The transport of mature horses by road is a routine event for professional horse people, but even in the hands of experienced haulers, there are certain risks involved with the shipping of horses. The necessity of foals being shipped can arise for a variety of different reasons, including traveling with the mare to a breeding farm, moving to a new farm after purchase, or traveling to a hospital due to illness or injury of the foal or mare.
Without proper planning, what was supposed to be just a quick trip down the road with the mare and foal can lead to devastating consequences, such as lacerations or broken bones. When transporting foals (with or without the mare), several factors should be considered to decrease the risk of injury to the foal.
Trailering a mare and foal possesses its own unique set of safety concerns, especially if the foal cannot stand or is likely to spend the majority of the trip lying down. Young foals, particularly those less than two weeks of age, also might have difficulty regulating their body temperatures, especially when they are sick. Foals which cannot stand and are struggling or having seizures need special attention to prevent injury to their heads, eyes, and legs.
The first decision to make is: How are you getting to your destination? What vehicle/trailer are you going to use? In an emergency situation, you might not have much of a choice, but small modifications
to your trailer can make traveling safer and more comfortable. However, before you travel, there are several decisions to make.
Is the mare accompanying the foal?
If yes, then you will need to make preparations for your trailer to contain the mare. So, you might need to decide what trailer to use--a simple two-horse with mare and foal next to each other or a larger stock trailer with partitions to separate the two. Depending on the mare's attachment to the foal, the mare might be left at home so that better care can be given to the foal. That decision should be discussed with your veterinarian. In most instances, the mare's presence is good.
If the foal is very cold or needs constant care during the journey, it might be better to transport it inside a van or covered truck, where there is some heat and no drafts. In this way, someone can administer intravenous fluids or other medications, if necessary, during the journey. Foals which are having seizures or are frequently struggling to stand but cannot should be transported separately from the mare. These foals also will need to be placed in an area with padding (blankets or carpet) to protect themselves from injury.
If you have a foal which is having seizures, your veterinarian should be contacted so that he or she can administer medication to help stop the foal's seizures before you attempt to move it. Blankets and/or carpet can be laid down to elevate the foal off the cold bottom of the van/truck and absorb urine/feces. The foal then can be covered with blankets to keep it warm. This method of transportation should never be attempted for a foal which is strong enough to stand. Foals should never be left alone to travel in the back of the van or truck. A single driver should never attempt to restrain a foal while driving.
Is the foal sick?
Foals which are sick, especially newborns, might have great difficulty keeping themselves warm. For one, normal newborns have little fat reserves to help them keep their bodies warm. Newborns which are sick have even more difficulty regulating their body temperatures. Therefore, foals (especially sick foals) which must be transported in the cold need special care to keep them warm.
Foal-size blankets are good for mildly chilly temperatures; how-ever, a great deal of heat is lost through the limbs. Use leg wraps or towels on their legs to help keep their extremities warm.
Foals should be constantly supervised if leg wraps are applied in order to prevent them from becoming entangled in the wraps if the bandages slip. Foals which are down can be covered with blankets. Hot water bottles can also be used to help keep them warm, but do not place the bottle directly on a foal's delicate skin as it can burn the foal; wrap the bottle in a towel. Also, never use electric blankets without constant supervision, as the blanket can become too hot and burn the skin.
If the foal is healthy enough to travel without human supervision, but is still weak, it is a good idea to separate the mare and foal by a partition and protect the foal from drafts in the trailer by closing all doors and windows. It might be better to bed the floor of the trailer with a rug or carpet rather than wood shavings or sawdust if the foal will be lying down during the trip. Shavings and sawdust might be inhaled by the foal or get into the foal's eyes and scratch the outer surface (the cornea) and lead to infection.
If the trailer is set up so a large box stall can be created, with the mare tied, the foal can lie down out of the mare's way, so that it won't be injured by the mare but still can get up to nurse when necessary.
