During my long career as an equine practitioner, I was called to attend many horses injured in trailer-related situations. Most of them were avoidable incidents. Horses come to harm in and around trailers because of insufficient training, careless handling, unsafe equipment or inappropriate driving. All of these contributing factors can be mitigated, if not eliminated altogether, when you prepare your horse, your rig and yourself for hazard-free transportation.
In the interest of saving other horses from experiencing the same injuries I was called to treat time and time again, I've identified nine key considerations to help you keep your horses' well-being in the forefront whenever you take them on the road.
1. Type of trailer
Most American horses are transported in two-horse side-by-side trailers facing in the direction of travel. Slant-loading and front-loading/rear-facing trailers position horses so that they are able to balance more readily during acceleration, deceleration and turns, but the face-forward models remain a common choice. Given good experiences and careful driving, horses learn to balance quite adequately while facing in the direction of travel.
Another consideration is the horse's means of entry: ramp or step-up. Except in the North American West, most of the world prefers ramps. I don't know why. I've seen more horses and more people injured by ramp trailers than by step-ups, even in areas where the ramp is less commonly used. I suppose the assumption is that horses find it more difficult to learn to step up into a trailer without a ramp. Actually, the movement of a ramp underfoot is frightening to many horses. As a species, they prefer solid ground.
When I lived in southern Arizona back in the 1940s, few horse owners had trailers. They used pickup trucks with stock racks to transport their horses, who were trained to jump up into the bed of the pickup. Rigs like this are still used in cattle country and in Hawaii, where trailers built on the mainland are costly to import. Compared to how these horses can load into and out of a pickup bed, a step-up trailer is not much of a challenge.
However, horses can be trained to calmly enter all types of trailers. My only purpose here is to point out that ramps are not required to get horses into and out of trailers.
Except for foals small enough to turn around or any passengers short enough to get their heads caught under a divider, I prefer to haul horses untied. However, if it is preferable or necessary to tie a horse in the trailer, be sure to take these precautions:
- Allow enough slack in the ties so the horse has freedom of motion for balancing, but keep the ties short enough to prevent entanglements.
- Use "panic" snaps, or, alternatively, tie the horse with a slipknot, and be sure to have a sharp knife on your person so you can instantly free him under any circumstance. I have seen trailers overturn, and although the horses weren't significantly injured in the accident in some cases, getting them out was a major problem because they had been tied in with a chain and ordinary snap that could not be released.
- Remember to untie the horse before you open the back of the trailer. Many horses are frightened and/or injured when they try to back out of a trailer while they remain tied. The reaction is often a panicky pullback or possibly a lunge forward back into the trailer. You can remind yourself to release the horse's head first by tying the butt chain/bar closed with a piece of string each time you load the horse.
3. Protective padding
If your horse is very tall, high headed or otherwise inclined to bump his poll, consider putting a head bumper on him before hauling. Head bumpers are usually made of leather and lined with compressed felt. They have loops so that they can be attached to the halter. I have seen quite a few horses who "scalped" themselves by hitting their polls as they exited or entered trailers. Sometimes the entire forelock is displaced and must be sutured back into place. A head bumper usually prevents such an injury.
Although I personally do not bandage my animals' legs for hauling, properly and securely applied wraps can do no harm and would certainly help protect against the lower-leg injuries that occur when horses step upon their own legs or those of the horses next to them.
4. Training to load
In our practice we had what we called "weekend specials." Frustrated clients called for emergency service to tranquilize their horses, who were refusing to load for the weekend trips to shows or other events. I explained that although a tranquilizer does calm the horse, it does not teach him to load. The worst time to teach a horse anything is when you are impatient, upset or angry, so usually it's the owner who needs the tranquilizer in these situations, not the horse.
I cannot urge too strongly that horses be trained as early as possible to load, travel and unload calmly and happily. This can be done at any age, but I usually train my own foals at about one week of age. The important thing, as with any novel experience for a horse, is to not make it a traumatic event. Horses can be taught to love travel just as a dog can love to travel.
Novices who wish to teach their own horses to trailer nowadays have the advantage of being able to purchase videotapes on the subject. Most of the well-known clinicians now touring around teaching better methods of horsemanship have such tapes available. I advise that you view two such tapes in order to see the similarity between the methods. The universal goal is to teach the horse that inside the trailer is a desirable place to be--a sanctuary, a place of rest and repose--whereas outside is a place of work. The differences in technique used by various clinicians are superficial. They all achieve the same result by making the right thing--loading--easy and the wrong thing--refusing to load--difficult, and, in either case, they all avoid traumatizing the horse.
