Even the calmest of transported horses experiences fundamental stress reactions from the start of loading. In transit, those perfectly content-looking horses are likely to have become dehydrated, to have suffered weakening of their immune function or to have experienced exhaustion. Recently shipped horses are far more vulnerable than they appear to be, and equine researchers have identified many of the more subtle effects of the experience, if not all the reasons they occur.
The following 10 suggestions are based on researchers' current knowledge of shipping's effects, but as more is learned, these guidelines may change. Any stress-reducing measures you can implement will improve your horse's response to his time on the road.
1. Leave horses untied--or tied long--while they travel.
Researchers agree that a horse who can lower his head below the point of his shoulder will be much less likely to suffer respiratory stress from traveling. Some trailer designs do not allow horses to lower their heads very far and some horses fight with their neighbors if given any leeway. Yet when possible, allow the horses to take advantage of whatever room there is to carry their heads in a natural, mucus-draining posture.
2. Transport horses in familiar, congenial groups.
When shipped with his pals, your horse has less risk of exposure to infectious disease and of suffering injury, and he won't be doubly stressed by dealing with new horses at the same time he's coping with the physical effects of transport.
3. Keep the trailer spotlessly clean.
Pathogens from dried manure can overwhelm a respiratory system weakened by trailer stress. If your trip is a long one, pick manure out of the trailer at each stop. And, at the end of each trip hose out the trailer thoroughly to remove all manure and urine.
4. Educate your horse about loading and shipping.
Loading is the most stressful part of the entire shipping experience and the time when injuries are most likely to happen. Make sure your horse is thoroughly familiar and comfortable with the whole procedure. If your horse is a particularly difficult loader, it's wise to get the help of an experienced and patient trainer to help rebuild his confidence. And, even if you never go anywhere, load your horse several times a year and drive around the neighborhood as a refresher.
5. Maintain good air quality inside the trailer.
Unless you are shipping in the coldest, wettest climates in an open stock trailer, the risk of horses getting too cold is minimal compared to the risks associated with stagnant air, accumulating exhaust fumes and excessive heat. When in doubt about the temperature, blanket the horses and leave open air vents or windows. To check for drafts, ride in the back of an empty trailer, and adjust vents and windows to redirect any strong blasts that could chill the horses. Keeping rear windows closed, using floor mats without bedding and wetting hay are measures that reduce amount of dust in the trailer.
6. Rest horses at least a week after a long journey.
Shipping-induced physical changes that leave a horse vulnerable to illness can persist for days after the trip is over. To ensure you don't stress an already compromised horse, plan for the horse to arrive at his destination a week before he'll be asked for a major athletic effort.
7. Keep the trailer in good repair.
Eliminate any opportunity for vehicle failure by regularly checking and repairing your trailer as needed. Pay particular attention to the floorboards, ramp, brakes and hitch. If anything looks suspicious, don't use the trailer until it is professionally inspected and fixed.
8. Be a sympathetic driver.
While there have been no large-scale studies of the effects of driver technique on shipped horses, researchers agree that a slower, steady journey is easier than an erratic, speedy one. Take a ride in the back of an empty trailer yourself to experience the differences in driving styles firsthand. A useful test of your own driving ability is to place a half-full glass of water on the dashboard. If you can drive without the water sloshing to the three-quarters level on the glass, your driving is passenger friendly.
9. Provide ample water and adequate hay but no grain.
Water during travel is essential for battling dehydration, a common side effect of shipping that can lead to other, more serious problems. At every stop, or at least every four hours, offer horses water from home in a familiar bucket. Many in-transit horses won't drink during the first eight hours on the road and some may never partake, but continue to offer anyway. Hay is a great pacifier of traveling horses and helps retain water in the gut. In certain trailers, however, the hay dust may blow directly into a horse's respiratory tract. Wetting the hay can help to control the dust. Researchers agree that feeding grain to traveling horses is not a good idea. If stress affects gut function, as they suspect it does, the grain will sit and ferment, possibly leading to colic or laminitis.
10. Cater to each horse's individual preferences.
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when shipping is the preference of each horse. Some horses travel quietly in situations others find intolerable. Experiment with every variable--traveling positions, watering routines, even the time of day you travel--until you find a combination that suits your horse or the majority of the horses that normally travel together.
This excerpt originally appeared in the article "Road Tests: How Shipping Affects Horses" in the April 2000 issue of EQUUS magazine.