By Christine Barakat, EQUUS Magazine
Horses tend to be such good sports about transport that you may not realize the physical and mental toll that riding in a trailer takes. But, make no mistake, being shipped any significant distance is stressful even for veteran travelers.
“A horse in a trailer is constantly working and using energy to maintain his balance,” says Carolyn Stull, PhD, of the University of California–Davis, who has done extensive research on the effects of trailering horses on horses. “That means his body temperature is going to increase, and after going long distances he’ll be fatigued when he arrives.” He’s also likely to have inhaled dust and debris and may be slightly dehydrated because he has not been drinking as much as usual.
For a senior horse, the effects of these stressors of trailering multiply. “Everything is going to affect the older horse more when he’s in transit,” says Stull. “Geriatric horses may not have unique troubles when it comes to trailering, but everything you’d normally worry about is exacerbated.”
On the other hand, if a senior horse has been trailered frequently throughout his life, he has probably learned how to handle travel stress. “If he’s an old road warrior, he’ll probably do just fine as long as he’s still in good physical shape,” says Stull. “Not only will it not stress him emotionally, but he’ll know how to handle himself physically during the ride.” Stull owns a mare who traveled from Illinois to California and back every year until her mid-20s with no detrimental long-term effects.
If your older horse is less traveled, however, it’s wise to recognize the main stress points of transport and take steps to minimize their adverse effects. Here’s a quick rundown of the challenges that older horses face during shipping, along with practical advice for meeting them.
When riding in a trailer, a horse must shift his center of balance with each acceleration, deceleration, lane change and turn. “An older horse may not have the physical ability and flexibility to maintain his balance as much as he used to,” says Stull. This can be due to a general weakness, lack of condition or the effect of neurological decline.
What you can do:
• Ship your horse in a two-horse trailer with center partitions and a secure butt bar he can lean on for support. Make sure the trailer is in excellent repair, however, and that the horse’s traveling companion will remain calm if there’s some shuffling going on next to him. “Also remember to properly wrap the horse’s tail if he’s likely to sit back on the bar,” says Stull.
• Transport him in a large, single box stall so he has the option of lying down or stretching his head and neck downward. “This would be my preferred way to ship an old horse a long distance,” says Stull. “They have the freedom of positioning themselves how they are most comfortable without having to worry about other horses.”
Riding in a trailer is hard work for a horse. In fact, Stull compares it to mild jogging or trotting. You can’t expect a horse of any age, much less an older one, to walk off a trailer as fresh as when he got on.
What you can do:
• Add extra bedding or mats.
A layer of cushion will minimize road vibrations and lessen stress on a horse’s joints and muscles. However, says Stull, be sure to choose low-dust bedding: “Use really clean straw or wood shavings rather than sawdust, which could be deposited in the respiratory tract and cause subsequent irritation.”
Shipping boots or wraps probably won’t keep a horse from getting tired but may be appropriate anyway. “I’m not sure how much wrapping a horse’s legs will help stave off fatigue,” she says, “but I do know that it will protect a horse from injury if he gets stepped on or steps on himself. If I were shipping an older horse alone in a private box stall, I might not wrap him, but in a two-horse trailer with a halfpartition or similar situation it can be a good idea.”
• Break up long trips.
Stull recommends stopping every six hours on long trips to allow the horse to rest. “If you can stop overnight, that’s great,” she says. “If you can’t, just stopping for an hour or so can give him the chance to rest a bit.”
The physical work a horse does to maintain his balance in a trailer will increase his core body temperature and may even cause him to perspire. “The most common shipping mistake I see people make is over-blanketing,” says Stull. “They think the horse will be too cold in the trailer, but really there is greater probability the horse will overheat from all the muscular work in balancing during the ride. And getting wet under a blanket can lead to a dangerous chill.”
What you can do:
• Choose your shipping day wisely.
“If you can, don’t ship an older horse in extreme temperatures---either too hot or too cold,” says Stull. “Wait for more moderate conditions.”
• Err on the side of caution when blanketing.
If you’re not sure if your horse needs a blanket, leave it off---at least for a while. “It’s always a good idea to check your horse about 45 minutes into the trip,” says Stull. “Take that opportunity to reassess his body temperature. If you still think he needs one, blanket him and then recheck every hour to make sure he’s not getting too warm.” She stresses that the blanket needs to fit well, with no loose straps to get caught in trailer parts or the horse’s legs.
Airflow through the back of a trailer can stir up dust from bedding and hay. The larger dust particles are filtered out by the nose and mucus in the upper airway, but smaller ones can travel down to lodge in the lungs. A horse in a dusty stall can lower his head to allow gravity to pull particulates from his airway, perhaps aided by the force of a cough. A horse who is cross-tied or otherwise confined in a trailer, however, cannot lower his head. “Cross-tying in a trailer is one of the worst things you can do for a horse, respiratory-wise,” says Stull.
