I’ll never forget the time a wheel (not just the tire, but the entire wheel, lugnuts and all) came flying off of my horse trailer when I was driving down the freeway. I was on my way to a horse show on an early Sunday morning, driving through a busy, big-city downtown. It was before cell phones. I limped off the nearest exit ramp, and was forced to unload my horse in the middle of a mall parking lot while my friend went for help. Fortunately, my horse stayed calm, my friend found help, and we all survived the ordeal.
I was lucky, but was I prepared? Probably not. What if my wayward tire had caused an accident and my horse had been severely injured? What if he’d panicked by the side of the road? Ever since that day, I’ve never left home without a first-aid kit and a well-thought-out plan for how I’d handle a trailering mishap. Because I’m here to tell you: If you haul horses often enough, you will have an emergency someday.
As a way to assess your travel-emergency preparedness, take the test that follows. I’ll also introduce some of the most common horse-hauling emergency scenarios I see as a veterinarian, and will show you how a little bit of preparation can go a long way toward keeping your own horse safe.
Are You Prepared?
Question #1: You’re on a multi-day trip, with an overnight stop. You unload your horse, and he seems a little lethargic. Do you:
A: Get out your stethoscope and thermometer to take his vital signs. When you discover that your horse has a temperature of 104, you call the local veterinary clinic you pre-programmed into your phone for advice.
B: Watch him for an hour or two. When he refuses his dinner, you get worried and decide you should probably call a vet. Your cell phone has run out of battery, so you have to track someone down for a referral. By the time the vet arrives to tell you that your horse has a fever, it’s 11 p.m.
C: Don’t think much about it. He’s probably just tired from the trip.
Question #2: You’re loading up to make the trip home, when your horse slips off the edge of your trailer ramp and cuts his leg. Do you:
A: Clip the surrounding hair, then clean up the wound with the diluted betadine/saline solution you carry in your truck. The wound looks like it could use a suture or two, so you pack it with the antibiotic ointment from your first-aid kit and apply a pressure wrap until you can get your horse to a vet.
B: The wound is hard to see without a set of clippers, and you forgot to pack them. You do have an old standing bandage in the trailer, so you wrap the leg and load up your horse. You can check his leg out more carefully when you get home.
C: The wound doesn’t look too bad, and there’s not a whole lot you can do about it anyway, so you just head on down the road.
Question #3: You’ve been on a long trip and your horse hasn’t been drinking well. On the third day of travel, you notice that he hasn’t passed much manure, and he’s acting restless in the trailer. Do you:
A: Stop, unload, and get out your stethoscope and thermometer to take your horse’s vital signs. His temperature is normal, but his heart rate is elevated to 60 beats per minute, and you don’t hear any gut sounds. He starts pawing and acting uncomfortable, so you call your vet (who’s on speed dial on your cell phone) for advice. You’re an hour from anywhere, and your horse is acting more uncomfortable by the minute. You have a tube of Banamine paste in your first-aid kit, and on your vet’s advice, you administer a small dose to keep your horse comfortable until you can get help.
B: Unload your horse and walk him around for a while. He seems uncomfortable but you don’t have a way to check his heart rate or listen for gut sounds. You give him a big dose of Banamine that you find in your horse trailer, and hope that he’ll get better so you won’t have to call the vet.
C: Figure he’ll be OK, until he starts violently pawing in the trailer. You unload him and realize that he’s colicky. You left your vet’s phone number at home and can’t find the number for a vet nearby who might be able to help. You start to panic, as your horse gets more and more painful with each passing minute.
Question #4: You hear a loud crash in the horse trailer, and pull over to the side of the road to check your horse. There he stands with blood running down his face and his eyelid dangling from a thread. The eye looks like it’s swelling right before your very eyes. Do you:
A: Find a safe place to unload your horse to check him out. He’s definitely going to need sutures to save the eyelid. You put some antibiotic ophthalmic ointment in his eye, administer a dose of Banamine to stop the swelling, and head to the nearest vet for sutures.
B: Unload him and spend the next 15 minutes trying to get a closer look—which is difficult, because he’s so worked up. You wipe off the blood with a towel, and give him a couple of grams of bute. Then you try to find the closest vet.
C: Panic and start crying. Then you decide to just keep driving until you get somewhere to get some help.
Question #5: You’ve had an accident. Your truck is smoking and you’re worried about a fire. You need to unload your horse on the side of a busy highway. He’s already really agitated. Do you:
A: Grab the pre-planned dose of sedation that your vet gave you for just such an emergency, and administer it before you even open the trailer door. Thank goodness you have a friend along to help. She can hold your horse while you call your emergency roadside service provider for assistance.
B: Get out your lead chain and hold your breath—your horse is usually easy to handle, so you just have to hope he won’t panic.
C: Freak out. Your horse is hard to handle anyway. Both of you are probably going to die.
What’s your score? Give yourself 10 points for every answer (A), 5 points for every answer (B), and 0 points for every answer (C). If your score was 40 or over, congratulations! Not only are you prepared, your cool head will help keep your horse as safe as possible on the road. If you score was between 25 and 40, you’ve got the right idea, but you should probably take emergency-preparedness a little bit more seriously. Did you come in under 25? Watch out! Your laidback attitude is setting you and your horse up for a disaster.
