Hauling Q&A

Experts answer your top 10 questions

Today's horses tend to travel--a lot--but they're not necessarily wearing out horseshoes. They're tearing up the treads on horse trailers and wearing out the rubber on the truck tires that travel America's highways during the summer and autumn months, prime times for horse shows, rodeos, racing, and trail rides.

Knowing this, we asked a few trailering experts to list the 10 most frequently asked questions concerning trailers and equine transport that they receive from busy horse owners who usually do their own hauling. Then they shared the answers with us.

Q: What size of trailer will best fit my horse?

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit Trailers, Southern Pines, N.C.: An inside width of six feet (some trailers will vary by a few inches, even if listed at six feet) with a height of seven feet (square-cornered roof rather than rounded), and with a total stall length of ten feet will fit a horse from about 14 to 16 hands. Go to seven feet, six inches in height to accommodate a horse up to 16.3 hands, or go to seven feet, eight inches for a 17-hand horse. You should add six inches to the length from butt to breast and add six inches to the head area for these larger horses, to give you a total of eleven feet in stall length--or just add a foot to the head area depending upon the "butt to breast" size of your horse. You might also consider a wider axle (102" axle) if your roads aren't too narrow, and with no wheel wells inside the trailer.

For horses up to 18-plus hands, the trailer should have the six-foot, eight-inch width; seven-foot, eight-inch height; and 11-foot total stall length. For horses such as drafts that approach 19 hands, with weights of nearly 2,000 pounds, the trailer should be closer to eight feet tall with 12-foot total stall length, and with extra floor supports, upgraded axles, and tougher tires. Be advised that larger trailers, in addition to additional supports, also might require some re-engineering for balance.

At EquiSpirit we have three size options available on all models (straight loads), as well as custom-built sizes fitted to the size of the horse(s) in question.

Greg Sterling & Nicole Ausdemore, Featherlite Trailers, Cresco, Iowa: If a horse owner is concerned about his or her horse fitting into a trailer, Featherlite recommends the owner measure the largest horse. Measure not only the height of the horse, but also his length. Knowing the largest horse's measurements will help when researching and purchasing a new trailer.

Most trailer manufacturers offer trailers that will accommodate the various sizes of horses. For example, Featherlite Trailers has an entire series of Big Horse trailers that are wider and longer for larger breeds.


Q: Which type of trailer is preferred, a slant-load or straight load?


Catherine Kohn, VMD, The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio: There is not a simple answer to this question. Several scientific studies have been conducted on the effect of position in the transport vehicle on horse stress or comfort levels. Anecdotal and some scientific evidence suggest that, when in motion, many horses prefer to face away from the direction of motion (ride backward) or on a slant rather then face in the direction of motion. However, some horses prefer to ride facing straight ahead.

You might discover an individual horse's preference by placing him in a safe, free-stall stock trailer and taking him for a ride. Have someone follow behind in another vehicle to determine how the horse positions himself during the trip.

For many shipping questions, I highly recommend reading Guidelines for Horse Transport by Road and Air published by The United States Equestrian Federation, Inc. (formerly AHSA). See Forms and Pubs at www.usef.org to request a copy, or contact USEF at 4047 Iron Works Pkwy., Lexington, KY 40511; 859/258-2472.

Scott Riley, Sundowner Trailers, Coleman, Okla.: It might depend on what you do with your horses and your personal preference. We serve a lot of English riders who own dressage or hunter/jumper horses. They seem to prefer straight-load trailers with an escape door on the front, and they often pull them with SUVs.

One advantage to this design is that you can load or unload a horse without unloading the horse on the other side. In a slant-load only the back horse is free.

We also build a four-horse trailer with side doors that is popular with some English owners, in which the horses stand two abreast and face each other head to head, so the front two horses ride backward.

