by Peggy Gurnett
I’ve traveled extensively with horses over the last 20 years, in all sorts of trailers and on airplanes ferrying horses to the United Kingdom. Along the way I’ve picked up some ideas to help make things safe and anxiety-free.
When I first got into horses I had to haul two horses, by myself, from Montana to Colorado, an 1100-mile trip. I was terrified something going wrong. What if I break down? What if I get my horses out of the trailer for a rest during the day, and I can’t get them back in there? What happens at night? And on and on—I ended up being almost paralyzed with worry. I carefully plotted out my every move on a map, planning for my horses needing to get out of the trailer a few times during the day, to exactly where we would overnight, to locating every feed store along the way, just in case. The path seemed fraught with danger at every turn. It got much better with practice and miles.
PREPARATION: If you get this right, you’ll most likely be set for success. Some things to think about:
- YOUR VEHICLE
Make sure that your vehicle has enough motor to pull your trailer. On that first trip, I hauled a three-horse gooseneck trailer with a Ford F150 pickup—not enough truck to pull the load easily. I made it, but in the mountains and on hot days, there were some nerve-wracking moments. Take short jaunts and test drives before your first long trip.
- YOUR TRAILER
A double-axle trailer is a must. Single axle trailers are wrecks waiting to happen. The trailer needs to have a very safe floor and good working latches and closures of all kinds. It needs to be big enough in height and width for the horse(s) you’re hauling. In my opinion, gooseneck trailers are much easier to drive and maneuver than bumper pull trailers. In any case, practice in parking lots, gas stations, turnarounds, driveways, and anything you can think of. I used to put my horse in the trailer and do errands and grocery shopping just for practice.
- YOUR HORSE(S):
This is the crucial part. If possible, I recommend getting your horse really good at loading into a small, straight-load, two-horse trailer, like the one shown below. If your horse easily loads into one of these, he’ll probably load into anything. And, there’s always a chance that you’ll need to put your horse in one of these for some unforeseen reason, so you might as well be ready.
Be sure your horse can load into a trailer with and without a ramp. Again, once they get comfortable with the whole idea of spending time in the trailer, these variations will come along easier.
Your horse should be able to stand quietly in the trailer with the door open without trouble. He shouldn’t have a need to get out of the trailer or for you to have to slam the door behind him so he doesn’t jump out. The main thing to remember with trailer loading is that it isn’t about the trailer! It’s about the relationship you have with your horse and his ability to follow your suggestions confidently. Taking the time to develop this relationship well up front will pay dividends every time you load up. If you need help with this, hire a trainer or get someone you trust to help. Weigh the cost of good training versus the cost of a veterinary bill after a horse wreck.
On the Road: What to take and what to do while you’re rolling along:
A 1,000-pound horse drinks from 5 to 20 gallons (10-12 gallons is the norm) per day depending on the weather—something to keep in mind. If possible, take water from your horse’s home for him to drink en route. It can be really tough to get horses to drink enough on the road. I offer a 5-gallon bucket of water at every gas or food stop. One thing that’s worked really well for me is to put molasses in the water. I know some horse nutrition fanatics may hate this idea, and some horses can’t have sugar in their diets, but on the whole, I’d rather have my horse drink some sweet water than have him dehydrated. How much molasses to use varies and you can titrate the amount to suit your horse. I’ve also heard of Gatorade and cordial drinks being used to sweeten water.
What to Wear: (Not you, your horse.) I’m pretty minimalist about this. Shipping boots or wraps are fine if there’s a worry about nicks or scrapes to the legs. I’ve seen some horses essentially bubble-wrapped prior to transport. The best way to keep a horse safe in transit is to have the horse really comfortable in the trailer environment.
Stopping on the Way: I used to unload my horses every 4-6 hours and it took me awhile to realize that this is more hassle than it’s worth. If I take one or two reasonably long breaks during a travel day, my horses can rest and catnap in the trailer. The longest I’ve kept horses in the trailer was a 14-hour day due to a snowstorm. The horses did fine.
If you Google horse travel guides, you’ll find resources to guide you about good stopping places. I found this helpful while traveling back East on a trip from Montana to Florida. If I’m traveling in the West, I keep an eye out for fairgrounds as good potential stopping points. Once or twice I’ve overnighted at truck stops or Walmart parking lots. Not optimal, but I could hear my horse snoring while I slept on my bed in the gooseneck part of the trailer.
Weather can be a factor during travel. Unless your horse is consistently blanketed, blankets probably are not necessary. I have hauled horses in Montana winters and they do fine unless temps are below zero. Heat, however, is another story. Horses are well-suited for cold weather, but their ability to generate heat is a detriment when it’s really hot. Traveling through desert climates in the summer, I put shavings around my horses’ feet and get blocks of ice from the grocery store. I put a couple of blocks front and back near their hooves, and the trailer floor stays cool and damp. On a stop in Moab on a 90-degree day, I hooked up a hose and hosed my horses down while they stood in the trailer.
If you have a slant-load trailer and are hauling more than one horse, rotate the horses’ position in the trailer after every stop: the ride closest to the truck is much better than the ride in the back of the trailer.
Stuff to Take (this isn’t a complete list, but this stuff you should take, for sure):
- water bucket
- whatever first aid kit you like (remember Bute and Banamine, gauze and elastikon for wound dressing)
- headlamp or flashlight
- Trailer-aid or similar item in case your trailer has a flat tire. This allows you to drive your trailer up onto it and makes changing a trailer tire much easier.
- Blocker Tie or similar device: I like using something that keeps my horse securely tied without being a hard tie in case there’s a pull back issue. There’s also a device called The Clip that does essentially the same thing. The only knot I use is the bank robber’s knot (easily found on the web). Daisy chain type knots are not safe and I’ve seen them jam at the wrong time. One piece of equipment that I think should be outlawed is the quick-release snap sold everywhere: I’ve seen both a horse and a human suffer significant eye injury as these things come loose. I’ve done a lot of traveling without tying my horses at all once I trust they won’t climb around. OVERNIGHTING:If at all possible, I try to find a place with an arena and pens (rather than stalls). I like a place for my horses to move around. Something VERY IMPORTANT to remember is to walk the perimeter of any enclosure with my horse (and with a headlamp if it’s dark) and check for hazards that might poke or injure him, and especially to check that the enclosure is secured so that my horse can’t get out. Don’t make any assumptions about the safety of the environment. See for yourself.This will all become second nature over time. Meanwhile, relax and Happy Trails.