12 Tips for Reducing Transport Stress on Horses
I’ll admit I haven’t used my horse trailer in some time. It’s kind of ironic, really–I now have the trailer I always wanted (an aluminum 3-horse slant with a small “living quarters”), but since I no longer compete, I rarely use it. I’m hoping to get back into trail riding one of these days, but we’ll see. In the mean time, I just keep hanging on to my lovely trailer–I can’t bear to part with it!
But one thing about it, since I don’t haul my horses (except to the vet on occasion), they don’t have to deal with the stress of transport. Many horses do.
Transport–especially over long distances– can be a major source of stress for horses. Not only does it go against all their natural instincts to get into a small metal box and then be hauled down the road at sixty miles per hour (or faster, in many instances), but just trying to stay upright on all four hooves can be quite taxing. Have you ever ridden in your horse trailer? I did once (with a sick foal), and trust me, it’s not exactly a piece of cake. In fact, research says that a horse will use the same amount of energy maintaining their balance in a trailer as they would walking for the same amount of time. Keep that in mind next time you haul three hours to a show!
Transport also causes psychological stress in many instances–horses are being taken from their accustomed environment to somewhere completely new. We know where we’re going when we hop in the truck, but they don’t. It can be an overwhelming experience for some horses.
Of course, I’m not saying you shouldn’t haul your horse. If you have horses, it’s often just a part of life. But what you can do is help to alleviate the stress of transport as much as possible.
Here are a few tips:
1.) Provide hay on longer trips. While this might seem like a no-brainer, many people may not think twice about going on a four-hour trip with absolutely no hay for their horses. I’ve written about how free-choice forage keeps the equine digestive system in good working order, and trailering is no reason to throw this notion out the window. Not only will hay provide your horse with a distraction, but it will also keep things moving in the gut, which is always a very good thing. Some sources even suggest soaking your hay first to minimize dust and keep it from flying around in your horse’s face.
2.) Use shipping boots or wraps ONLY if your horse is accustomed to them. Shipping boots or leg wraps can help protect legs from injury in the trailer, but it’s essential that you get your horse used to wearing them outside the trailer before expecting them to wear them in the trailer. If they are not accustomed to having something around their lower legs, then you could unintentionally be causing more stress (as well as increasing the chance that your horse could harm himself).
3.) Avoid blanketing in the trailer in most circumstances. Since horses’ muscles are working to maintain their balance, they will automatically generate a considerable amount of body heat. Nervous horses may sweat even if its cool out and a blanket will only make them hotter. I’m not a fan of blanketing in most situations anyway, but transport is definitely a time to reconsider that blanket.
4.) Use fly masks. This is probably more of a safety issue than anything, but a bug flying into your eye at 60 miles per hour is going to cause some stress. Prevent that from happening with fly masks (also–never let your horses hang their head completely out the window during transport).
5.) Have a travel buddy if at all possible. We know horses are herd animals, so even if you’re just making a trip to the vet, bringing along a friend can greatly reduce a horse’s stress. This is especially important when acclimatizing youngsters to the trailer.
6.) Always keep the horse at the forefront of your thoughts when driving. Again, I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but I’ve seen people completely ignoring this idea and it horrifies me. Every turn, stop, or acceleration should be done with the horse’s safety and comfort in mind. (Again, if you want to know what it’s like, I suggest going for a short ride in the back of your trailer.)
7.) Make sure your horse trailer is properly ventilated. There’s nothing I hate more than seeing trailers all closed up in the summer time. It can be suffocating inside a trailer with no air flow. I actually had a trailer I sold for this very reason. I kept the windows open in the summer, but it was always extremely hot in there. On the other hand, keep windows closed during cold weather. Use common sense!
8.) Give your horse as much freedom of head movement as possible. I know everyone has a different opinion on tying horses in the trailer, but if you force a horse to stand with his head tied up for long periods of time, this can be an added source of stress. In fact one study found that tied horses had larger increases in stress parameters than horses traveling loose. Something to keep in mind!
9.) Ensure good footing in your trailer. This could be a sturdy rubber mat or shavings (although stock trailers may blow shavings around, making it dusty). Your horse needs some type of shock absorption and softer footing than just a bare wood floor though. I have a friend who uses padded boots for long trailer rides. This can be a great idea too.
10.) Make sure your truck and trailer are equipped with good shocks and brakes. This will ensure a much more comfortable ride for your horse.
11.) Keep your horse hydrated. On longer trips, stop every few hours to offer water to your horse. For longer trips, electrolyte supplementation should be started 2-3 days in advance, especially when it’s warm out and your horse is likely to sweat.
12.) Supplement with probiotics. Stress alters gut bacteria, making horses more susceptible to illness after long transport. Supplementing with probiotics may help prevent this.
Sources and Further Reading