Before you hit the road for a lengthy trip, get answers to the 10 questions most often asked about trailering horses long distances.
You just learned about your big promotion—greater responsibility, more money…and a move across the country. Or maybe you learned that you qualified for your first championship show…which requires a cross-country haul. Perhaps you’ve been invited on a once-in-a-lifetime trail ride…that’s a few thousand miles from home.
If you’re like most horse owners, these kinds of excursions are no big deal by airplane without your horse. But hauling your horse that many miles? Now that’s another story.
Even if your horse is a seasoned traveler, there’s a big difference between trailering to shows and rides in the neighboring town and traveling across the country—or to another country. In this article, I’ll explain how a long trip impacts your horse’s health and the risks he’ll face. Then I’ll answer the 10 most common questions I hear from my clients about long-distance hauling to help you minimize risk when planning your trip.
Transport Stress: What Happens?
Most studies confirm that the longer your horse spends on the road, the greater the threat to his well-being. Trips less than three hours in duration are unlikely to cause transport-related diseases. At the 12-hour mark, risks increase dramatically. So what exactly happens in your horse’s body to create that risk?
From the moment you load your horse in the trailer, his body responds by releasing the stress hormone cortisol into his blood stream. Cortisol levels continue to increase for the duration of travel, and may take 24 hours or longer to return to normal once he arrives at his destination. Cortisol has multiple effects on your horse’s body that can increase his risk for transport-related diseases. In general, it stimulates “act now” emergency mechanisms and shuts down less-immediately-critical functions of the body.
One of the most significant impacts of cortisol is its impact on your horse’s immune system. Specifically, the ratio of neutrophils to lymphocytes (two different types of white blood cells circulating in your horse’s system) increases in response to cortisol. This leaves your horse less able to fight infection and at risk of developing shipping fever, a potentially life-threatening respiratory infection that progresses rapidly once it starts. Signs of shipping fever can appear soon as four to six hours after departure, and this disease occurs in as many as six-percent of long-duration hauls.
Your horse also becomes dehydrated during transport because he drinks less, eats less, and sweats more. Dehydration increases risk for colic, as well as other metabolic abnormalities that can threaten your horse’s health.
Finally, long-distance travel puts strenuous demands on your horse’s musculoskeletal system. Blood tests show increases in creatine phosphokinase (CPK) and aspartate aminotransferase (AST), two enzymes that are released from the muscles, following transport. This indicates your horse’s muscles are working hard to help him keep his balance while riding in the trailer. It takes 24 hours or longer for these values to return to baseline levels, leaving your horse stiff and sore following a trip.
Your Top 10 Long-Haul Questions, Answered
Is it better if I haul him myself, or should I use a commercial shipper?
When you buy a new horse from a distant seller or are moving your horse to new barn in another state, you might consider a commercial shipper. That is, a professional who hauls horses and other livestock cross-country for a fee. These haulers often drive bigger rigs that provide a smoother ride and more space for your horse—think box stalls—than your own trailer, and have multiple drivers that can result in a more efficient trip.
Commercial rigs may be better insulated to protect your horse from extreme heat or cold, have fans for optimal ventilation, and might even be equipped with video cameras that allow your horse to be monitored at all times. Tempting option, for sure. That said, if you go commercial, select your shipper carefully. Look for a company that hires experienced horsemen as drivers (versus truck drivers with little or no horse experience) who can keep a close watch on your precious cargo. Ask how often the trucks will stop to rest and how they manage feed and watering schedules. Finally, beware of any commercial shipper who tells you they’re not worried about health papers that comply with interstate-travel requirements. You don’t want to find your horse in a jam halfway across the country.
What about flying? Is it an option I should consider?
You might be surprised to learn that horses are the most frequent fliers next to humans. A three- to five-day trip across the country in a truck can be accomplished in a single day of air travel. There’s no doubt about it—flying is an option that can be much easier on your horse. Unfortunately, it’ll be harder on your pocketbook.
If you’re traveling to an important competition, one option to consider is to fly your horse to the competition to ensure he’ll be in the best possible condition when he arrives, then ship him home when he can have plenty of recovery time following the trip.
What kind of paperwork do I need?
Paperwork requirements vary widely depending on your destination. As a general rule, you’ll need proof of a negative Coggin’s test that checks for antibodies for equine infectious anemia and a health certificate issued by your veterinarian within a specified amount of time (depending on the state). If you’re traveling out of the country, paperwork requirements become more complicated. Check with your veterinarian at least a month prior to your anticipated travel date so you can schedule tests and obtain the paperwork you need. While you’re at it, make sure your horse’s vaccinations are up-to-date—particularly against respiratory viruses such as influenza or rhinopneumonitis. It generally takes two to three weeks for vaccinations to be effective, so vaccinating at the time your vet comes out to do travel papers is likely to be perfect timing.
