Whether you are a seasoned equestrian or a new horse owner, trailering your horse can be a daunting task but does not have to be uncomfortable for you or your horse.

Many factors influence equine welfare while trailering. However, the right vehicle, proper trailer maintenance, careful driving, and thorough preparation will help ensure a safe and successful journey with your horse.

Ensure your horse is familiar with the trailer before hitting the road, and practice loading and unloading several times at home. To keep your horse safe, it is imperative to gather relevant paperwork and carry the necessary equipment you or your horse may require.

Even with the best preparation, travelling to new facilities, competitions, or clinics can cause travel stress in horses. Trailering also increases the risk of dehydration, ulcers, gut issues, and respiratory problems.

This article will review trailering tips to keep your horses happy and safe on the road and discuss how to support equine health while travelling.

Horse Trailering Safety

Equine and human safety should remain the top priority when trailering. Before trailering your horse, check that you have an appropriate rig and know how to drive it safely.

Regular inspection and maintenance of your rig will help ensure your vehicle and trailer are safe for towing, even when you need to transport your horse unexpectedly.

Vehicle

Towing vehicles need adequate power to climb hills and safely accelerate while pulling your horse trailer. These vehicles also need reliable brakes to safely bring the rig to a gradual stop and electrical systems that connect to electric trailer brakes.

Towing Capacity

Determine the vehicle towing capacity required to safely transport your horse and any tack, gear or supplies you need on the road.

Engine size and gear ratio provide towing power, while heavy-duty suspension and well-adjusted braking systems support stopping ability.

Trailering horses is very different from towing other payloads. Loaded horse trailers have a high center of gravity, and horses constantly shift their weight during travel.

Staying at least 10-20% below your vehicle’s towing capacity is essential when pulling live weight. [1]

Size

Vehicle weight and size should be appropriate for the trailer. For example, half-ton trucks are too small for large six-horse trailers but preferable for two-horse bumper pulls.

However, drivers might not be able to feel movement in a small trailer if they pull it with a one-ton truck. [2]

Features

Some vehicles have enough power to tow your trailer but lack the safety features necessary for trailering horses. For example, cars with short wheelbases and all-wheel drive sometimes offer less stability.

Vehicles also need a sturdy hitch attached to the frame. Hitches and balls should appropriately match between your trailer and vehicle to allow for the trailer to travel level with the ground. Safety chains should also be used to provide additional security to the hitch attachment and are often required by law.

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Trailer

Owners should account for their horse’s breed when selecting a horse trailer. Trailers need adequate height, length, and width to accommodate the horse’s body size. Some manufacturers offer “warmblood” models designed for larger horses.

Appropriately sized stalls allow horses to stand solidly on all four feet and shift back and forth to brace during travel. The stall width should also provide enough space to enable lateral movement on each side of the horse. [3]

Flooring

Trailer floors should be strong, textured, and resistant to moisture. Rotten wooden boards and slick flooring pose significant safety risks. Covering the floor with rubber mats provides extra cushion and grip, while wood shavings help absorb urine and feces.

Dividers

A solid divider or partial divider should separate horses. Solid dividers protect horses from being stepped on by travel companions but limit space for the horse to brace in a narrow trailer.

Standing stalls need a butt bar behind each horse that prevent them from pushing against the trailer door or backing out when it opens. Well-padded trailer walls, butt bars, and dividers help avoid injury from a sudden stop or turn. [4]

Loading

Loading ramps with a gentle slope and secure footing help prevent horses from slipping when entering or exiting a trailer. If you purchase a step-up trailer, choose one that is low enough to limit the risks of injury while loading or unloading.

Ventilation

Enclosed trailers should have overhead, side, and rear vents for airflow. Trailers quickly heat up with horses inside them, and inadequate ventilation can increase the risk of respiratory problems. [5]

Safety

Other safety features on horse trailers include trailer lights, brakes, and a spare tire. Owners should check that their trailer lights work and their tires are properly inflated before every trip.

Improper or uneven tire pressure is a common cause of towing problems. [2]

Driving

If you are new to trailering horses, seek instruction from experienced haulers on how to drive while towing a trailer. There are risks every time you take your horse on the road, but safe driving can make it a better experience for you and your horse.

