In the July 2012 Gallop Poll, 60 percent of our readers said they hadn't had an accident, breakdown, or horse-health problem while hauling. Review our tips for trailering safety below.
Horse-travel season is upon us. That means it’s time to load up and hit the road again—and again and again. If you haul horses on a regular basis, chances are you already have a story to tell about some trailering nightmare—plus a list of dos and don’ts you now follow every time you load.
If you’re new to the hauling game and haven’t yet established such a list, give it time. The fact is, hauling horses is an unpredictable endeavor, which is why taking steps to avoid disaster is the name of the game.
As an equine veterinarian, I’ve seen just about every horse-hauling wreck imaginable. And, many times, I’ve thought to myself, if only they’d....
In this article, I’ll relate some of my trailer horror stories (all true). I’ll also share the safety precautions that some well-seasoned road warriors use to help keep their own horses safe in transit. If you heed their advice, it might help keep a future hauling experience from becoming one of my frightening trailer tales.
Disaster #1: The Great Escape
The caller was panic-stricken. She’d loaded her young horse into the trailer, only to watch in horror as he immediately plunged through the front window in a desperate attempt at escape. Now he was trapped, half in and half out, hanging from the trailer window. My assistant and I arrived on the scene just in time to administer sedation strong enough to allow us to pry him free. He was one of the lucky ones—he survived the ordeal with some signs of trauma, but lived to be hauled again.
Avoidance tips: Believe it or not, I’ve seen this particular scenario happen not once but twice...and it’s really scary. Western pleasure and longe-line specialist Robin Gollehon (see more info on all our experts in “Meet the Road Warriors,” page 3) recommends a simple precaution that will prevent a horse from making such an unplanned exit “out the front.”
“If you have a trailer with drop-down doors, make sure they have grates or screens over the openings,” she advises, adding that you should keep these grates or screens closed—even when you’re parked—to avoid escape attempts.
Almost as frightening as a front-window dive-through is the horse that tries to run out of the trailer backward. Clinician Julie Goodnight reminds anyone who hauls to remember the importance of closing the trailer’s doors before you tie your horse up front when loading, and untying prior to opening the doors when unloading. This helps to avoid the panic response that can result should your horse attempt a sudden back-door exit and hit the end of his rope.
Julie also suggests that you outfit your horse in a breakaway halter for trailering rather than a rope one. That way, if something does go wrong, he won’t get hung up in his halter.
Of course, careful trailer training and making sure your horse is comfortable to stand quietly in the trailer is the most important underlying safety measure you can take. A horse that hauls quietly and feels secure in the trailer is much less likely to make an unplanned exit attempt from either end.
Toward this end, Julie advises you to load your horses “as the very last thing you do before putting your vehicle in drive and leaving. If horses are loaded before you’re ready to go,” she explains, “they become fussy, claustrophobic, and impatient in the trailer,” thereby increasing the risk of a breakout attempt. Another way to keep your horse happy about hauling, suggests cow horse trainer Sandy Collier, is to drive carefully at all times and decelerate around corners. “Your horse needs to learn to relax while being hauled, so make hauling a good, comfortable experience in every way you can,” she says.
Disaster #2: Down Under
All seemed well during this trip until my client pulled over and opened the back of her trailer door...to discover a disaster scene. Her horse had fallen and slid under the divider, and was being trampled by his traveling companions. Amazingly, this horse also survived the trauma, but not without some fairly intensive and expensive therapy for his multiple wounds.
Avoidance tips: All our experts agree that slippery floors are a major hauling hazard, and that bedding the trailer floor to add traction and soak up urine and manure is generally a good preventive measure, particularly on longer trips.
Sandy does offer a caution, however, about the risk of bedding fragments in the air contributing to an increased risk of shipping fever/pneumonia. For this reason, she prefers to use larger-chip shavings from soft woods such as fir or pine, as they have less potential for lung irritation. She also suggests watering down the shavings to minimize the extent of dust and shavings particles in the air.
Robin recommends another air-quality measure—adjusting the windows and overhead vents to make sure there’s enough air movement in the trailer, while of course taking into consideration the temperature outside.
Julie, also mindful of respiratory risks, beds her trailer only for long trips, where horses are likely to urinate, leading to slippery floors. Otherwise she prefers to leave floors bare.
Should you outfit your horse in shipping boots or bandages to prevent injury to the lower legs? As the veterinarian who sutures wounds, I say bandage when you can—particularly for short hauls, because most of the injuries I see occur during loading and unloading. For long hauls, however, especially when it’s hot, boots or bandages may not be ideal. They can make your horse even hotter, plus have a tendency to slip or fall off, either of which can cause other problems.
Sandy prefers well-fitted shipping boots, “unless the person is well versed in wrapping properly,” in which case she believes wraps are best. Julie prefers quilts and wraps with bell boots to protect the coronary band. For very long trips, Julie even duct tapes blue construction Styrofoam (available at a lumber outlet or big-box store like Home Depot) to the bottom of each foot to prevent foot soreness and possible laminitis.
All-around trainer Karen Banister uses only standing wraps when hauling, and only on horses that are used to wearing them. She also suggests placing tape over the wraps’ fasteners to keep horses from chewing on the wraps.
“I think hauling boots are OK,” she explains, “but often they end up in a pile with the other ‘piles.’”
Clearly, the decision whether to apply leg protection depends on a number of factors, including the length of your trip, the behavior of your horses, and your own wrapping abilities.
Once again, good driving is critical, in this case to help keep horses from slipping and falling. Julie suggests you learn to drive “as if you were hauling milk without a lid.”