Relocating a Horse

While relocating a horse can feel like an enormous task, remember that most horses adapt handily to new situations and recover quickly from travel stress.

Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt/The Horse

Whether you're heading south for a winter show circuit or relocating permanently, preparation is key. 

As anyone who has been reduced to a zombielike state the night before a big trip can attest, packing is challenging. Add your horse into the equation, and it’s an even bigger ordeal. Whether packing for a few weeks away or for permanent relocation, preparation is key. Here’s where to start.

Connect the Dots Between Vets

Before you transport your horse from point A to point B, confirm he’s healthy. Have your veterinarian examine him about a month prior to departure to issue a negative Coggins test for equine infectious anemia, as well as a certificate of veterinary inspection confirming he’s healthy to travel. Required paperwork varies among states, but for protection and peace of mind, you will want to be sure your horse is up-to-date on the five core vaccinations as defined by the American Association for Equine Practitioners—tetanus, Eastern/Western equine encephalomyelitis (EEE/WEE), West Nile virus, and rabies. 

Regional factors dictate other vaccines your veterinarian will recommend. At the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine (Penn Vet), Amy Johnson, DVM, Dipl. ACVIM, assistant professor of large animal medicine and neurology, keeps close tabs on rabies vaccinations and botulism year-round, but she primarily worries about EEE and WNV during the warmer months (late spring to early fall). In Florida and other areas with year-round mosquito populations, horses are constantly at risk and should receive periodic booster shots. In the mid-Atlantic region and other areas of the country, Potomac horse fever can also be a concern. Vaccinations require time to take effect (horses might not mount a full immune response, conferring protection, for 30 days or longer), so it’s crucial to find a veterinarian at your destination well in advance of moving that can advise you on an appropriate vaccination schedule.

“Your best bet is to find someone who has horses in the area and can recommend someone they trust,” says John Ismay, DVM, owner of the Sturgis Veterinary Hospital, in Sturgis, S.D. “You can also find qualified vets through the American Association of Equine Practitioners (”

Physical and Mental Stress 

Because evidence of core vaccinations and an up-to-date bill of health are required to cross state lines, most horses will necessarily be healthy when leaving their home barns—at least on paper. But just as it does in humans, travel causes stress to horses’ immune systems.

“Very few horses enjoy traveling—-maybe with the exception of Dahlia, the great ’70s racehorse who apparently loved to fly,” says Geoff Tucker, DVM, equine veterinary dentist and one-time professional horse transporter. “Shipping is often stressful for horses, so if you ship a horse that is even slightly sick, that illness may develop into something that can become life-threatening.”

Your next goal is to minimize mental stress. According to Penn Vet equine behavior expert Sue McDonnell, PhD, Cert. AAB, that means learning as much about your horse as possible before the trip. 

“Do your homework and figure out how well your horse handles travel,” she says. “If he isn’t accustomed to it, feed him in the trailer, go for short trips around the block, practice loading—anything it takes to make the day of departure go smoothly.”

And if possible, find a traveling companion for the ride over that your horse knows and/or likes. “Companionship can be extraordinarily useful,” McDonnell says. “If you have a pony that’s a good traveler, it can take the edge right off. It doesn’t take long for horses to buddy up, and having a trusted friend along will help your horse adjust to the new place as well.”

New Climates 

Traveling from a cold climate to a warm one (or vice versa) introduces an added factor: climate change. But unlike your winter clothes, which you can shuck off easily, your horse’s attire is not as easy to change en route.

We are familiar with how important it is for horses’ coats to acclimate gradually to changing temperatures, whether they’re clipped or unclipped. The October 2013 blizzard in South Dakota that killed scores of horses was deadly not because of its ferocity—horses in the West are accustomed to blizzards—but because it struck before horses had time to grow winter coats. 

“Those horses weren’t haired up yet, so they were essentially standing out in their shorts,” says Ismay. “It’s the same when you move a horse up here from a Southern state—you’ve got to use common sense when transporting a horse into a new climate.”

Feeding and Watering for Transport

Many veterinarians recommend feeding more forage and less grain (if any) in the days preceding a trip. “A high-grain diet can be problematic and may be more likely to contribute to ulcers,” Johnson says. Ingesting forage, however, keeps a constant supply of fiber to the gut and encourages the horse to drink. Impaction colic is “much more likely when a horse isn’t eating and drinking regularly,” she says. “Feed primarily roughage to increase gastrointestinal motility and keep them full and happy.”