You might wonder: Do I really need these papers? If you’re traveling out of the country, you won’t get across a border without required papers. Period. If you’re traveling within the United States, you might make it across state lines, but law-enforcement officers look for vehicles with out-of-state license plates pulling horse trailers. There’s a good chance you’ll be pulled over at some point in your journey and asked for documentation. Fines are steep if you can’t produce required paperwork, so it really isn’t worth the risk.
I’m hauling to a competition. How much time does my horse need to recover from the trip?
Plan at least one day of rest for a six- to 12-hour haul, and two to three days of rest for a trip that lasts longer than 12 hours. The average horse loses five to six percent of his body weight during a 24-hour trip due to a combination of dehydration and reduced feed intake. Although half of that weight loss is recovered within the first 24 hours of transit, it can take as long as seven days for your horse to fully recover. So if he’s facing a particularly long or difficult trip, plan at least a week before your horse will be completely back to normal.
I’m traveling from an area where it’s cold to somewhere very hot. Should I body-clip my horse before we leave?
This might not be a concern in the summer months, but winter and spring shows can force horses to encounter major climate changes. Because of your horse’s large body size, he’s much more likely to be too hot than too cold. For that reason, body clipping prior to a journey that’ll take him from a cold climate to a warmer one is always a good idea.
Additionally, avoid blanketing during long-distance travel, especially if your horse will travel with other horses whose body heat will warm the trailer. Blankets not only run the risk of causing your horse to overheat, they can cause serious injuries if they slip or your horse becomes tangled in a strap. A well-insulated trailer will help protect your horse against outside temperature extremes (both hot and cold), and proper ventilation is a must. Consider installing fans if you’ll be traveling when it is very hot. (See “Trailer Innovations” on page 78 for the latest in trailer innovations for ventilation and cooling.)
If you’re hauling yourself, a strategic travel route and schedule can go a long way toward managing temperature concerns. Avoid southern routes during summer months, and try to travel during early-morning or evening hours—avoiding the extreme heat of afternoon.
My vet told me it’s a bad idea to put bedding in my trailer, but all my friends insist I should. What’s the right answer?
Whether to bed your trailer is a tricky question—and the correct answer varies with your circumstances. Bedding is a potential source of respiratory irritants and can increase the risk for shipping fever—one of the deadliest potential complications of a long-distance haul. That’s why your vet recommends that you avoid bedding if you can. →
Bedding does, however, provide traction if your trailer floors are slippery and might make your horse more comfortable (especially if he’s one who refuses to urinate on a hard surface).
One thing is certain: If you do bed your trailer, use the least-dusty bedding material you can find, and consider spraying it lightly with water before you load up to help keep dust to a minimum.
Should I wrap/use shipping boots on my horse’s legs for trailer trips?
Wraps or shipping boots can help protect your horse from injuries during loading and unloading, or from trauma during hauling. However, for a long-distance haul, boots and wraps can cause more problems than they solve if they loosen or fall off en route. The only time to bandage for a long-distance trip is if you’re hauling your horse yourself, stopping overnight, and planning to change bandages daily. You should also only apply boots or wraps if your horse is comfortable wearing them. If you’re traveling with a commercial hauler, leave boots and bandages at home.
Top Safety TipWhat’s the No. 1 thing you can do to ensure that your horse stays healthy and happy during a long haul? The same thing that’ll protect him from injury any time you travel: Training.
Spend time before your trip teaching him to load and unload, and make sure he’s comfortable in the trailer. Familiarize your horse with trailering in general to reduce his stress levels and his risk for injury. No amount of preparation can take the place of experience.
Should I tie my horse in the trailer?
One of the best ways to protect your horse’s respiratory tract during a long-distance haul is to allow him to put his head down while he’s traveling. This means leaving him untied if your trailer will safely allow it. Ideally, he’ll have a box stall to travel in rather than a single compartment where he can move about at will and easily put his head down to eat. The availability of box stalls is one of the reasons why sending your horse with a commercial shipper might be better for his health than hauling him yourself. The extra costs associated with this luxury are usually dollars well spent.
How often should I stop?
Your horse should have a 15- to 20-minute rest period every four to six hours during a long haul when the trailer is stopped and parked, ideally in a shaded area if it’s hot. During this rest period, offer water, replenish food supplies, and do a general safety check. If possible, it’s a great idea to pick out manure and urine spots to help keep air inside the trailer fresh. If you’re sending your horse with a commercial shipper, be sure to ask how often they stop to rest.
My horse doesn’t drink very well, and is a picky eater away from home. Is there anything I can do to encourage him to drink and eat on the road?
Experienced haulers say your horse is more likely to drink after the trailer has been standing still for 15 to 20 minutes and he’s had a chance to rest, so keep this in mind. Always offer water at the end of a rest period. Consider soaking hay to encourage moisture intake, and offer a wet bran mash or beet pulp once or twice a day. Take water from home if you can so you’re your horse won’t be put off by unfamiliar flavors. If it’s not possible to bring water with you in the trailer, considering adding flavor (such as a couple of tablespoons of powdered lemonade or Kool-Aid) to his at home water source prior to your trip, then use it to mask the flavor of unfamiliar water on the road.