How Does It End?
Let’s take a look at the scenarios from our quiz, and see how the outcome might change depending on how you react. You’ll soon see how being prepared is the much better choice.
Scenario #1: Your horse’s temperature is elevated. A high temperature can be the first sign of “shipping fever” a potentially life-threatening condition that’s a common travel emergency. If you were prepared with a thermometer in your first-aid kit, it means you were able to identify your horse’s problem early; you also sought veterinary advice immediately. Chances are the veterinarian recommended you delay your trip and start treatment right away, measures that would’ve prevented your horse’s condition from becoming severe.
On the other hand, if you were the non-responder, your horse’s fever would have gone unrecognized. If you continued your trip, he could have developed a severe bacterial infection—one that might even have threatened his life.
Take-home message: Pay extra close attention to your horse when you’re traveling, and don’t ignore subtle signs that he might not be feeling well. It’s even a good idea to monitor his temperature once or twice daily when you’re on the road, just as a matter of course. Early fever detection is critical for preventing a treatable problem from becoming severe.
You’ll need: A stethoscope, thermometer, and stopwatch to take your horse’s vital signs. Also: Vet’s phone number.
Scenario #2: Your horse has cut himself. Lacerations, especially ones that occur during loading and unloading, are one of the most common trailering emergencies vets see. If you were prepared with supplies to examine and clean the wound, a bandage to protect it, and an anti-inflammatory to reduce swelling, chances are good it could be sutured and would heal without a problem, even if your vet were hours away.
Without that early care, however, contamination, tissue death, and swelling would be likely to cause the wound to become unsuturable. An unsuturable wound takes longer to heal and leaves a bigger scar. Not only that, but if sensitive underlying structures such as a joint are involved as well, contamination can lead to infection—and much more serious consequences. An unrecognized joint infection secondary to a laceration can even be life-threatening.
Take-home message: Be prepared to handle a wound on the road, and don’t ignore one until it’s too late. Early assessment and taking steps to clean and protect the injury can make a big difference to the final outcome.
You’ll need: Clippers, a sterile solution such as diluted betadine or chlorhexadine to clean a wound, antibiotic ointment, and clean bandage material to apply a standing bandage. Also: bute or Banamine paste-form anti-inflammatory.
Scenario #3: Your horse is colicking, a travel emergency that’s especially common during long trips when he’s likely to become dehydrated. If prepared with stethoscope and thermometer, you were able to identify his problem early on and could convey this to your vet. If you had Banamine, you could administer a small dose to keep your horse comfortable until you could have him checked out. But if you opted to give him a big dose of Banamine and head on home, your horse’s colic episode could easily have progressed to something much more severe before you ever knew it—with potentially serious consequences. If you chose to ignore the early signs and had nothing available to control his pain, not only was he likely to hurt himself, he may not have responded as well to treatment when he finally got it.
Take-home message: Pay close attention to your horse’s behavior and how much he’s drinking, and monitor his manure output whenever you’re hauling. If something seems “off,” be prepared to check his vital signs. It’s always best to seek veterinary advice before administering any medication to a colicky horse.
You’ll need: A stethoscope, thermometer, and stopwatch to take your horse’s vital signs. Also: Banamine paste, vet’s phone number.
Scenario #4: If you were smart enough to pay attention to the crash you heard coming from the trailer, you were able to see that your horse had injured himself and needed help. If you had ophthalmic ointment and Banamine in your trailer, you could protect his eye and prevent swelling to help make sure his injury would heal as well as it possibly could after treatment. Even if your only response was to panic and cry once you saw the injury, at least you stopped to check when you heard the crash. Just imagine if your horse had gone down in the trailer and you hadn’t stopped to check things out. I once had to see a horse cut out of a trailer divider with the “jaws of life” after he’d been wedged in for several hours. Now that’s a disaster!
Take-home message: Whenever you hear a loud sound or feel movement coming from the trailer, stop and check it out—you never know what you might find. To prevent infection, be prepared to treat an eye injury with a basic antibiotic ophthalmic ointment before you make it to the vet.
You’ll need: Antibiotic ophthalmic ointment, Banamine paste.
Scenario #5: Although it may not start out as a veterinary emergency, an accident that requires unloading your horse by the side of the road is perhaps one of the most frightening hauling emergencies you can experience. The means to keep your horse calm, and having access to an emergency road service that can help with a horse trailer, will get you safely out of danger—before anyone gets hurt. You can only imagine the possible scenarios if you weren’t prepared. You may have been forced to leave your panicked horse scrambling in the horse trailer until he became severely injured. And if you weren’t able to control him when you did unload…just thinking about it is a bit like watching the preview to a horror movie.
Take-home message: Although you shouldn’t administer sedation if you don’t know how to use it, there are times when having it at hand can save your horse’s life. Talk to your vet about options for sedation, and get careful instructions for its use. Consider signing up for an emergency road service, such as USRider (USRider.org, a subsidiary of Horse&Rider’s parent company) that’s prepared to deal with horses and horse trailers. Finally, whenever possible, have a second person with you when you haul.
You’ll need: A dose of sedation. Also: emergency road service, a travel companion.