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Guidelines for Safely Trailering Your Horse

By: Susan Perry

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Shipping is a fact of life for almost every horse. Even if you don't compete, trailering to parks and the veterinary hospital are common trips. If you prepare your horse and trailer properly ahead of time, your outing will be safe and stress-free. This will not only ensure the safety of your horses but also prolong the life of the trailer.

  • Check the lights every time you hitch up and quickly observe all four tires for inflation and check the pressures monthly.

  • Snug-fitting rubber mats provide the most secure footing and preserve the floorboards. After use, sweep the entire trailer, using a wire brush if needed to clean up ground-in manure. (If you have used shavings to absorb urine during a long trip, strip them all out.) If your rubber mats are not attached to the trailer floor, raise up the back end several inches (bricks, 2 X 4 blocks) to let air in to dry the floor (wet manure or urine can leak through). Store the trailer this way as moisture can rot a wooden floor. Several times a year, remove the mats completely for a thorough sweeping and/or hosing and floor check-up. Disinfect, if necessary.

  • When parked, keep the doors, windows and tailgate closed to keep out the rain/snow. Always have your broom and shovel in the trailer so they are handy.

  • When the interior walls get soiled, they can be washed with dilute dishwashing liquid and a scrubber sponge.

  • Exterior washing to remove mud and the dreaded winter salt and sand should be done at lest several times a year-a washing after every "dirty" outing is best! This is very important for steel trailers that rust easily (likely where any paint has chipped). Automobile touch-up paint or appliance enamel paint can be applied to small scratches.

  • Once a year, take the trailer and tow vehicle to a reputable trailer dealership for a "tune-up." The tires should be checked for tread wear, air pressure (including spare), and rotated. Wheel bearings must be repacked. Special grease should be reapplied to the crank-up jack on the tongue. Electrical systems for the lights and brakes are checked, including the brake tension control box. The brakes should also be inspected for wear. If you have noticed any water leaks in the roof or walls, make sure that these seams are tightly caulked. Rust spots, bare places and large scratches should be sanded and repainted.

    Appropriate Tow Vehicle

    The longer the wheelbase on your car or truck, the safer the towing setup. The longer vehicle (such as a full-size pick-up truck or Suburban) will be less influenced by the weight behind it, and will be easier to steer and drive straight. Automatic transmissions also provide a smoother ride, and that engine must be big. The vehicle must have heavy-duty shock absorbers in the rear to "take" the extra weight behind while still riding level. The cooling system must also be powerful enough to prevent engine overheating in the summer. Don't ever run the air-conditioning when you are towing – it stresses the engine too much. Large mirrors on both sides are a must for safe visibility as the rearview mirror just shows that the trailer is still following you.

    Use the appropriate size hitch ball on your truck to fit the "opening" in the trailer's tongue. The height of the hitch ball should be such that when the trailer is attached to the vehicle, the trailer rides level. When a hitched trailer is "uphill" in front, the horses have an awkward, stressful ride and a lot of strain is placed on the hitch/tongue (possibly causing it to crack and break over time). Safety chains should be strong and of the proper length. A small wire should be present and attached so that in an accident it will activate battery power to lock the trailer brakes. A weight-distributing hitch with bars from the hitch base to the sides of the trailer tongue will improve stability and safety during towing. Your trailer dealer can install this type of hitch on your rig and determine the optimal tension adjustment for the bars.

    Comfort is Key

    Make sure the trailer is big enough for the horse. If the roof is too low or the stall is too short or narrow, your horse will be nervous, uncomfortable and unsteady. The horse must be able to spread his legs as necessary to remain balanced.

    Open all of the windows and vents for travel (except for windows in the front wall). Cool, fresh air during transport is very important in preventing respiratory disease/infections caused by shipping. Most horses appreciate a full hay net to munch on during the trip. Just make sure that your horse can get his head away from the hay if he wants to and that hay chaff won't be blowing in his face.

    Sturdy Shipping Boots or Heavy Wraps

    Wrap all four legs with sturdy shipping boots or heavy wraps from floor to knee/hock. The wraps should cover the heels and coronary band as these areas are prone to injury when the horse adjusts its feet to stand steadily during transport. Bell boots can be added for extra protection. Head bumpers and trail wraps may be necessary for some travelers. (My thoroughbred likes to ride "sitting" on the butt bar so she never gets on the trailer without her tail done up.)

    Blanket according to the weather, but remember that horses generate a lot of body heat. This is especially true during shipping because of the muscle activity involved in maintaining balance. A good rule of thumb is to dress your horse in one layer less than he would usually wear at that time of year.

    Practice Loading and Driving Beforehand

    On a show morning 6:00 a.m. or when your horse needs to go to the hospital for colic surgery is NOT the time to introduce your horse to the trailer. Time and patience spent teaching your horse to load quietly and stand in the trailer with a snack will pay off in the long run. Take practice drives too, such as to the gas station and back, so your horse gets comfortable with the feeling of motion as well.

    One Horse In a Two-Horse Trailer

    When carrying one horse in a two-horse trailer, always load him in the left stall (driver's side). If a center divider is used, it should be secured in the middle for the horse to brace against. Roads are "crowned" with the centerline higher than the edges and if all of the weight in the trailer is on the right, the rig will tend to sway to the right or, even worse, tip over, especially if you should stop or swerve quickly to avoid another car.

    If you are carrying two horses of unequal size, put the larger one on the left.

    Drive Slowly and Carefully

    Drive slowly and carefully, staying alert at all times. Trailer-driving requires a lot of concentration and planning ahead. Be alert to traffic signals and other cars. It takes a lot longer distance and time to stop or accelerate a loaded rig than a single car. Take all turns slowly so that the horses can keep their balance and won't be flung against the walls for support or lose their footing.

    If trailering for more than several hours, offer the horses water when you make a pit stop, parking in the shade, of course. If your horse ships longer than 4 hours, it is best to delay exercise until the following day. But he will appreciate quiet turnout or hand-grazing when you reach your destination. Research has shown that horses should not be in a trailer or van for more than 8 hours without getting off for an overnight rest stop. In fact, 5 hours is considered a long ride. Longer times of continuous travel make the horse much more prone to colic (dehydration, change in feed schedule) and respiratory disease (poor air quality such as dust and fumes and because the horse cannot lower his head to cough up secretions).

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