And possibly the most important thing you can do to help your horse arrive in good health is to make sure he’s well--hydrated. At Ismay’s South Dakota hospital, he sees plenty of rodeo horses traveling to the deserts of Arizona, where a hot, dry climate makes hydration even more important. He recommends starting horses on a flavored electrolyte solution that will increase hydration and help mask unfamiliar flavors or smells in new water sources. “Horses are fussy,” he says. “They can be on -horrible-tasting water and then go to mountain water and refuse to drink it.”

Don’t discount the importance of hydration when traveling through cooler climates, either, as a horse might not want to drink when he’s cold. In extreme situations (especially when you already know your horse will refuse to drink), hydration by your veterinarian via nasogastric tube is an option—but isn’t usually necessary. First, try using your own buckets, extra water, and flavored -electrolytes to encourage him to drink.

To help you stay organized during a move, we've created a relocation checklist for before and after the big day:

On the Road

If you’ve taken the time to prepare your horse for the journey, your biggest day-of concern will be keeping him comfortable and injury- and stress-free. Invest in adequate protection for your horse’s legs to avoid limb injuries on the road, and determine your travel route far in advance to plan stops for food and water. 

Most importantly, make sure your horse has a chance to lower his head and clear mucus, along with dust and other particulates, from his nose to help prevent pleuropneumonia, or “shipping fever,” an infection of the lungs and the pleural cavity. Stress, dehydration, and compromised ventilation can all cause this problem, which can be compounded by keeping a horse’s head tied up for extended periods of time. 

“Unload every few hours and allow horses to graze or eat hay on the ground to let them clear out their airways,” Ismay says. “And keep a clean trailer with rubber mats that you can hose out to reduce the amount of particulates in the air.”

Precautions upon Arrival

After arriving at your new barn, don’t expect to unload and turn your horse loose in a paddock with his new friends. If you’re arriving at a barn that’s home to other horses, veterinarians recommend (and some farms require) you quarantine the animal for one to three weeks.

“We have a responsibility to protect the horses in the receiving barn from our horse’s diseases,” says Tucker, a practice that becomes especially important since we know travel stress compounds a horse’s likelihood of developing illness.

Allow your quarantined horse to see other horses without permitting contact, and let him rest for a few days to recover from travel. Slowly introduce any new hay, water, or feed into your horse’s diet over a period of five to seven days, and monitor him closely as he settles in.

“Look for changes in attitude, -appetite, increased temperature, or nasal discharge,” Ismay says. “An increased temperature can mean a respiratory problem (or other infection). Any changes must be addressed by a vet immediately.”

Most veterinarians agree that horses probably don’t feel jet lag in the same way we do—largely because we’re more attuned to diurnal rhythms (patterns of activity or behavior that follow day-night cycles) than horses are, who tend to eat and sleep around the clock. Still, setting up a new routine that mimics the old routine as closely as possible can be a good way to help a new arrival feel more at home.

Making Friends and Settling In

Once your horse has cleared all of the necessary health precautions, it’s time to integrate him into the herd. It’s often easiest to introduce horses in adjoining stalls where they can sniff but not injure each other, then adjoining paddocks. Once your horse finds a buddy to chat with “across the picket fence,” try turning them out together. Always avoid throwing a newcomer into a pack of horses with an established pecking order; they might be prone to pick on him.

If a horse can find a buddy, it’s amazing how quickly he can adjust to a new social environment, Ismay says. “Provided the horse is healthy to begin with, we don’t see a lot of physical or mental stress (stemming from travel and quarantine) that lasts more than a week.”

In the meantime, use this settling-in period to talk with other horse owners in the area, as the best additional tips and tricks will likely come from people like you. Work with your new veterinarian to identify other health professionals you might need for your horse’s care, and access the American Farrier’s Association resources to help you find a qualified farrier (

While relocating can feel like an enormous task, remember that most horses adapt handily to new situations and recover quickly from travel stress. 

“I’m usually pretty amazed a how adaptable horses are,” says McDonnell, who frequently works with stallions that shuttle between the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. “They land in places with different languages and different people and often don’t really seem to miss a beat.”

About the Author

Lindsay J. Westley

Lindsay J. Westley is a freelance writer based in Burlington, Vt. She grew up riding hunters, worked as a wrangler in Montana, and spent two years as a professional polo groom. She rides between deadlines when she can find a horse.

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