to prompt him to lose his appetite and make him a neurotic mess. Under the influence of shipping stress such horses can sometimes "melt" a hundred pounds off their frames seemingly overnight. (Naturally the horses with a talent for this are almost invariably the ones who can ill afford to lose a hundred pounds.)

Dehydration is another major concern when shipping. Both the restricted availability of water in the average trailer and the reluctance many horses have for drinking water that tastes strange can contribute. Im-paction colic is always a possibility when water intake is insufficient. On top of this the poor ventilation in many trailers coupled with the usual hay net hung immediately in front of your horse's muzzle can subject him to serious respiratory stresses especially on long hauls. The combined effect of all these stress factors might be a suppression of the horse's natural immune response rendering him vulnerable to airborne viruses and bacteria.

All of these health concerns are worth noting in any circumstance but they're doubly important if you are traveling to a race or competition and expecting your horse to be the ultimate athlete upon his arrival. Minimizing the stress factors of shipping can go a long way toward assuring that your horse is up to his maximum performance potential when he reaches his destination--and that he maintains his weight and condition as well as the water levels in his system. So before you even assess your horse's traveling diet have a look at the conditions in which he'll be shipping.

Home Sweet Mobile Home

The trailer in which your horse rides should be roomy enough that he can ride comfortably with non-slip footing (such as rubber matting) and the capacity to allow him to spread his feet to balance when you are turning or braking. It should provide for good airflow through windows vents or removable doors or panels. Ideally it will be equipped with torsion suspension which can make quite a difference in the smoothness of the ride. And because studies have shown that mechanical stresses on equine limbs are reduced when horses travel backwards and/or diagonally you should consider the use of a trailer which allows either of these configurations rather than the traditional face-forward design. Rice who with her husband regularly makes 1000-mile journeys from Florida to Ohio with their small string of Thoroughbred racehorses finds that a stock-type trailer in which horses travel essentially loose allows her charges to find their own most comfortable position--and she says that they arrive considerably fresher than do horses in trailers with standing-stall compartments.

It is accepted practice to hang a full hay net in the trailer for each horse. While it might not be satisfying any desperate dietary need on a short haul it does keep horses amused satisfying their grazing urge on something constructive rather than say their blankets or the padding on the chest bar. On a long-distance haul hay nets are a necessary item--but because hay can harbor significant quantities of dust and mold spores they also are a risk factor for respiratory problems particularly because in many trailers they're hung directly in the face of a tied horse who can go nowhere else!

Wetting your hay net before you hang it can be a help (although it's messy) and of course you should avoid using dusty or very fine hay (fine hay coupled with the low water intake often involved with shipping can contribute to impactions in the gut). Some horse owners prefer to use canvas hay bags that have a circular opening for hay access. These do cut down on wastage and on dust inhaled but since they only hold a couple of flakes of hay at a time they must be refilled more often. Trailers with permanent mangers in front allow you to place a few flakes of hay on the shelf in front of your horse instead of bagging it but many professional haulers advise against this design since some horses have a talent for getting a foreleg up in the manger and injuring themselves.

Because your horse is likely to be breathing in airborne particles from his hay net at his front make sure that the ventilation in your trailer is adequate to keep air circulating. It's natural to want to shut the trailer up tight in cold winter conditions but resist the temptation. It's far better for your horse's lungs to blanket him and keep those upper doors or windows open. In hot conditions airflow becomes even more critical (remember that forage-eating animals like horses give off a lot of body heat). Consider doing your traveling at night if temperatures warrant it.

Short Hops And Long Hauls

On a short trip (of several hours or less) your horse's nutritional needs aren't any different than they would be at home. Offer water before and after the journey provide a haynet to keep him busy during the ride and aim to interrupt his usual feeding schedule as little as possible. If you are traveling to a weekend show for example you'll want to bring with you enough of your own hay that you don't have to purchase any extra on the road. Any change of feed can be enough to discourage his appetite or trigger a digestive upset.

As for grain if your horse is competing after his journey he'll need the energy that his regular grain ration provides. If not however it might be worthwhile to cut back his ration to about two-thirds of his usual until he is working again. While tiring shipping does not burn calories the way working or turnout in a pasture does so if you continue to provide high-energy feed you may have a high-voltage horse on your hands!

