Trailering Safety

Keep trailering disasters to a minimum with these time-tested tips.
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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.

Illustration by June Brigman

Illustration by June Brigman

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."

Disaster #3: Floor Failure
It was one of the worst sights I've ever seen in my years of practice. When it was time to unload, we found the horse in a terrible state?having been dragged miles down the road after the trailer floor gave out. This poor creature wasn't as lucky as the horses in prior scenarios. His injuries were so severe that treatment wasn't really possible, and he had to be euthanized.

Avoidance tips: Maintenance, maintenance, maintenance. "Always check the hitch, tires, lights, brakes, and floor of the trailer before each trip," cautions Robin. To that I'd add, especially the floors. Sandy and Julie both recommend pulling the mats up at least once each year to check your trailer's floor. To minimize floor rotting, Julie even leaves her mats up during winter months when her trailer's not in use.

Maintenance issues not only lead to accidents, they also can cause long delays if troubles crop up while you're on the road. Because waiting for parts can be a problem?particularly in remote areas of the country?Julie suggests bringing spare parts along with you.

"I even carry a brand-new set of wheel bearings in my trailer," she says, adding that she also makes it a habit to stop a few miles down the road after leaving on a trip?just to make sure everything is as it should be.

Disaster #4: Belly Ache
It had been a two-day trip. Shortly after arriving at their destination, my clients realized something wasn't quite right. Their horse was sweating, pawing, and refusing food. Wisely, they called a local vet who diagnosed an impaction colic?likely due to dehydration in combination with the stress of the trip. Although their horse responded well to pain meds and some intravenous fluids, they still missed out on showing and had to head home empty-handed.

Avoidance tips: Overheating and dehydration are common occurrences while hauling, and can easily lead to a colic event. All-around trainer Carol Dal Porto makes a point of carefully monitoring temperature conditions to minimize these risks.

"We prefer to haul with no blankets as a rule," she says. "Our trailer is usually full and the horses' body heat does a lot to warm the trailer even in fairly cold weather." Carol also suggests stopping to offer water after four or five hours on the road, plus keeping track of how much each horse drinks.

"A good day is when they all drink well that first stop," she says. Carol and her husband, Steve, also feed hay to their horses on the trailer to keep their digestive systems working. And, Carol suggests, "When you unload your horses, take notice of the manure behind each one. Does it appear normal, and is there a normal amount?" By monitoring manure output, you can identify a horse that might be a colic risk.

To make sure horses drink well, most of our experts suggest administering electrolytes to encourage hydration prior to a long haul, particularly in hot weather. If you decide to take this step, be sure you start your electrolytes several days prior to leaving home so your horse can drink enough water before the trip to rebalance his system. If you have a horse that for some reason refuses to drink on a long trip, Carol suggests having a veterinarian administer fluids to get the horse promptly rehydrated.

Finally, ulcers can also cause equine gastrointestinal distress, and horses are at greater risk for developing gastric ulcers when they're hauled long distances. For this reason, Karen recommends administering the ulcer medication omeprazole (GastroGard) as a preventive measure beginning two days prior to travel and end- ing the day after returning home.

Disaster #5: Border Block
It was 7 o'clock on Sunday morning when I got the call. My clients were stuck at the border between Washington and Canada. They'd decided to add an extra horse to their group just before leaving home, but had forgotten to get the necessary paperwork for him. As a result, they were turned away at the border and forced to find a place to unload the horses and wait for several days before being allowed to cross.

Avoidance tips: This one is simple. To avoid delays that can be stressful for your horses and inconvenient for you, plan ahead. Before you leave home, check requirements for facilities you're headed for and border crossings you'll make (state or country, as appropriate). While it's true you often can make a haul without necessary paperwork in hand, you can face serious consequences if you do get caught. So be prepared.

Carol points out that planning also is critical if you intend to layover during your trip. "Find out in advance what will be provided at the stables, as not all are the same. Some offer bedded stalls, some sell you the bedding to put in yourself, and some have no bedding at all." Shesuggests always hanging your own buckets to minimize the spread of disease. In addition, a watchful eye helps minimize the risk of injury when laying over or arriving at your destination. "Check stalls for protruding nails, split wood, or anything else that could be harmful, and remove any left-behind grain or hay," suggests Robin. "Horses also like to roll in fresh, new bedding, so whenever we move into a new place, we tie them in their stalls at first to prevent their getting cast, or a leg caught at the bottom of a door or wall." Carol suggests feeding hay immediately after arrival to help horses settle in.

