Sleep Over Safely

Tips for before, during, and after your trip to help your horses be safe, comfortable, and healthy.

When traveling with horses, it's important to make sure they stay safe and healthy during their trip, and they don't bring home diseases when the trip is done. Roberta Dwyer, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVPM (preventive medicine), a professor at the University of Kentucky's Gluck Equine Research Center, says there are several things the horse owner can do to ensure safety for horses on a trip.

Before Leaving Home

First make sure each horse is up-to-date on vaccinations and deworming. Midge Leitch, VMD, formerly of Londonderry Equine Clinic and now the clinician in radiology at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, has done extensive traveling as a team veterinarian with the U.S. Equestrian Team. She recommends that horse owners plan deworming and vaccination schedules around their travel schedule for the year, so any health care or medical procedures are not performed just before a trip.

"Make sure there's time for adequate immune response," she cautions. "Vaccinating two or three days before a trip is a waste of time and also creates an added stress for the horse."

When preparing for the trip and loading your trailer, take your own hay and water (if possible). Bring all your own hay nets, buckets (and fasteners for hanging them in a stall), and any equipment you expect to use (pitchforks, grooming tools, brushes, etc.)

There are pros and cons to using hay nets, but if a horse is used to eating from a net, these can work well. "In my mind, this is preferable to having a horse eat off the ground," says Dwyer. "Some people argue that if you hang it high enough a horse can't get a foot in it, there's risk for hay chaff and dust dropping into the eyes and nostrils and possibly leading to respiratory problems. This has to be a personal decision and may depend on the horse."

You also should determine before you arrive at your overnight stop if the stall will be clean and bedded.

"In show bills I've seen over the years, this is generally spelled out, but not always," says Dwyer.

Always check with the stable manager beforehand when making arrangements for lodging at an overnight stop, or with the show grounds manager, to know whether bedding will be provided. If so, find out what kind of bedding it will be. If you have a horse that's sensitive to dust, then straw or shavings might not be appropriate for that horse. In some instances you might need to bring your own bedding.

"This should be part of your homework before you leave," says Dwyer. "Find out what the accommodations are, how big the stalls are, and what the bedding will be. Some horses will eat straw like it's hay."

Leitch reminds horse owners to feed just hay and very little or no grain right before and during a trip to avoid digestive up-sets. "Take your own hay and make sure the horses have been eating that type of hay for a couple of weeks before you leave," she says.

To help make sure the horse will drink on the trip, sprinkle salt on the hay.

When You Arrive

Before unloading your horse, inspect the stall or pen for safety. Look at stall walls, including overhead where you might not normally look.

"I was in a show barn one night looking at a 17-hand horse in a stall and looked up--and at his eye level were several large fencing nails sticking out of the wall," says Dwyer.

That stall had obviously been rented previously as a tack stall, and someone had been hanging bridles, halters, lead shanks, etc. from those nails. A horse could seriously injure an eye on one of those nails.

Sometimes people staple things in tack stalls, and a metal staple might be halfway out. Dwyer recommends taking a toolbox along (with a hammer and pliers) when hauling horses so you can do emergency repairs or nail removal.

"Some horse owners go over the stall completely (if it's not a temporary stall made with metal panels), sweeping it down with a broom to remove cobwebs," says Dwyer. "Dust and cobwebs can trap pathogens. Some people who travel with their horses bring disinfectant spray, using a small garden sprayer to spray down the walls. This isn't a bad idea, as long as there isn't any caked-on feces. You might think that by spraying disinfectant on dirty walls it will kill the pathogens, but it won't."

Organic material such as feces will inactivate many types of disinfectant. The only way to be sure the walls are clean is to scrub them first with a brush, detergent, and water before disinfecting them, but this might not be practical timewise.

"If you are hauling 18 horses to a show, this would be impossible unless you had a great deal of extra help," admits Dwyer. "For me hauling one horse to a county fair, I could scrub the walls, but this might be impossible for someone having to deal with a lot of horses at once in a short time."

When a big rig comes into a show grounds and offloads late at night, it's hard to inspect everything when everyone is tired and wanting to get the horses bedded down before checking into a motel and getting some sleep. But if you miss something and a horse is injured, it can ruin your trip. Because of that, make sure you take a good flashlight and scan over the stall surfaces carefully.

"If you are working with your horse in a poorly lighted stall (maybe a small bulb in the ceiling high above your head), it might be hard to see a problem," says Dwyer. "It's handy to have a headlamp, the type that campers use. Then you have both hands free to work with your horse or fix something in the stall."

Inspect flooring for dangerous depressions that might trip you or the horse. "Some stall floors are nice and flat--asphalt, concrete, packed clay, sand--while others that have been used too much may have holes. You walk around in the stall and suddenly your foot sinks three inches in a spot where horses have pawed," she says.

Remove any buckets that might already be in the stall and use your own buckets for feed and water. "Sometimes you can't choose the accommodation; it may be temporary stalls with just metal panels between your horse and the next. You can't avoid nose-to-nose contact in this situation," says Dwyer.

"If you are assigned a stall you feel is dangerous, don't hesitate to go to the manager's office and ask for something different," she advises. "If necessary, ask them to come with you so you can show them why you think it's not suitable--for instance, if there are deep holes in the floor and you think your horse might injure a leg."

After Returning Home

Keep the horse(s) isolated from the resident herd (that doesn't travel off the farm) to avoid introduction of pathogens into your herd. "Ideally this isolation should last two weeks, which would allow enough time for any incubating disease to show up--although incubation for some diseases, such as strangles, can be longer than two weeks," says Dwyer.

"If you are boarding your horse, the option for isolation may not be available," she notes. "If there are show horses or travel-ing horses going to events regularly, they should be housed separately from the resident herd, since isolating them when they come back to the farm isn't always a very viable or practical option."

"Take the horse's temperature twice a day after returning from an event," Dwyer advises. "If it's elevated, the horse should be isolated away from all other horses until the cause of fever can be determined. Fever can be the first sign of several viral diseases prior to any other clinical signs."

About the Author

Heather Smith Thomas

Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog,, she writes a biweekly blog at that comes out on Tuesdays.

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