How you drive can also influence your horse’s stress levels and attitude about trailering. Sudden stops and sharp turns feel jarring from the back of a horse trailer. Be considerate of your horses and drive carefully.

Preparing for a Trip

Load horses on the driver’s side when transporting a single horse in a straight-load trailer. If you’re trailering two horses, load the heaviest one on the driver’s side. When hauling one horse in a slant-load trailer, load the horse in the first stall at the front of the trailer. These techniques will distribute the weight of the horse(s) and help balance the trailer especially on roads that crown in the middle.

Adjust side mirrors to visualize the entire side of the trailer. Always double-check that the hitch is attached correctly, trailer lights are working and that all trailer doors are securely latched before driving.

Driving Tips

Once you hit the road, every aspect of your driving should account for your rig’s extra weight and length. Stopping distances are longer, and you won’t be able to accelerate as quickly. [6]

Make all stops, accelerations, turns, and lane changes gradually to keep the ride as comfortable as possible for your horse. Drive under the speed limit and maintain a reasonable distance behind the vehicle in front of you to ensure you have enough time to stop.

Shift to lower gear when traveling up or down steep hills. Slowing down on long uphill grades will prevent your engine from overheating. Avoid hard braking in emergencies if possible, as keeping forward motion maintains hitch tension and prevents loss of control due to trailer sway. [6]

Most importantly, don’t let other drivers pressure you to drive faster. Your rig is bigger than other cars on the road, and you’re responsible for your horse’s safety.

Horse Health and Trailering

Even with safe driving, trailering can take a toll on your horse’s health and well-being. Multiple studies show the effects of trailering on stress, fatigue, digestive function, and respiratory health in horses.

Research suggests that owners can minimize these effects with appropriate management. [7] Many horses are frequent travellers who regularly leave their home farm for competitions, lessons, and vet visits.

Transport Stress

Transportation is a significant stressor for horses, contributing to several behavioural and health issues. One study of twelve standardbred horses found that trailer loading caused an increased heart rate in all horses. [8]

Researchers in the same standardbred study also found significant increases in serum cortisol in horses after a 1-hour journey in the trailer. It took 11-36 hours of rest for cortisol to return to baseline after travel. [8]

Elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol are associated with decreased immune function in horses. As a result, horses may experience immune system suppression after travel, making them susceptible to infectious diseases. [9]

Over time, horses can become habituated to travel and exhibit decreased stress responses after positive trailering experiences. [10]

Gastric Ulcers

Recent research also reveals an association between an increased heart rate during transportation and a higher incidence of gastric ulcers after trailering. Increased gastric ulceration was also observed in horses that frequently lost balance during transport. [11]

Researchers hypothesized that increased movement and loss of balance during transport facilitated more contact between the stomach acid and the squamous mucosa. Careful driving and free-choice forage while trailering horses may minimize the risk of ulceration. [11]

You can also feed gut health supplements, such as Mad Barn’s Visceral+, to maintain gastric and hindgut health and support the immune system in horses being trailered.

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Muscle Fatigue

Horses constantly shift their weight and feet in the trailer to maintain their balance during travel, resulting in a considerable workload. [12]

Blood samples taken after trailering showed muscle enzyme levels similar to exercising horses. Every hour a horse spends on a moving trailer is equivalent to an hour of walking in terms of energy exertion. [11]

High muscle enzyme levels indicate that muscle damage has occurred. These enzymes are also associated with muscle soreness and decreased horse performance. [13]

Owners should allow horses time to rest and recover after arriving at a competition or training session. When trailering horses over long distances, drivers should stop and allow horses to rest every 6-8 hours to prevent fatigue.

Dehydration

Studies show that voluntary intake of hay and water decreases during transport. Thus, horses often become dehydrated after trailering and can lose body weight. [14]

Dehydration increases the risk of impaction colic after trailering and may result in weakness and exercise intolerance. Prolonged dehydration can lead to kidney damage. [15]

If horses don’t have access to water in the trailer, drivers should stop every four hours to offer fresh water.