If the foal is healthy and is just accompanying the mare, the foal can ride next to the mare, but separated by a partition, or can be allowed to ride with her in a box stall within the trailer.
Should you tie the foal?
Foals, or even adult horses, which are not used to being tied should not be tied in a trailer. Leave them loose, and they can be caught when you reach your destination.
Check your trailer closely for any protruding objects, (bolts, nails, hooks, etc.) that might catch the halter or injure the horse. (In my experience, horses have an innate ability to find the smallest protruding object and subsequently injure themselves.)
A horse should wear a leather halter while traveling so that if the halter becomes hung on an object, the leather will break in the struggle. A nylon halter is difficult, if not impossible, to break and can lead to serious injury if it becomes caught on a hook or nail. Any time a young horse is allowed to be loose in a trailer, the top doors should be closed to prevent the youngster from jumping over the door to try and escape the confines of the trailer.
Arrange for feeding the foal.
If traveling long distances with a young, healthy foal, which does not have access to the mare, arrangements should be made so that the foal can nurse every 2-3 hours. (i.e., letting a partition down or bottle or pail feeding the foal). If you have an older foal or adult horse, plan on stopping every 3-4 hours to offer water, especially if traveling in the summer or during the heat of the day. In this instance, opening all windows to allow plenty of ventilation is imperative.
The mare is sick.
If the foal is accompanying a sick dam, depending on the problem with the mare and age of the foal, it might be better to leave the foal at home temporarily or wean the foal if it is ready. It is better to leave a foal at home than risk injury in a small trailer from a violently colicky mare. If the mare is sick enough, she won't even notice the foal's absence. If necessary, the foal can be sedated by your veterinarian when the mare is removed.
Transporting down foals.
Foals transported with the mare, especially those foals which cannot stand or those which are young and will lie down frequently, are at risk of injury mostly from the mare. Foals which are placed with the mare untied or in a two-horse trailer with a partial partition might lie down underneath the mare. If the road becomes rough and the mare loses her balance, the mare could step on the foal. This could result in only a bruise, but it could be more serious, such as a laceration or even a broken leg.
The best alternative is to separate the mare and foal by the use of a full partition. To keep the mare quiet, she will need to be able to see the foal. A stock trailer, for example, can be partitioned to separate the mare and foal so that the foal can lie down at will. A two-horse trailer also is suitable. The partition can be removed to create a box stall, or if the partition is incomplete, use plywood or other materials to fill in the gap so that the mare cannot step on the foal.
If a foal cannot stand, especially a newborn, and it cannot nurse the mare, consult your veterinarian as to treatment or feeding before you leave for an equine hospital. Down or sick foals can succumb to hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) easily if they are not able to get milk from their dams. Even a few hours can make the difference in life or death for a foal which cannot nurse on its own. Nutrition is especially critical to newborn foals which cannot stand, whether from weakness or musculo-skeletal problems such as contracted tendons.
Newborn foals need the first milk (colostrum) from their mothers within six hours of birth in order to protect themselves from infection (see "Normal Foaling" in the January 1997 issue, page 25). So, if you have a foal which cannot stand, contact your veterinarian about appropriate treatment for your situation.
Loading the mare and foal.
The healthy mare often will be reluctant to load onto a trailer without her foal, so it is wise, if the foal is riding with the mare, to load the foal first. The mare, even if a difficult loader, usually will follow. If the foal is weak or small, it easily can be carried onto the trailer and into a separate compartment. Otherwise, the foal can be encouraged to load by having two people lock arms behind the foal and gently push it onto the trailer.
Remember, if your foal does not lead, do not try to pull it into the trailer with a lead shank. Foals often will respond to this method by rearing up and falling over, resulting in serious injury, such as a skull fracture, which can leave them permanently disabled or dead.
About the Author
Christina S. Cable, DVM, Dipl. ACVS, owns Early Winter Equine in Lansing, New York. The practice focuses on primary care of mares and foals and performance horse problems.
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