What you can do:
• Whenever possible, allow the horse to lower his head. “If you’re shipping a horse in a private box stall, there’s no real need to tie him,” says Stull. “Leave his head free and he’ll lower it as needed.” If the horse must be tied---to keep from biting a traveling companion, for instance---confine his head movement only as much as needed and stop frequently, unclip his tie and allow him to drop his head.
• Vent the trailer carefully.
You’ll want at least some of the trailer vents open to allow fresh air to enter---horses can be killed by carbon monoxide fumes emitted by the truck pulling them. Opening up a vent right at the front of the trailer, however, may simply blow dust forcefully into the horse’s face. “A better option would be opening the ceiling vents,” says Stull. “You’ll get fresh, clean air without a draft or dust particles.”
• Make sure he’s up-to-date on all his vaccinations. This will help protect him not only from respiratory illness, but other diseases. “Just as you would with a younger horse, make sure all his vaccines are current,” says Stull. “You don’t want to vaccinate just before a trip, so plan ahead.”
Fear and anxiety
The emotional stress of trailering will cause a horse’s adrenal gland to release the stress hormone cortisol, which can have wide-reaching physical effects. This can compromise the immune system, making a horse more susceptible to fatigue or illness. In addition, horses with Cushing’s disease or chronic laminitis may be harder hit by the effects of transport stress.
“Add panic to a lowered immune response and general weakness, and you’ve got real trouble,” says Stull.
What you can do:
• Start trailer training well before the scheduled ride. Waiting until the day of a trip to teach---or review--- trailering basics can lead to disaster. “You’ll either end up fighting and exhausting him---or you’ll never get him on at all and have to change plans,” says Stull. Starting several weeks before the trip, load your older horse periodically---seeking experienced or professional help, if necessary---and don’t go anywhere. Just let the horse relax in the trailer, perhaps offering him some hay.
The idea is to make loading a nonevent. And practice unloading, too. “Some horses get so worked up during a trip that by the time they arrive at their location they’ve ‘forgotten’ how to get off the trailer,” says Stull.
• Provide a companion. If you can find a quiet, friendly traveling companion for your older, nervous horse, bring him along for the ride. Your horse will take his cues from his travel buddy and remain calmer than he would alone. Just be sure to protect both horses with wraps in case the nervous horse scrambles.
The physical effort required to maintain balance in a moving trailer, combined with associated sweating, can quickly cause a horse to become dehydrated, which can lead to overall fatigue and weakness as well as colic. Although all horses are prone to dehydration during transport, an older horse’s condition deteriorates more quickly and is more difficult to reverse.
What you can do:
• Stop frequently and offer water. Pull over and offer traveling horses a drink every three or four hours at a minimum. There’s no need to unload for this; just lift a bucket to their muzzles. “Preferably you can bring a bucket and water from home so it looks and smells familiar,” says Stull.
• Make sure water is available on arrival. “I like to take the horse to a quiet, well-bedded stall with a fresh water bucket after I get to a destination. I then leave him alone there for about an hour,” says Stull. “That lets him drink, urinate and/or defecate in a quiet, safe place. After that, I’ll hand-walk or turn him out to prevent any stiffness.”
Advancing age doesn’t have to curtail your horse’s travels. It does mean, however, that you’ll have to give your trips a bit more forethought than before. The rewards for your extra work, however, are great.
“Not only is it great to be able to take your favorite old guy places, but some of those old guys still really enjoy getting out,” says Stull. “I remember at our show barn, the retired horses would get all excited when they saw the trailer. They’d bang on their stall doors, wanting to be loaded up. They obviously enjoyed being on the road.”
Meals on the Run
The link between the state of a horse’s teeth and his ability to travel well may not be obvious, but it’s there. Older horses with worn or diseased teeth may have difficulty chewing hay—exactly the forage many of us supply to occupy the time and minds of traveling horses.
Although an older horse with poor teeth may be able to manage chewing hay at home, he may have more trouble on the road. “An older horse can choke on a wad of hay in the back of a trailer and you’d never know until you eventually stopped to check on him,” says Stull. To prevent that, take these commonsense precautions:
• Have your horse’s teeth checked and floated regularly. Annual or semiannual dental checkups are a good idea for older horses if for no other reason than to make you aware of potential problems.
• Before your trip, watch your older horse chew hay. Is it taking him an inordinate amount of time to chew it? Is he spitting out wads of unchewed hay or rolling his tongue around? If so, arrange for a dental checkup.
• Consider feeding hay or a suitable alternative, such as hay pellets, only during rest stops. Or, if the trip is short, consider not feeding him any hay en route.
Too Old to Travel?
With the proper preparation and precautions, nearly any older horse can be safely shipped—even long distances, says Carolyn Stull, PhD, of the University of California–Davis. There are, however, a few cases where shipping an elderly horse is simply a bad idea: “Any old horse who is actively ill or who is so weak or compromised that he can’t trot on his own is not suitable for travelling long distances.”