Some horses may still refuse to drink under shipping stress. Feeding well-soaked forage pellets or cubes before leaving can support hydration.

Heat Stress

Dehydrated horses are also at risk of developing heat stress or heat stroke in hot temperatures.

Transporting horses over long distances without access to water during hot weather can result in severe dehydration in as little as 24 hours. [15]

Temperatures inside your horse trailer can be 5 – 10oC higher than outside temperatures, especially if body heat is trapped from trailering multiple horses. [4] This may cause horses to lose more water and electrolytes through sweat.

Ensure your trailer has adequate ventilation and closely monitor the temperature in hot weather to prevent overheating. [16] Consider traveling before sunrise or after sunset to avoid being on the road during the hottest hours of the day.

Respiratory Disease

While free-choice hay supports healthy digestion during transport, airborne hay and bedding particles in the horse trailer pose a threat to equine respiratory health.

Enclosed horse trailers without adequate ventilation can have poor air quality and high pathogen loads. In addition, horses are typically tied in the trailer and may be unable to clear debris from their airways. [5]

A high head position prevents cilia in the trachea from effectively moving inhaled debris away from the lungs. If horses can’t lower their heads or cough, inhaled particulates and bacteria can accumulate in the respiratory tract. [17]

Inhaled particles irritate the mucous membranes and lead to airway inflammation, while harmful bacteria can cause respiratory infections, such as pneumonia. [17]

Poor trailer air quality, a high head position, and transport stress can contribute to shipping fever, a lower respiratory tract infection commonly seen in horses after long-distance transport. [19]

Owners can support equine respiratory health during transport by ensuring horses have room to lower their heads and clear their airways. Use low-dust materials and keep trailer windows open to maintain air quality.

Horse Trailering Tips

If you are planning to trailer your horse, follow these management practices based on the latest research to support your horse’s health and safety during trailering.

Here are thirteen tips to help make trailering a positive experience for you and your horse.

1. Practice Loading

Loading is a valuable skill for all horses, even if you don’t plan to go anywhere soon. Practice loading to familiarize your horse with the trailer and ensure you can leave quickly in an emergency.

Positive loading experiences can also decrease transport stress. [10]

2. Organize Paperwork

Depending on the travel destination, a current Coggins or health certificate may need to accompany your horse during transport. Organize trailering paperwork ahead of time and keep your horse’s papers in a safe location where you won’t forget them.

3. Nutritional Supplements

Research shows antioxidants such as vitamin E can help support immune health during transport. Horses may also benefit from additional digestive support during travel.

If your horse has a history of gastric ulcers, feed Visceral+ and talk to your veterinarian about preventative proton pump inhibitors. [20]

Feeding salt and electrolyte supplements before, during and after travel can also help to promote hydration and maintain electrolyte balance.

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4. Soak Meals

Feeding soaked meals can increase water intake before trailering and decrease the risk of dehydration. Avoid feeding grain immediately before loading and instead soak some alfalfa cubes, pellets, or beet pulp to make a high-fibre mash.

5. Use Leg Protection

Shipping boots can help protect your horse from injury during transport. However, improperly applied wraps can come undone during long trips. Bell boots are safe for protecting your horse’s heels and avoiding pulled shoes on the trailer.

6. Blanket Conservatively

The temperature inside a loaded horse trailer is significantly warmer than outside. Using blankets when trailering in cold conditions is preferable to closing vents and impeding airflow. But blanket conservatively and regularly check horses for signs of overheating. [16]

7. Keep a Medical Kit in Your Trailer

No matter how well you prepare, horses can still get sick and injured while trailering. So keep a well-stocked equine first aid kit in your trailer to accompany your horse.

8. Provide Free Choice Forage

Providing free-choice forage is the best way to support your horse’s digestive health. Use a slow feeder net and bring extra hay to ensure your horse has constant access to forage throughout the journey. [4]

9. Maintain Air Quality

In addition to ventilation, bedding and hay choice can significantly impact trailer air quality. Keep your trailer clean and use low-dust hay and bedding to reduce airborne particulates. Large flake wood shavings are a good choice for maximizing absorbency and minimizing dust. [21]

10. Transport Horses With Friends

Horses are herd animals that feel safest in a group. Trailering your horse with a friend can help reduce transport stress and undesirable behaviours. Pairing young horses with experienced travellers will help them learn how to relax during transport.

