Emergencies on the Road

Traveling with horses is no longer the big deal it once was, but the risks attached to hauling are as great as ever; as we all know, accidents happen, even to the most responsible of us. And while it's essential to take precautions to protect precious life and limb, you should also know what to do to in the event of an emergency.

Trailer Accidents, Taking Stock

In an effort to help improve safe horse travel, USRider, a nationwide member-based roadside assistance organization for horse owners, teamed up with nationally known large animal rescue experts Tomas Gimenez, DVM, professor of animal and veterinary sciences at Clemson University, and his wife, Rebecca Gimenez, PhD, animal physiologist and instructor in technical large animal emergency rescue, to conduct a research study pertaining to horse trailer accidents.

"Equestrians from around the country were urged to help with the research," noted Mark Cole, managing member for USRider. "We posted a survey on our Web site, www.usrider.org, in which we asked all horse owners, trainers, emergency responders, veterinarians, and others who had been involved in horse trailer incidents to participate by logging on and answering a series of questions. Since the program began in December 2003, more than 200 accidents have been evaluated, with more accounts coming in on a regular basis," he concluded. (To participate, visit www.us rider.org/survey.html.)

The survey findings produced a pattern of results that have formed the basis for the safety recommendations listed below:

  • With operator-error factors such as driving too fast causing the majority of trailer accidents, it is imperative for drivers to be alert and vigilant, or in other words, drive as if you have a cup of water on the floorboard of your vehicle. Stay slightly under the speed limit--this will give you the time you need to make allowances for adverse or changing driving conditions. Also, double the following distance recommended for passenger cars; be sure to maintain that distance even when cars cut in front of you.
  • Transportation experts agree that talking on a cell phone while driving proves to be just as dangerous as drinking and driving. While you should never attempt to pull a trailer if you're intoxicated, you shouldn't be distracted by talking on a cell phone while pulling one, either.
  • If your vehicle becomes disabled, continue driving--when possible--until you can pull over to a safe area. Do this even if you have a flat tire and it means destroying the wheel; wheels can be replaced. Stopping on the shoulder of the road is extremely dangerous, particularly on an interstate highway. That can put you, your horse, and emergency responders at great risk. Pull over on the grass as much as possible, away from the white line. If you have to change your own tire, have it retorqued by a qualified professional as soon as possible!
  • Do not unload horses beside the road when on a highway. Go to the nearest exit that has an off-road area and unload only if absolutely necessary. But, if you are in a situation where you absolutely must unload horses on a highway, request law enforcement assistance to stop traffic.
  • Drive with the headlights on at all times to increase visibility, and put reflective strips on the back of your trailer. In the event you lose trailer lighting or experience an electrical failure, the strips will help other drivers see you.
  • Replace your tires every three to five years regardless of their mileage, and make sure they're rated to support more than the gross weight of the trailer and its contents. Check the air pressure in all tires (tow vehicle, trailer, and spare tires) at least every 30 days. Purchase a high-quality air pressure gauge and learn how to use it. USRider endorses the use of an electronic air pressure device.
  • If you pull your trailer with a "dually" truck, don't forget to check the inside tires. Since these tires are hidden behind the outside tires, they are easy to neglect. Checking the air pressure of the inside tires is an absolute must. Even if an inside tire is completely flat, it will be supported by the outside tire, making it appear properly inflated.
  • Perform regular maintenance on your tow vehicle and trailer. Don't forget to have your trailer wiring inspected for uninsulated, loose, and exposed wires. While you're at it, check that connections are working properly; this applies to old and new trailers. Another point: have your trailer axles serviced annually or every 6,000 miles, whichever comes first.
  • Make use of the ICE program. ICE stands for "in case of emergency." This very simple program has been designed to aid emergency responders in identifying victims and determining who needs to be notified. For those who regularly travel with horses, it's important to make it easy for first responders to know whom to contact for information on handling your horses. To do this, program an entry into your cell phone's contact list called "ICE--Horse" with the contact information of someone with the authority to make decisions about the care of your horses if you are incapacitated.
  • In conjunction with the ICE program, initiate a power-of-attorney document with a trusted friend or relative. In the event that you are incapacitated, this will provide for emergency medical treatment for your horses. In addition, be sure to have the corresponding notice to emergency responders document. Keep copies of both documents in your vehicle's glove box. Both forms are available for download free from the USRider Web site.
  • Improper hitching is a common cause of trailer accidents. Be sure the hitch on the towing vehicle is the correct type, size, and rating to match the coupler. Also be sure the hitch is correctly installed on the towing vehicle. Fasten the safety chains and breakaway switch actuating chain securely. Safety chains must be properly rated and in good working condition.
  • An unbalanced load can cause a trailer to overturn. When loading a horse trailer, always load the heaviest cargo on the left (driver's side). If you are loading only one horse, load it on the left side of the trailer. Make sure trailer doors and hatches are secured after loading the horse(s).
  • To enhance the safety of the animals being hauled, and to minimize injuries, always use shipping boots and a head bumper on your horse(s).
  • Carry a current veterinarian-approved first aid kit. Recommendations for approved first-aid kits are listed in the Equine Travel Safety Area on the USRider Web site.