5. The trailer floor
Some of the most terrible accidents I have seen occurred when a horse's foot went through a rotten wooden trailer floor and got ground off on the highway. Seeing too many of these horrible injuries has made me paranoid about trailer floors. I inspect mine every time I haul, and once a year I paint the wood with boiled linseed oil to keep it resilient and fresh. I am also a bit of a nut about cleaning the floor after every use, because urine and manure speed the rotting of wooden trailer floors. Good trailer mats help to reduce the danger of the floor giving way, but, after hauling, you need to remove the mats, hose off and clean the floor, and return the mats for the next use.
6. Safety check
Get in the habit of glancing at each tire on the trailer and the towing vehicle before you start the engine. Check the hitch: Is it locked? You'd be surprised how often people drive off with an unlocked hitch. Do all of the taillights, brake lights and directional signals work? Are the trailer cabinet doors locked and other loose objects safely secured? Each time you stop, go through the check before heading out again. When you stop for a meal, leaving your rig unattended, check the horses and the trailer before resuming your journey to be sure no one has tampered with anything.
7. Rest stops
It is not necessary to unload horses every three or four hours on long hauls, but you do need to stop at these intervals, allowing at least a half-hour of rest before resuming. All the time the trailer is in motion the horse is alternating the weight on his legs, straining and exerting himself as he balances and rebalances with the shifting footing. He's getting plenty of exercise through all that; what he needs periodically is to stand still for a while.
8. Food and water
The most important consideration, especially on long hauls and even more so in warm weather, is to be sure that traveling horses stay hydrated. Horse haulers who take along containers of water from home are not being silly. Horses are very suspicious of unfamiliar water, and some of them will dehydrate dangerously before they'll drink water that has a strange smell.
Feeding is the exact opposite: Don't overdo it. The only transportation-related colic I've had in my own animals occurred when a young mule overloaded on alfalfa hay while I hauled her to a branding a half day's drive from home. When I got to the roundup, I had to call a veterinarian because I didn't have the necessary equipment and medications. How humiliating. In general, avoid excessively rich feeds, such as alfalfa and grain, for horses being hauled two days or longer. Grass hay is safe, and some bran may be useful to keep the intestinal tract open.
9. Driving technique
When I located in the Conejo Valley of California in 1957, the only industries in the entire valley were cattle and horse ranching and the wild-animal business. The area was a center for wild-animal trainers, breeders and dealers and the winter quarters for circuses. One of my clients was Louis Goebel and Son, a well-known and respected importer/exporter of zoo animals. The son, Gene, was the best driver I had ever been with. Because he regularly hauled such animals as giraffes, elephants, camels and so on, he was an incredibly smooth and careful driver. He never tailgated, he avoided abrupt starts and stops, and he turned carefully, always mindful of the precious cargo he had behind him.
If we all drove like that when we hauled horses, there would be far fewer highway accidents of the sort I have had to see. I try to drive like Gene, even when I am not hauling horses. The maimed, dead and dying horses I have seen in my lifetime are ample motivation.
Although all of the points I've named are important, the most common cause of trailer-related injury is failure to adequately and properly train the horse to load and to haul. Horses, as flight creatures, recognize how vulnerable they are when closely confined. That innate claustrophobia is the basis for the alarm and resistance they display when entering a trailer for the first time. If a horse is traumatized by force, frightened or injured during his initial exposure to trailering, he will never forget it.
Trailer-sour horses can relearn and become good haulers, but it takes skillful and experienced training to salvage them. It's much better to teach horses to load quietly and calmly in the first place, using the methods advocated by most of today's "natural horsemanship" clinicians. Trained without haste and impatience, horses come to regard trailers as peaceful sanctuaries rather than places of terror. The younger horses are when they learn this lesson, the easier it is for them to accept the trailering experience. When the driving is done gently to avoid sudden stops, accelerations and abrupt turns, most horses genuinely enjoy being hauled.
Prior to his retirement, author Robert Miller, DVM, practiced in Thousand Oaks, Calif. In addition to breeding, raising and training performance mules, Miller is a clinician who travels widely speaking on horse behavior and training practices. His website is www.robertmmiller.com.
This article originally appeared in the October 2003 issue of EQUUS magazine.