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Whether you’re going across the county line or across the country, traveling with horses doesn’t have to be a stressful experience. With the proper planning, organization, and preparedness, make your next trip a breeze with these tips from Julie Goodnight.
It doesn’t matter if your trip is 10 minutes or 10 hours, hitting the road unprepared with horses is like sending an open invite to potential disaster. Things can go wrong in the blink of an eye, and having your trailer prepared, your travel plans detailed, and your horses ready to rock, will all help mitigate any potential problems that may arise. Traveling in general can be stressful, and when you add horses into the equation, it can be no small feat to get on the road in a timely and organized manner. Here is my pre-trip checklist that helps make for a smooth trip—and keeps my horses safe and my peace of mind intact.
Rig Maintenance Matters
A mistake I often see people make is neglecting their truck and trailer maintenance. Mitigate small problems early on, and avoid costly and dangerous issues that can arise down the road. I am a stickler for conducting regular maintenance on both my truck and trailer. Although sometimes a breakdown can’t be avoided due to outside circumstances, it’s important to stay up-to-date on routine maintenance for the longevity of your rig, and the safety of you and the horse.
Don’t neglect routine oil changes, tire rotations, and service jobs. Keep detailed logs of truck and trailer maintenance so you can stay on top of these regular requirements. If your truck is a newer model, it will have built in alert systems that keep you informed of statuses, alerts, and required maintenance. Before you even hook that truck up to the trailer, ensure that it’s safe to hit the road. Always double check your tire pressure and leave for your trip with a full gas tank as a precaution.
Stay Up to Date
The second part of this equation is staying up-to-date on trailer maintenance. If you don’t use your trailer regularly, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that it’s maintained its road readiness as it sits. My routine consists of a spring trip to the mechanic. I have wheel bearings greased and a full safety inspection done, front to back. This includes checking tires, the wire harness, trailer brakes, lights, and the trailer’s emergency brake. Keep a close eye on the condition of your trailer floor, as well. Pull mats annually to inspect the condition of the wood or aluminum floor. And have a professional take an annual look at your trailer for issues you might miss.
I prefer to hit the road with a clean truck and trailer. So, before I hook on and go, I wash my pickup, clean the inside, fuel up, and top off fluids such as windshield washer. Doing this a few days beforehand will give me plenty of time to load my truck and trailer, and ensure I’m organized for my trip. It’s important to me to leave with a clean trailer and muck it out again when I reach my destination. I will pressure wash and disinfect the inside of the trailer, as needed. Handling these tasks before you leave will not only let you depart in an organized and prepared manner but also give you a chance to eyeball your rig for any issues you may have missed.
Hitch ’Er Up
Once my rig is clean, maintained, and ready to hit the road, it’s time to hook onto the trailer. My experience in the horse industry spans over thousands of miles, and over 50 years, so trust me when I say I have seen a wreck or two from improperly hitched trailers. Whether you’re traveling solo or with a friend or partner, there are two rules that I stand by when it comes to hooking up the trailer.
The first of my cardinal rules is that one person does the job from start to finish. Help is great to have, but when it comes to ensuring that the job is complete, it’s better to have one person take charge. It’s easy to assume that the other person did one step. And therefore neglect it when two people are helping to hitch up.
The second rule I follow is that no matter who was in charge of hooking up the trailer, it’s up to the driver to double- and triple-check everything, do a complete walk around, and ensure that the job was done properly. If you’re metaphorically taking the reins by taking the wheel, it’s up to you to be aware and vigilant for the safety of all your passengers—human and horse.
This is also the time to run through your pre-trip checklist, and ensure you are prepared. If you don’t have one, now is the time to get that list organized. Think ahead, pack spare equipment, and be ready for any situation. My list consists of certain things like equine first aid, farrier tools, spare halters and bridles, medications, horse documents, and tools for emergency equipment repairs.
For the Safety and Comfort of the Horse
Whatever we do, we must keep the safety and comfort of the horse in the forefront of our minds. This rings true for traveling, as well. Take into consideration the configuration of your trailer, the way your horse will be loaded, how long he’ll be in there for, and where you’re headed. All these things will help you make decisions that will keep him comfortable, cool, and safe.
Don’t disregard how the weather can play a role in your travels. It might be sunny and warm when you leave, but will it be chilly and cool when you arrive at your destination? I prefer to leave my horses uncovered as much as possible in the trailer, unless it’s abnormally cold, or they require special considerations. Traveling with legs unwrapped and without sheets or blankets allows for better ventilation and can minimize risks if these coverings become loose or tangled during transit.
Speaking of ventilation, this is paramount to your horse’s health when in the trailer. A dusty, enclosed, and poorly ventilated trailer can spell disaster for your horse’s health. Open vents and crack windows to allow for air flow, and when you stop, stick your head in a window to get a feel for the air quality. Both hay and shavings can cause excessive dust in a moving trailer, so be cautious. My personal preference is to spread a small layer of shavings to absorb urine on trips that will be longer than an hour or so in duration.