"Through unique studies like this and other initiatives, we are on a mission to increase the equine community's 'trailering IQ,'" emphasizes Cole. "You are transporting precious cargo; you can never be overprepared or too safe."

For more information about the USRider Equestrian Motor Plan, visit www.usrider.org online or call 800/844-1409.

Encountering an Emergency

"Most horse problems fall into two basic categories: traumatic and digestive, of which dehydration/heat exhaustion, colic, and major cuts with blood loss are a part," states Neva Kittrell Scheve, co-author with James Hamilton, DVM, of Equine Emergencies on the Road. "If the injury appears to be life-threatening, and you don't have numbers of veterinarians in the areas in which you're traveling, call 911 and ask to be connected to a local equine veterinarian. If at all possible, refrain from unloading until the doctor arrives, especially if the horse is frightened or becomes aggressive," she concludes. (USRider provides its members with on-the-road emergency vet referrals through its nationwide DVM directory.)

But in order to know whether a situation is life-threatening, you first need to learn how to monitor your horse's vital signs. In fact, you should take down all your horses' baseline measurements ahead of time, regardless of the length of the trip you're planning. Here are the normal ranges for an adult horse:

  • Pulse: 30-42 beats per minute;
  • Respiratory rate: 12-20 breaths per minute;
  • Rectal temperature: 99.5-101.5° F (a veterinarian should be contacted for a reading over 102.5° F);
  • Capillary refill time: two seconds (the time it takes for the gum tissue to return to normal after having been pressed with a finger);

Other signs to check are:

  • Skin pliability for evidence of dehydration. Failure of skin (usually tested on the neck) to return to normal after having been pinched indicates dehydration.
  • Color of the mucous membranes of the gums, nostrils, inner eye tissue, and inner lips of the vulva should be pink. Any other color, from bright red to pale pink, and from white to bluish or purple, could indicate a serious problem.
  • Color, consistency, and volume of manure should be normal.
  • Signs of distress, anxiety, or discomfort, and absence of gut sounds are indications of problems.
  • Lethargy, depression, and not eating or drinking are also indicators of problems.
  • Evidence of lameness could include head bobbing, difficulty moving, odd stance, pain, or unwillingness to rise.


"Many problems can be prevented by taking the appropriate precautions," counsels Scheve, "such as keeping your horse calm and comfortable, and providing him with a continuous supply of water. A horse that is under stress often times won't drink, leading him to become dehydrated and susceptible to colic, heat exhaustion, and shipping fever."

Dehydration/Heat Exhaustion

Signs that your horse might be suffering from dehydration or heat exhaustion include increased body temperature and excessive perspiration, followed by increased respiratory rate and, in its most severe stages, weakness and lack of coordination.

