Taking a long journey with your horses, whether it’s to head south for “the winter circuit” or a permanent move, brings a number of concerns that go beyond “loading up the horses and hitting the road.”
Debbie Stephens, who owns and operates Centennial Farm near Philadelphia, Pa., and is married to Olympic course designer Steve Stephens, is a veteran of migrating south for the winter circuit. She shares advice on how to make any long-distance trip smooth sailing.
Traveling means taking into consideration a broad spectrum of health and behavioral idiosyncrasies. Not all horses travel alike, and one of the most important pre-trip steps is assessing the general health concerns of all horses expected to travel.
Stephens checks each horse’s temperature before and after the trip. Comparing these results with each animal’s average normal temperature can help identify low-grade infections. Take temperatures twice daily for three days prior to leaving and repeat the procedure after arrival.
Certain characteristics determine how easily a horse travels:
Age: Typically, the very young and the very old are the most easily stressed from long-distance trips.
Attitude: The more nervous the horse, the greater the likelihood they’ll be a problem. If your horse’s worrying is a concern, discuss medication with your veterinarian.
Experience: Horses with previous, positive road time may be less stressed. They’ll settle in, munch their hay, and let the hours roll by. Green horses, as always, will need gentle encouragement and extra attention to build their confidence.
Fitness: This is a No.1 consideration for safe travel between climates. You can’t take a horse from the field to the truck and then to Florida. He isn’t physically ready for it. Never doubt how physically taxing a long trailer ride is for your horse. Regular exercise and health-care routines are prerequisites for any horse who will be traveling.
Contrary to assumption, bandaging isn’t for all horses. If your horse is accustomed to being bandaged, do so. But a long trip is not the time for a crash-course on bandaging. Horses that have never had their legs wrapped may not appreciate it now, and so long as they trailer quietly, don’t worry about it.
Breaking Up The Boredom
Windows in the van/trailer help with boredom — usually. Again, the rule of thumb is to consider the individual personality: Will a “room with a view” spook or amuse the horse'
Another resource to occupy time is hay. But normally when horses graze or eat hay, they’re doing so in a fairly wind-free environment. In a trailer, cruising down the highway at 55 or 65 mph, hay slivers can take on a damaging velocity. Loose particles can blow up a horse’s nose or into his eyes and cause significant damage, like corneal scratching. It’s a painful, costly mistake your horse shouldn’t pay for.
Don’t toss hay loose into the trailer. Wet it down lightly and use a net. If your horse is accustomed to a face mask, that will offer additional protection.
When You Arrive
Changes in temperature and humidity are the biggest concerns, especially when heading south for the winter. It’s no different for horses than it is for us when stepping off an airplane into warm weather.
Our natural reaction is to immediately pull off our sweater and switch into shorts. For our horses, it might mean a body clip. But not the minute you get there. Give your horse time to adjust to the changes in day and night temperatures first.
Unfortunately, humidity is about more than discomfort. The likelihood of fungus-related skin and hair problems increases with the humidity, as does the propensity for low-grade infections from seemingly minor scratches or cuts.
Aggressive attention to cleanliness is the first line of defense. Stephens recommends consistent washing of minor rubs and scratches with a disinfectant soap.
Her best preventative defense is a home remedy using a 1:16 ratio of water to bleach mixed in a squirt bottle. This is best applied during the daytime, when sunshine can evaporate the leftover rinse on the skin. It should never be applied under a wrap as it can blister.
Bacteria can also travel through the skin and enter the circulatory system, resulting in more serious problems, such as lymphangitis (see October 2000).
While you can’t disinfect all the soil, a great first line of defense is to send someone ahead to arrive before the horses, so they can bleach and disinfect the stalls and general barn area as prevention against bacteria.Minor dermatological problems, like sweet itch and rain rot, are also more common in a muggy climate.
Sweet itch, or dermatitis, is an allergic reaction to blood-sucking insects like midges or sandflies, whose bites cause intense irritation and thick, scaly patches. Since they’re most active on humid, still days, and at daybreak and nightfall, affected horses can be housed at these times, in conjunction with a pest control program.
Finding dermatitis on the back is more prevalent when down south, Stephens turns to a softer solution than a saddle blanket when she finds it necessary to ride — baby pads. Baby pads are the soft, quilted diaper-like thin pad you typically find under crib sheets. One pad offers protection, and the softer weave lessens irritation.
Rain rot, another painful skin inflammation, is caused by an organism that lives in the coat and gains entry into the skin after being saturated by rain; slow-drying, humid conditions help it multiply, irritating the horse’s hair follicles and skin.
Lesions generally follow a water run-off pattern along the horse’s back, belly and limbs. Taking advantage of the warm weather to wash your horses regularly with a light, disinfectant rinse, will serve as a deterrent to skin problems, like rainrot.
Since rainrot also tends to be a headache in conjunction with damp blankets, Stephens says don’t let blankets lie in a heap and mold. Using anti-moisture packets (the brand she prefers is Rid), moth balls, or air fresheners, to line tack trunks before and after arriving, will minimize moisture build-up.
Dehydration is a serious concern for horses going long distances. Since they don’t naturally rehydrate well, complications from a lack of water can lead to colic and/or impaction.
To encourage drinking, Stephens likes to mix a little apple juice with her water. The attractive smell and taste can also mask unfamiliar water flavor, another issue in a new place.
It’s wise to begin mixing apple juice, or a powdered mix, like Tang, in your horse’s water bucket a week before leaving to start transitioning them to the flavor. By the time they get to their winter address, even the new water will taste “just like home” to them.
Better yet, begin the trip fully hydrated by adding one to two ounces of salt to the daily feed for several days before shipping. This will encourage liberal water consumption. If an individual still seems somewhat dehydrated, administering fluids by stomach tube an hour or so before shipping allows for steady uptake from the intestinal tract.
For horses who don’t rehydrate well and need more aggressive measures to protect their health en route, consider asking your vet to run one or two liters of fluid intravenously before leaving. Be aware this may take time. IV fluids, unless run very slowly (about 15 drops/minute in a healthy horse) may overload the circulation and be quickly eliminated by the kidneys.
Exercising In A New Climate
Like us, horses need time to adjust to a new climate. Since horses disperse heat at a different rate from us, particularly when exercising, and may work up a sweat much faster when training down south. Don’t take an overweight horse and immediately throw him into a hard training routine. Mayb e you can crash diet to fit those breeches you haven’t worn since the summer, but you can’t do the same to your horse’s metabolism.
Remember, too, you are probably dealing with a different terrain than back home. While most show horses work in indoor arenas, those surfaces are typically much firmer than the natural sand terrain found in regions like Florida.
Deep, soft sand brings a different workout than your horse may be ready for, and the chance of pulls and strained tendons increase dramatically in this kind of footing. Start slow, vary the routine, and stay vigilant for signs of inflammation or lameness after workouts or turnouts.
That goes for show-ring footing, too. In fact, the division that your horse competes in can also factor into acclimating. Consider all your variables and give your horses time to work up to their new routine, and they’ll stay sound and healthy for a longer time.