Time to Load
Loading horses will be the last step in my pre-trip routine. I avoid loading them before I am ready to leave. I don’t want them standing any longer than necessary in the trailer, as it can build anxiety. So, once the truck and trailer are prepped, we’re hooked up, and I am confident that I’ve run through my pre-trip checklist, it’s time to load and go.
Right before a trip is not the time to start teaching your horse to load in the trailer. This prep work should have been done ahead of time, and your horse should be ready to load. Asking your horse to stand in the back of a trailer and travel down the road is no small task, and you owe it to him to prepare him for this journey.
Once loaded, I use a safety clip to tie the horse in the trailer. This prevents him from getting his head turned around, or in a position that might cause panic or injury. I keep the adjustable lead long enough that he can carry his head comfortably, without being so long he can crank his neck around and get in trouble. Using this type of clip allows for a safe release should he pull back, and it’s convenient that I can quickly unclip it, unload, and use it to tie him to the outside of the trailer.
On the Way
A long trip can take a toll on your horse. I prefer to stop every couple of hours and let them rest in the trailer. I try and avoid unloading before reaching my destination as this can present a variety of risks. When I stop for breaks or to grab a bite to eat for myself, I will drop windows, provide hay, and let him put his head out and look around. Feel free to offer water when you stop, but don’t be surprised if your horse doesn’t take a drink; many often choose not to while in the trailer.
Drive safely, drive slowly, and try to avoid slamming on your brakes. If you’ve pulled trailers, you know that other drivers can be unpredictable, so it’s up to you to be vigilant and alert. A little trick I use is to imagine a glass of water on the dashboard. If that water is sloshing around when I make a stop or take a turn, I know my horses are probably struggling to stand in the back as well.
Travel logistics play a big role in a long trip. Having a well-planned route will take undue stress off you and your horse. When traveling with horses, consider impacts of construction, road conditions, weather, and the environments you’ll be passing through and plan your route accordingly. A trip through the desert in the heat of summer will require different planning than hauling in cold weather through mountainous terrain. Understand the state laws of the areas you’ll be traveling through. Pack proper documentation to prove health and ownership of your horse. It’s up to you to do your research before you travel, and have the proper paperwork on hand for the state you’re in.
When you arrive at your destination it’s time to safely unload and allow your horse to acclimate to his new environment. Entering a new atmosphere is scary for horses, and they need time to adjust. Depending on how far you are from home, how long the journey was, and what your accommodations are like, this process of acclimation will look differently for every horse.
As it is with loading, it’s up to you to help your horse learn to acclimate to new environments. This means providing him with novel experiences and training at home to prepare for new surroundings. I recommend that horse owners provide their horse with plenty of opportunities to try new things. There will most likely come a time that he will have to spend time in a stall with strange horses or perform under pressure. Don’t throw him into the fray of a new environment without any preparation and expect him to handle it perfectly. Understand that he will have to learn these skills over time, and through experience.
Impact on Health
One of my major concerns for horses on the road is dehydration. In summer months when the temperature soars, this concern is amplified. Knowing that dehydration and a horse being off feed can cause colic, I always prepare with a first aid kit stocked with the essentials for a worst-case scenario. I pack colic supplies, wound care, a thermometer, and a stethoscope. I offer water when I stop and will entice a horse to drink with a sweet flavoring, if necessary, after introducing that at home first.
Another concern is the threat of gastric ulcers. Although all horses have potential to develop ulcers, some seem to be more prone than others. And traveling can exacerbate this issue. From the stress of being in a new environment, to a long trip in the trailer, travel can be hard on a horse’s health. If I have a horse that is already on ulcer medication, he might get that dosage bumped up before a trip. If not, we administer the meds a few days before and during the trip. Regardless of his current health issues, keep a close eye on your horse during a trip. Look for abnormal or new behavior, and let him rest and recuperate, if possible, when you arrive at your destination before asking for his peak performance.
I always carry my own feed pans and water buckets to prevent my horses from sharing with others. The threat of transferred disease during travel is a real thing. I like to be cognizant of how quickly germs can spread. I carry disinfectant with me, as well, to prep a new stall or environment if necessary.
An Ounce of Prevention
The old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure cannot ring truer than when traveling with horses. Keep your trailer well-stocked with essentials, health and safety supplies, and equipment for emergencies. Take time to prep a checklist that will keep you organized when packing and loading your rig. Maintain that truck and trailer so that it can get you safely down the road. And most importantly when traveling with horses, keep the safety and comfort of your horse in the forefront of your planning. Don’t forget, traveling with your horse is a privilege and it’s supposed to be fun. Now, get out there and hit the road with your horse, find some new adventures, and make those memories.
Trainer and clinician Julie Goodnight, Poncha Springs, Colorado,hosts RFD-TV’s, Horse Master. Her book Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding is available at EquineNetworkStore.com. Learn more about Julie’s program and training methods at juliegoodnight.com.