Shipping horses is fun as long as nothing bad happens. But, unfortunately, there are two causes of bad things. Either you do something wrong like go too fast around a curve or, more likely, someone or something else (deer, hog, drunk driver) does something wrong where you need to do evasive action.
Here I list what I think is important for all horses shipping any distance.
Movement – The only problem is that horses freely move because they are not boxes of freight securely tied into position. Not only can they be thrown, but their sudden movement can affect the truck’s movement. When you are shipping a dozen horses each at 1000 pounds (450 kg), then 12,000 pounds (5400kg) hits the walls applying a force equal to the mass times the deceleration (F=ma) – which is a lot of force that can cause loss of control.
Leg Protection – There are a few things you can do that might not seem necessary when standing still. The best thing to do is to place shipping bandages or boots on all the legs of all the horses. If possible, remove the shoes. The reason for this is straightforward. Horses instinctively move their legs underneath them when unstable due to the sudden movement of the trailer. This action often causes one hoof to land on the other leg above the coronary band causing avulsion (tearing off) of the hoof wall, which is painful, very bloody and requires a long time to heal. It may even cause loss of use in some athletic purposes.
However, when strong padding comes down the leg and OVER the coronary band down to the ground, hoof avulsions and limb damage are avoided. In my experience, there is no reason not to use shipping boots/bandages. Some horses need time to get used to them, so plan on training your horses to them before shipping day arrives.
One last important thing about shipping bandages – It doesn’t matter how long the trip is. Just like seatbelts, most accidents occur within 5 miles of the home. So make it a habit to use this protection for every trip you make. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure – and as a vet, I have seen my fair share of trailer accidents.
Water – is needed when trailering for a long period, especially in warm weather. There are a few things to know.
- Never share a water bucket with strange horses. Sharing water is also sharing germs, becoming a source of bacteria for infecting your horse with a bacteria that causes strangles (Streptococcus equi). Sharing includes a common water trough at a temporary stop where you unload your horses. Strangles can be dormant until stress occurs, and shipping is often stressful, especially for horses new to shipping.
- Always bring a pail with you where you can fill it with water. However, some water sources taste different than at home and will cause some horses not to drink. Think of the sweet well water at home compared to the chlorinated or sulfur-smelling water from the spigot at the truck stop. I like to bring water from my farm, and some trailers have a water container built-in for this purpose. Remember to clean this container after every use and let it air dry so no mold forms.
Medications – Some horses need medications to load. I do not recommend sedatives as this makes the horse drunk and doesn’t work on the root cause. Instead, I recommend xylazine (Rompun) as this ends the pain in the gut. Yes, you heard this right.
I believe most horses that don’t like to load aren’t stupid. They know how they will feel once the trailer moves and bumps. It is just like a person getting sick on a plane from the movement in the air. They need something to settle their stomach to be able to fly. Adding some xylazine will make them feel better if they need a quick fix for loading. I use diazepam or midazolam (both controlled substances) with xylazine for those more afraid than not feeling good. It works for about 10 minutes which gets them on the trailer and seems to help them settle in and travel the distance requiring no other medications.
Along the lines of gut discomfort, you can try medications that ease this, such as gastric and colonic ulcer medications. Be sure to start these several days before shipping. But if you significantly want to make a difference with these reluctant horses, stop feeding everything except hay, pasture and water for two weeks before shipping. There may be a memory, but these horses will become excellent shippers with some trial shipping before the real shipment date. Again, it is all about the inflamed gut, and grain and supplements cause it. Eliminate the cause and watch the transformation of your horse. See my nutrition sections for more information on this.
Other medications people have used include adding mineral oil via the feed or stomach tube to prevent impactions. I think mineral oil is unnecessary now that we understand that it is the ulcers from the gut inflammation behind these impactions. If your horse is prone to impactions, try the no grain diet and prevent them.
Some give immunostimulant medicines and herbs. I have nothing against this, but again, eliminating gut inflammation will make more immune system cells and molecules available to fight diseases. According to some human research, the location of about 90% of our immune system is in the gut. If it is busy there, it will be difficult to defend against inflammation, bacteria and viruses in other parts of the body.
Difficult loaders – Most horses, if they have difficulties, have trouble loading. On a few occasions, they don’t want to come off. Some will fall in the stall. Let’s start with that one first.
If a horse falls in the stall, try widening the stall or make a box stall. I saw this happen once. The horse wanted to place her legs wide to stabilize herself, but the hooves came up short in the configuration of 3 horses across the width of the trailer. In addition, the stall walls had no gap underneath, which prevented one horse’s hoof from injuring the horse in the adjacent stall. Widening the stalls to 2 across solved her problem.
I have had a few horses afraid to unload. Be careful with these, as they will launch themselves off the trailer and will wipe you out with a serious injury when they do. Be sure to stand off to the side. Several horses backed off down the loading ramp as going forward was out of the question. Use caution because they do not know where their legs are landing and could get hurt.
For difficult loaders, you need to have time. Prepare weeks in advance. Eliminate all causes of gut inflammation or add medications for the gut ulcers that may be bothering them. Get them used to the shipping bandages by applying them and then walking around with them while grazing. If they like food, try feeding them in the trailer for weeks before the trip. Avoid sugar and grain treats. Instead, offer a peanut in the shell as a reward for partially or fully loading. Most importantly, learn to control your emotions as the horse usually reflects you.
Equipment – You should have spare halters, extra leads, a water bucket, extra hay, a manure fork and broom, flashlights and a first aid kit with extra bandages. A cell phone is not an option but a required piece of equipment. Spare tires and a jack is handy, or a service agreement for road service is good.
Cleaning the trailer – Leaving manure under the feet of horses becomes slippery. Keep all areas clean and dry. If manure and urine are left in the trailer and never removed, it can rot the flooring. Stories abound of horses falling through rotten wooden floors and dying horrible deaths. Keep the trailer clean after every use.