11. Use a Leather Halter

Only transport horses in leather or breakaway halters. Unlike nylon and rope halters, leather breaks when caught on something. Horses can injure themselves in the trailer if a stuck halter doesn’t release their head.

12. Avoid Short Trailer Ties

Tying prevents your horse from turning around in the standing stalls of your trailer. But securing your horse’s head too high can increase the risk of respiratory disease. Attach trailer ties to the halter’s top ring and ensure your horse has space to lower his head.

13. Allow Horses to Rest

Stop every few hours to offer water and allow horses to rest on long journeys. After arriving at your destination, give your horses adequate time to recover from the trip before asking them to perform in the ring.

Horses are also susceptible to jet lag when travelling across time zones and may need time to adjust before performance competitions. [22]

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References

  1. Hofmeyr, I. Tips for safe towing horse transport. SA Horseman. 2008.
  2. Smith, B. et al. Influence of Suspension, Tires, and Shock Absorbers on Vibration in a Two-horse trailer. Transact ASABE. 1996.
  3. Smith, B. et al. Body position and direction preferences in horses during road transport. Equine Vet J. 1994.
  4. Padalino, B. et al. A Survey on Transport Management Practices Associated with Injuries and Health Problems in Horses. PLoS One. 2016.
  5. Purswell, J. et al. Air Exchange Rate in a Horse Trailer During Road Transport. Transact ASBE. 2006.
  6. Creiger, S. et al. Non-commercial Horse Transport: New Standards for Trailers in Canada. 2015.
  7. Padalino, B. et al. The Implications of Transport Practices for Horse Health and Welfare. Front Vet Sci. 2020.
  8. Tateo, A. et al. Transport stress in horses: Effects of two different distances. J Vet Behav. 2012.
  9. Miller, A. et al. Short-term transport stress and supplementation alter immune function in aged horses. PLoS One. 2021.
  10. Racklyeft, D. et al. Towards an understanding of equine pleuropneumonia: factors relevant for control. Austral Vet J. 2008.
  11. Padalino, B. et al. Effects of Transport Conditions on Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Horses. Animals. 2020.
  12. Colborne, G. et al.  A Novel Load Cell-Supported Research Platform to Measure Vertical and Horizontal Motion of a Horse’s Centre of Mass During Trailer Transport. J Equine Vet Sci. 2021.
  13. Roberts, C. et al. The Relationship Between Blood Lactate, Serum Muscle Enzymes, Jumping Performance and Muscle Soreness in Show-Jumping Horses. Equine Vet J. 2014.
  14. Mars, L. et al. Water acceptance and intake in horses under shipping stress. J Equine Vet Sci. 1992.
  15. Friend, T. Dehydration, stress, and water consumption of horses during long-distance commercial transport. J Anim Sci. 2000.
  16. Purswell, J. et al. Thermal Environment in a Four-Horse Slant-Load Trailer. Transact ASABE. 2010.
  17. Radial, S. et al. Inflammation and increased numbers of bacteria in the lower respiratory tract of horses within 6 to 12 hours of confinement with the head elevated. Austral Vet J. 1995.
  18.  Schmidt, A. et al. Cortisol release, heart rate, and heart rate variability in transport-naive horses during repeated road transport. Dom Anim Endo. 2010.
  19. Padalino, B. et al. Effects of transportation on gastric pH and gastric ulceration in mares. J Vet Intern Med. 2020.
  20. Fleming, K. et al. Generation of Airborne Particles from Different Bedding Materials Used for Horse Keeping. J Equine Vet Sci. 2008.
  21. Purswell, S. et al. Air exchange rate in a horse trailer during transport. Trans ASABE. 2006.
  22. D. J. Tortonese, R. V. Short. Biological rhythms, jetlag and performance in Thoroughbred racehorses. Equine Vet J. 2012