In the Western market, the slant-load is more popular by far. If the customer regularly hauls three or four horses, hands down they pick the slant design, partially because you can get more horses into a shorter trailer.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: Most slant-loads will not fit horses over 15.3 hands comfortably. Most slant-loads that quote 10 to 11 feet on the diagonal (far corner to far corner) will, in reality, have stall lengths that are only 8 to 8 1/2 feet long (measure down the center). Some slant- loads purport to have warmblood-sized stalls, but the only way a slant-load can fit larger horses is to widen the stall, or take out a divider. When this is done, a horse can stand more front to back. The smaller the horse, the better it will fit in a slant-load trailer. Horses that are 16-plus hands will have their noses pushed up against the road side, and their butts squeezed against the ditch side. Width restrictions and wheel wells contribute to this problem.

It is our opinion that the only positive trait to a slant-load is that you can stack more horses in a shorter trailer, which is the original reason they were developed. The negatives are numerous. If a front horse has a problem, you can't reach it without unloading the other horses (unless you have a front unload ramp). During all the stopping and starting, a horse needs to plant both of its front and back feet for balance, rather than standing on an angle where its weight constantly falls on its front forward leg and rear hind leg.


Q: Which is better, a gooseneck or a tag-along?


Scott Riley, Sundowner: There are benefits to either, so we ask our customers what exactly their needs are in terms of a trailer. Basically, if you don't haul very often or for great distances, and only have one or two horses, a two-horse tag-along is just fine. It is lighter and easy to pull and maneuver.

In addition, if you travel with a motor home, a good two-horse tag-along works very well even if you do travel long distances.

If you travel more, or have more than two horses, then a gooseneck probably is the way to go. For one thing, you have more storage for equipment and tack, you can sleep in it, and so on. Also, when you have a gooseneck trailer, it is easier to pull and maneuver and has more stability. You are, however, limited to using a pickup or other truck to tow it.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: For more than two horses, a gooseneck is better. For a two-horse trailer, a tag-along trailer is just as safe as a gooseneck if it is properly hitched to the right tow vehicle. The advantages include cost, ability to be towed by something other than a pickup truck, and a smaller size for storing and hauling. If you don't need extra space for sleeping or tack/feed storage, the extra expense for a gooseneck might not be necessary.

For hauling more than two horses, a gooseneck trailer has more stability and a smaller turning radius.

There is some difference between the two trailers when it comes to driving. A tag-along trailer will follow the wheels of the tow vehicle when turning a corner, but a gooseneck will cut in on a turn. Sometimes new gooseneck drivers will catch fenders while learning to make turns.


Q: Which is better for loading, a ramp or a step-up?


Scott Riley, Sundowner: Ramps or no ramps usually comes down to personal preference. Most of our English customers like ramps. Quarter Horse show people tend to like ramps, too, but not as doors. They like the ramps to close up over the doors. Either way, it's important to make sure your horse is trained to load with or without a ramp in case of a situation or emergency in which the only trailer available might or might not have a ramp.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: A well-designed, easy-to-lift, low-angled ramp with springs across its bottom (not on the sides) is better than a step-up, especially on all two-horse straight-load trailers.

Without a ramp, there is always the danger of a horse backing out, stepping down, and sliding under the back of the trailer. A hot day, a bee in the trailer, etc., can cause even the best-trained horse to want to scramble out quickly. A ramp eliminates the possibility of a horse sliding under the trailer.


Q: Which vehicle should I purchase first, the tow vehicle or the horse trailer?

Scott Riley, Sundowner: Pick the trailer that best fits your horse, its needs, and your needs, and let that determine the tow vehicle you require. Trailer first, then tow vehicle. When someone buys from us, we provide the weight requirements and other information, then the customer can go to the tow vehicle dealer and get exactly what they need.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: The most dependable information you can get on tow vehicles is a manufacturer's Trailer Towing Guide. Each manufacturer publishes such a guide that easily explains how each vehicle is rated to tow. Unfortunately, many dealers do not have this guide at the dealership. You should insist that your dealer consult this guide before you buy. The second most reliable source of information is a reputable horse trailer dealer.

Towing with a vehicle that is underrated will cause undue strain on that vehicle. Acceleration and deceleration will produce wear and tear that will decrease the life of the vehicle. Also, maneuverability will also be affected, resulting in unsafe operation. So, buy the trailer first.


Q: How much ventilation should there be (summer and winter), and where should the vents be placed?


Greg Sterling/Nicole Ausdemore, Featherlite: No matter what time of the year, horses require at least some ventilation during travel due to the body heat they create. During the hot summer months, ventilation becomes even more important. Ventilation will help keep the horses cooler and more comfortable.

