Emergency Transportation for Horses

(Editor's Note: This is a book excerpt from Understanding Equine First Aid, by Michael A. Ball, DVM)

Driving with a trailer full of horses is an ordinary, everyday task for most horse people. The task can become more difficult, stressful, and sometimes dangerous in an emergency situation. You should be prepared to ship a horse if it is in need of emergency care at a veterinary hospital. If you have your own trailer, make sure that it is in working order at all times (the truck, too) and always have a back-up plan. Be prepared to make the trip at a moment's notice. Get the safety equipment for the vehicle and trailer in order well in advance. Such equipment includes spare tires and jacks for both.

Remember that a cell phone can be an amazingly useful tool in an emergency. Don't forget to prepare driving directions and take along a map so you'll know how to get to the veterinary hospital. If you have to rely on a commercial shipper or friend to haul your horse, know well in advance who to call and ALWAYS have a back-up plan in case of an emergency.     
A horse that has severe lacerations or a potential fracture is one most likely to require a trip to a veterinary hospital. The important thing is to remain calm and think the situation through. Many injuries are made worse by not taking the appropriate course of action prior to shipping the animal. If the emergency happens at home, try to get your vet there as quickly as possible. If you are already away from home with the injured horse, try to obtain a veterinary evaluation before transporting the severely injured animal. 

If the horse has a fracture or is going into shock from severe blood loss, supportive therapy is probably necessary prior to transport. You will want to keep a record of the horse's vital signs while waiting for the veterinarian to arrive. In addition to keeping the horse (and yourself) calm, it may be necessary to apply a pressure bandage to control the bleeding or to stabilize the limb in a splint prior to transporting the horse. I would discourage administering any type of sedative drugs (unless absolutely necessary) because most of them (especially the common ones found in the medicine cabinets in most barns) can have a negative impact on the health of an animal in shock. If a veterinarian is unavailable to come to the farm immediately, you should attempt to reach one by phone in order to talk over your horse's condition.
Once the wound has been bandaged, a horse with lacerations (usually on the limbs) can walk up into a trailer or van. This may not be the case for a horse with a splint on its leg. There are types of lower leg lacerations (typically those involving the tendons and/or ligaments) in which the application of a splint can be of great benefit. If the horse is suspected of having a fracture, it is very important that the injured leg have a properly placed and well-wrapped splint before it is transported to the veterinary hospital.

Unfortunately, unless the horse is quite valuable and you have the financial wherewithal to attempt a fracture repair, the prognosis is typically unfavorable. If an attempt will be made to repair a fracture, it is important that the broken bones be stabilized right away to decrease the possibility of further damage. It is also important to prevent any of the fractured bones from penetrating the skin (assuming they have not already done so). If the skin is open, it will allow bacterial contamination of the fracture site which will adversely affect the prognosis even if the surgical repairs are exquisite. The proper application of a splint can affect the overall outcome of a fracture.
I keep harping on "proper application" of the splint and that is because the improper application of a splint can actually cause more harm than good. If at all possible, the splint application should be checked by a veterinarian prior to transport. If that is not possible, the description of splint application (in this book) using the full-leg length cut PVC piping at right angles placed over the top of a full-limb Robert Jones bandage should provide a protective and safe stabilization of an injured leg.

Shipping a horse with a splint on its leg can pose some problems. Generally, once a horse is in the van or trailer things are OK; it is the getting in and out that can be difficult. If at all possible, a trailer or van with a ramp that has a very shallow angle to the ground should be used. In addition, you will want to look for a spot to park the van or trailer so that its ramp has a rise, thus making the ramp as parallel to the ground as possible. The horse should be able to have a relatively straight shot into the vehicle.
Now, for the big question: do you ship the horse facing forward, backward, or in a box stall (if you have the choice, that is)? Obviously, you make do with what you have. For many of us, the horse will be transported in a simple two-horse trailer. That will certainly work. There is some experimental evidence that it is less stressful for a horse to travel facing backwards. It may give it better stability with respect to balance. (In Europe they make a simple two-horse trailer that allows the horses to ride facing backwards.) From personal observation, I believe that an injured horse is better off in a trailer's standing stall versus the larger box stalls found in some large horse vans. The partitions and sidewall in a trailer, combined with the breast bar and butt bar, will give the horse something to lean on for extra support during the trip.
Owners often ask me if I think somebody should ride in the trailer or box part of the van with the injured horse. In many states it is illegal to ride in any towed vehicle, including a horse van or trailer. The inside of a horse trailer can be a dangerous place to be (hence the law). I generally advise against having an attendant ride with the horse.

There are a number of transport companies that specialize in equine rescues and transportation of critically injured horses. These specialists are starting to have a role at many national equestrian competitions. Among other things, they supply attendants who are specially trained in the handling of critically injured horses, trailers that can be peeled apart like the sections of an orange, or can be made flush with the ground. Some have special skids (to load unconscious or immobilized horses). Such trailers contain a harness-and-sling apparatus so that a horse with a fracture can be transported without bearing weight on the injured leg.

Buy a copy of Understanding Equine First Aid, from Exclusively Equine, here.

About the Author

Michael Ball, DVM

Michael A. Ball, DVM, completed an internship in medicine and surgery and an internship in anesthesia at the University of Georgia in 1994, a residency in internal medicine, and graduate work in pharmacology at Cornell University in 1997, and was on staff at Cornell before starting Early Winter Equine Medicine & Surgery located in Ithaca, N.Y. He is also an FEI veterinarian and works internationally with the United States Equestrian Team.

Ball authored Understanding The Equine Eye, Understanding Basic Horse Care, and Understanding Equine First Aid, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.

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