If you notice these signs, take your horse's temperature, heart (pulse), and respiratory rates, do the skin-pinch test, and check capillary refill time. Contact a veterinarian immediately. Intravenous fluids and electrolytes will need to be administered. In the meantime, douse your horse with cold water or alcohol and water.

"Horse owners who carry tranquilizers may be tempted to use acepromazine; do not!" underscores Scheve. "This drug, along with most other tranquilizers/sedatives, lowers blood pressure, which could prove devastating to a heat-stressed horse."

To help prevent this problem, you can give electrolytes, drive at night during hot weather, and stop regularly to allow your horse to drink, especially if he won't drink while traveling. Chances are, he will drink if you take him off the trailer to relax. It is vital for your horse to drink water on a long trip, even in cold weather.

"If your horse is going to be faced with the further stress of competition, make sure that he is well-hydrated before competing, and again before the return trip home," Scheve advises.


You need to recognize the early signs of colic, which include pawing, increased respiratory rate, lip flipping, and looking at his sides. Noticing these early will be beneficial in getting help before the problem becomes too severe. Schedule stops along the way to monitor your horse's behavior.

A veterinarian should always be called if colic is suspected.

If your horse is also overheated, offer him a drink, a bath with cold water or a mixture of isopropyl alcohol and water, and walk him to lower his stress level. These measures could possibly help his gut motility return to normal.

"Again, you should have discussed the medications you need to have on hand, and under what circumstances they might be used, with your veterinarian before your trip," Scheve states.

Major Cut With Blood Loss

Apply steady pressure with a clean bandage or towel for at least five minutes. Or, you can take a stack of 4 by 4-inch gauze squares and put them directly over the wound, hold them in place by wrapping with your roll gauze, and firmly apply a quilt and outer wrap (standing bandage) over the top. If the wound location prevents the use of roll gauze and outer bandage, then use a tapelike bandage (e.g., ELASTIKON). If blood is spurting from the wound before pressure is applied, or if after several minutes the blood is soaking through the pressure bandage, call your veterinarian.

Once the bleeding has subsided, the wound needs to be cleaned; wash it with a continuous flow of water to flush out any dirt and debris and use a clean, wet cloth for facial wounds. If the skin edges are separated, the wound might require sutures. Do not remove the bandage to clean if the bleeding is severe enough for you to have called a vet; just wait for his or her arrival.

Do not apply antiseptics, detergents, creams, or powders, as they interfere with healing. A mild antibiotic ointment can be applied to prevent desiccation (drying out).

Take-Home Message

"It cannot be emphasized enough that in an emergency situation, you may have to depend on yourself to make instantaneous critical decisions," states Scheve. "If you are not prepared, you may not make the right decision quickly enough."


  • Roll cotton—two to four rolls.
  • Roll gauze—four to six rolls of 4- or 6-inch width
  • Gauze squares—one sleeve
  • Clean standing bandages—four that are quilt or fleece without outer wraps
  • Adhesive tape
  • A 24-inch section of 6-inch PVC pipe, split in half lengthwise for splinting: check that diameter of pipe fits your horse.
  • Cohesive flexible bandage—two rolls (e.g., Vetrap or CoFlex)
  • Sticky roll bandage—one roll (e.g., ELASTIKON)
  • Thermometer
  • Stethoscope
  • Mosquito forceps
  • Scissors
  • Twitch
  • Antiseptic soap (e.g., Betadine)
  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Antibacterial ointment (e.g, nitrofurazone dressing or triple-antibiotic)
  • Antibacterial spray powder (e.g., Furox spray)
  • Aerosol spray bandage (AluSpray, which serves as a protective barrier against bacteria)
  • Ophthalmic ointment
  • Saline eye wash
  • Butazolidin paste
  • Banamine granules or paste
  • Electrolyte paste
  • Duct tape
  • Bucket
  • Water (10 gallons or more)

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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