When researching trailers, owners should look at the trailer's feed doors and windows to determine how much airflow will get into the trailer. Featherlite's Light Flo feed doors, for example, offer up to 90% more airflow and light into the horse area compared to many other trailers. When more airflow is allowed in through the feed doors, horses will be calmer and healthier during their travels.

Featherlite recommends that vents be positioned down the center of the trailer. This allows for the air to be efficiently drawn into the trailer and properly circulated throughout.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: In the summer, horses need as much ventilation as you can give them. This can be provided by having large windows on the sides, in the rear doors, and near the horses' heads. Also, there should be at least one roof vent for each horse. In general, the vents that do the most good are positioned above the horses' heads.

On tag-alongs, a bulkhead window with front-opening windows in the nose of the trailer can provide additional ventilation. Oscillation fans that run off your tow vehicle battery (the same as your interior lights) can provide additional ventilation if you get stopped in traffic. Screens are important because they allow the air in without letting in insects, wasps, cigarettes, and road debris.

In cooler months, it's nice to have a dual-wall, insulated trailer that will hold in the horses' body heat. But it is still wise to crack windows and adjust vents (dual scoop vents) to allow the air to flow freely through the trailer.

Scott Riley, Sundowner: Most ventilation should be over the head and neck areas, and in the ceiling. Windows or dropdowns provide vents on the sides. Directional vents in the roof are good. You can point them forward in summer to really bring in air, or open them to the back in the winter to circulate just enough air to avoid a stagnant situation inside, but not have a direct cold draft on the horse. Make sure roof vents are recessed so that their handles are not near the horses for safety reasons.


Q: As a horse owner, what other questions should I ask myself to best prepare for purchasing a trailer?


Scott Riley, Sundowner: If you are buying a gooseneck, you might want to consider living quarters, especially if you show a lot. You need to figure out how much you spend for hotels, meals, etc. Then you need to determine if you will really sleep in the trailer, or only use it as a place to stay during the day at the show. (Staying in the trailer does make checking the horses at night much easier!) Finally, determine if the extra cost of the living quarters makes sense, or if a simple dressing area with an overhead bed area is enough.

Very carefully consider what you really need in a trailer. Imagine yourself and your horse traveling and consider any circumstances that might come up. Make a list. Then, consider your budget. Think safety and comfort first, then maneuverability and pulling ease, and, lastly, the cosmetic aspects. This will be the best investment of your money.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: The first consideration is your horses. They are claustrophobic by nature, so the more room, light, and ventilation in the trailer, the less stress on the horse. In practical terms, this means that the horse will travel more comfortably, load more easily, be less likely to injure himself, and be less likely to suffer from stress-related health problems like shipping fever, dehydration, and colic.

Rubber torsion suspension is available on almost all newer trailers. This type of suspension greatly reduces the amount of shock the horse absorbs through the floor of the trailer, also reducing stress. There is also a safety advantage to this type of suspension. If you have a flat tire, the remaining three wheels will maintain the trailer until you can get to a safe place to change the tire.

There should be no sharp edges or protrusions anywhere on the trailer, inside or out. Floorboards should run vertically (the length of the trailer), not horizontally (across the trailer), and there should be good support underneath. Rubber mats should not be slippery. Ramps should be non-slip and not steep. All parts should be strong enough to hold up to the largest, strongest horse you will haul. When considering construction material, think about how well it will hold up to a panicky horse, or in a traffic accident.

When you have made your decision about your horses' needs, consider yours. Will you be hauling long distances, or will you only need your trailer for short trips around town? Do you need a dressing room for showing, or a gooseneck for sleeping? Are you a timid driver, or do you have the confidence to haul a large rig across the country?


Q: Should my horse be tied in the trailer or remain loose?


Catherine Kohn, The Ohio State University: It would be desirable to ship the horse untied in a comfortable stall that is not so large that the horse can move around too much or too fast. Shipping the horse untied allows him to lower his head at will and clear his trachea of normal airway secretions. Ability to clear the airway has been associated with a reduced risk of respiratory disease during shipping. It is not always practical to provide these shipping arrangements, however. A slant-load trailer might be a good alternative because they provide more room for the horse to lower his head and naturally clear his airway.