Finally, Karen stresses the importance of posting your contact information on stall doors in any strange location?even if it's just for a simple overnight. Because when it comes to horses, you can't be too prepared.

Hauling Safety at a Glance
Here's a summary of our experts' key recommendations. For input specific to your hauling particulars, check with your vet.

  • Train your horse in advance to load and haul calmly.
  • Strive always to make hauling a pleasant, comfortable experience for your horse.
  • Learn to drive a trailer "as if you're hauling milk without a lid."
  • Keep your hauling rig properly maintained; always check the hitch, tires, lights, brakes, and especially the floor of your trailer before each trip. ? Plan ahead: Check requirements for facilities and border crossings; inquire about stable accommodations at layovers and/or your final destination.
  • Carry spare parts to avoid delays in case of breakdowns along your route. ? Consider administering electrolytes several days before your departure to encourage hydration prior to a long haul, particularly in hot weather.
  • Consider administering the ulcer medication omeprazole as a preventative beginning two days prior to travel and ending the day after returning home. ? Consider bedding your trailer's floor to add traction and soak up urine and manure, especially on long trips. Favor larger-chip shavings from soft woods such as fir or pine and wet the bedding down (less potential for lung irritation); also ensure your trailer is well ventilated.
  • Consider leg protection (depending on the length of the trip and the temperature), using wraps only if you know how to apply them properly.
  • Load your horse just before leaving?don't keep him standing in a parked rig.
  • Keep grates or screens over drop-down doors or windows closed at all times to avoid escape attempts.
  • Use a breakaway halter rather than a rope or nylon model to prevent injury in case of an emergency.
  • Close your trailer's doors before tying your horse up in the trailer; untie him before opening the doors to unload.
  • Keep your horse from overheating en route, especially in a fully loaded trailer; blanket only if temperatures truly require it.
  • Stop and offer water after four or five hours on the road; keep track of how much your horse drinks.
  • If your horse refuses to drink on a long trip, have a veterinarian administer IV fluids to get him promptly rehydrated, to avoid colic.
  • Provide hay on the trailer to keep your horse's digestive system working. ? Always post your contact information on your horse's stall at an unfamiliar facility?even if he'll be there just one night.

Meet the Road Warriors
There's nothing like experience when it comes to hauling horses safely, and our featured experts know the ropes. Here's who they are.

KAREN BANISTER is a multiple APHA world champion trainer. She and her husband, Marc, offer a full range of training and breeding services at their White Harvest Farms in Brighton, Colorado (whiteharvestfarms.com). The Banisters travel many miles each year competing in a range of disciplines at breed shows as well as at roping and reining events.

SANDY COLLIER is the only woman ever to win the open division of the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity for reined cow horses; she's also the holder of multiple other NRCHA and AQHA world champion titles. From home base in Buellton, California, she currently hauls on average two weekends per month, with three or four multiple-day hauls each year (sandycollier.com).

CAROL DAL PORTO focuses on Quarter Horses and Appaloosas at her and husband Steve's Dal Porto Ranch in Brentwood, California (caroldalporto.com). The holder of more than 40 national and world championship titles, Carol puts many miles on the road each year with students and horses, competing both locally and nationally.

ROBIN GOLLEHON and her husband, Roger, travel widely as active trainers and competitors in both AQHA and National Snaffle Bit Association competitions. For many years, they spent hundreds of days on the road each season hauling to a wide variety of shows across the country. Their Gollehon Quarter Horses is based in Versailles, Kentucky (gollehon.com).

JULIE GOODNIGHT is a media celebrity thanks to her "Horse Master" television show airing weekly on RFD-TV. Because of her remote location (Julie Goodnight Horsemanship Training is based in Poncha Springs, Colorado?juliegoodnight.com), it's typically a "long haul" for her to travel just about anywhere?with most of her trips requiring three or more hours over mountain passes.

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