Instead of lugging multiple bags and buckets of feed along with them to competitions many horse owners find it convenient to make up "doggie bags" for their horses. Each grain feeding can be mixed prior to departure complete with any supplements or additives and a bit of loose salt packaged in a plastic Zip-Loc type bag and labeled with a permanent marker. This method makes it easy for a helper to feed your horses in the morning says Rice perhaps allowing you the luxury of sleeping in at your hotel room! On hot summer days store these bags in a picnic cooler with some ice or a freeze-pak which should be sufficient to avoid spoilage for a weekend show. If you're staying longer you might consider storing your grain in a small plastic garbage can with wheels. Make sure it locks shut in some fashion since you likely won't have the luxury of a separate feed room in your temporary accommodations. Bringing your own feed is always a better option than purchasing some at your destinationn. Your aim is to keep your horse's routine as familiar as possible--now is not the time to introduce any new feeds or supplements.

Finicky horses who refuse to drink in a strange environment can be worrisome to manage. The easiest way to deal with this on a short trip is to bring your own water from home. Camping and army-surplus stores are a great source of collapsible plastic containers that can hold enough water to see you through a weekend journey. But there's a limit to how much water you can transport and on a longer trip (or when you have multiple horses in tow) your horses eventually will have to drink the local variety. Sometimes they'll surprise us readily drinking water that we find tastes metallic or sulfurous. Other times they'll turn up their noses at what seems to us perfectly acceptable. If you suspect your horse might be the finicky type try the old horseman's trick of adding a little flavoring to his water at home a few days before you depart. Peppermint flavoring (just a couple of drops--a little goes a long way!) vinegar molasses or flavored drink mixes such as Kool-Aid are popular choices. You might have to experiment to see what your horse prefers. Once your horse is happily drinking the flavored water you can add the same flavoring to the water at your destination. Chances are he'll suck it in with no hesitation.

On short trips horses rarely have the opportunity to become clinically dehydrated but on a longer haul it's a small but very real possibility particularly if it is hot and your horse is sweating in the trailer. If you are traveling a great distance stop every three to four hours and offer water. The cessation of motion will give your horse's legs a break as well even if you don't unload him. (If you're traveling by a major highway rather than dirt and gravel roads and your trailer rides smoothly it might be possible to hang a half-full water bucket for your horse.) Keep a close eye out for signs of dehydration every time you check your horse. Pinching a fold of the skin of the neck and watching to see how long it takes to snap back when you release it is a simple and reliable test. (If your horse's water intake has been sufficient the skin will snap back in a second or two; if it takes longer than that your horse is dehydrated.) When you reach your destination observe his attitude closely. He should be tired yes but if he strikes you as unusually sluggish or depressed it might be wise to check his temperature. If your horse is severely dehydrated and refuses to drink fluid replacement therapy (either intravenously or by tubing) might be necessary as a last resort says Rice. But it's rare to have to take such a step.

When you make your rest stops every three to four hours take a moment as well to assess the temperature and air freshness inside your trailer and open and close doors windows or vents accordingly. Refill (and dampen) your horse's hay net as needed and do a once-over to ensure shipping boots or bandages are still where they're supposed to be. That being said don't dally too long. Rice feels that if you have a long distance to travel you should try to do it in as few days as possible even if that means a couple of long days (or nights) on the road. "Dragging out the travel time just keeps them off their normal schedules that much longer" she says.

If your horse turns up his nose at his regular feed while traveling you should be prepared to tempt his appetite. Sometimes just a dollop of molasses will do the trick or you can break the rules a little and mix up a wet bran mash (or another very palatable feed) with a little salt added to encourage him to drink. Beware of feeding bran mashes throughout a long journey though--as we've noted in other articles bran is not really easier on the system than any other grain feed and any sudden change in feed can cause digestive upset which will only add to the shipping stress. It might also help to offer small amounts of feed more often. For example try splitting his usual evening grain into two servings and only offer the second after he has cleaned up the first.

When you reach your destination turn your horse out to stretch his legs and roll if possible. If you've traveled to a show or racetrack where there are only stalls take the time to walk him on a lead shank for a while allowing him to pick grass and relax his muscles. Young or nervous horses also will benefit from this time to look around their new surroundings. You might find that if you make this a part of the travel routine they will learn to settle in more quickly.

"Some horses," says Rice, "need a season or two of hauling around before they get comfortable with it. Keep as many things about his routine the same as you can give him his regular meals and watch how he eats."

If he is chronically nervous she adds you might have to make special arrangements for stabling at competitions such as finding a spot with a small paddock or taking a portable paddock with you. Eventually however most horses do accept shipping as part of their routine and learn to relax.

It's relatively normal for most horses' feed and water intake to decrease the first day they are in a new environment but in most circumstances it will increase the following day to compensate. If you and your horse travel regularly together you'll soon learn to recognize what's normal for him. A road warrior with a routine is a happy road warrior...especially if he's a horse.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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