It is important to be sure that you make the shipping environment as safe as possible for the horse. I worry about horses that are loosely tied (so they can get their heads down). A long tie rope can be hazardous. If you tie your horse, leave the rope long enough to let him lower his head as much as possible, but not so long that he can get caught in the rope or interfere with other horses in the trailer.

Tom and Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: We feel that the best stall situation is one in which horses travel straight, heads forward, with no lower center divider, no back post, and their heads tied with enough rope to let them stretch their necks, especially if they are eating hay in the trailer. They will need to be able to cough out any hay that might get into their respiratory systems. A quick release snap is important, but not one that will release on its own. We have designed and developed a special lead rope that is adjustable in a way that a horse can't get caught in it, and it will quickly release on both ends.

Scott Riley, Sundowner: We always put head ties in our trailers for safety. There are two per horse; one to tie the horse and one for the hay bag. We suggest you tie your horse, especially so he won't try to get his head over the divider and play with the horse next door. But before you tie any horse in a trailer, it is very important to make sure he is broke to tie.


Q: Should I bed my horse? If so, what's the best choice--shavings, straw, or something else?

Greg Sterling/Nicole Ausdemore, Featherlite: Featherlite recommends that some sort of bedding, even a minimal amount, would be beneficial to the horse. The bedding will help such things as urine being absorbed and prevent the mats from becoming slick. Slick mats are a hazard to horses, and it's something that horse owners should be attentive toward. The three-quarter-inch floor mats found in Featherlite trailers give horses a more cushioned and comfortable ride, reducing fatigue and the risk of injury. Featherlite recommends testing the mats to ensure the horses receive the most comfortable ride.

Tom & Neva Scheve, EquiSpirit: Using or not using bedding depends upon your horse. Some geldings don't like to "splash" themselves in the trailer. A coating of shavings, or hay, can solve this. Otherwise, it is not necessary. However, we have found that shavings left in a trailer can draw moisture and cause the inside of the trailer to "sweat."

Scott Riley, Sundowner: Personal preference. Wood shavings are best as they soak up moisture and are a good cushion on mats for a long ride. They are also easier to clean out of the trailer. Straw is OK, but not as absorbent.

Catherine Kohn, VMD, The Ohio State University: A good choice for trailer bedding is paper or shredded cardboard. It is much less dusty than wood shavings or straw. Also consider soaking any hay that is fed, or feeding only pellets, in order to keep the dust down.


Q: For longer trips, is there anything special I should do beforehand in terms of feed or medication? What else should I keep in mind?


Catherine Kohn, VMD, The Ohio State University: In general, the first thing to do is to plan your trip carefully. Ship horses no more than 12 hours at one time. Stop for at least eight hours after every 12 hours of travel; unload and allow horses to rest at appropriate accommodations. Many farms and ranches offer stalls for horses in transit if arranged beforehand. Stop every four hours or so for 15 to 30 minutes to check the horses. Offer water. Consider bringing water from home to encourage drinking. Getting enough water into a horse while it is being shipped is perhaps more important than almost anything else. Remove any soiled bedding, and never leave horses unattended in the trailer at rest stops.

Plan your route carefully. Travel is work for the horse. Always choose smooth pavement over shortcuts on bumpy roads. If you ship during cold weather, travel during the day. If you ship in hot weather, travel at night.

Be sure the horse is healthy before starting the trip. Have the horse checked by a veterinarian, and travel with health papers and a current Coggins report.

There are no scientific data that indicate it is beneficial to use manure softeners (such as mineral oil) before a long trip. Conversely, there is no indication the practice is harmful either. Electrolyte supplementation is OK if you are shipping in hot weather. Increased salt in the diet will also encourage drinking. However, excessive electrolyte supplementation is not desirable. I like the idea of feeding only moist hay or pellets while shipping. I think horses are less likely to get gas colic when fed mostly hay, and they do not need high-energy feeds during shipping.

Finally, a horse needs to rest for two to three days following a long trip and before starting intensive training or work.

About the Author

Kay Abbott

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