Every horse owner planning to trailer, should take a trip in the box with a horse and carefully note what happens. Travelling in a trailer is a stressful situation for your horse, even if he's been doing it for years. It's an unnatural environment for him to be in and horses new to trailering are even more stressed. They can't properly lift their tails to poo; they can't stretch out to urinate; they can't get rid of those darn flies; and if your trailer has no ventilation, no fresh air circulates inside the trailer. Some drivers delight in blowing their hooters or playing with their air brakes as they pass you, which all adds up to your horse becoming a tight ball of nerves.
These are only some of the things your horse goes through when you travel to and from a ride. Now, let's look at it more closely. Travelling a few kilometres down the road, hardly has any effect on your horse, but when you start asking him to travel more than 3 hours in a confined space, you're putting your horse in a highly stressful situation.
If you're a considerate owner - which I trust you all are - you would have a full hay net tied within easy reach of your horse. Hay normally contains a number of fungal spores and dust and over the miles your horse will be inhaling these. When out in the paddock or in his stable, your horse can get away from his hay net, have a drink, even dunk his hay and clear his airways by giving a cough to loosen the debris from his mucous membranes - no problem there. When he's in a trailer, he can't get away from the net and there's no water to wash away the dust, so the spores and dust accumulate in his airways, compromising his immune system. If your horse has a slight sniffle already, by the end of the trip he may have a full-blown respiratory illness, like pneumonia. To top it all off, he may be inhaling your vehicle's exhaust fumes, contributing to any respiratory problems that may be developing. That doesn't mean that you shouldn't give him hay to munch on, far from it. Eating calms a horse and by providing something to keep him occupied, he'll be more relaxed and handle travelling much better.
All isn't lost however, there are a few things you can do to help your horse.
Now we get to how your horse balances inside the trailer. A good exercise is for you to travel in the trailer, blindfolded, without holding onto anything. Travelling this way for a few kilometres will give you a very good idea of what your horse goes through. Remember he doesn't know that when he sees a bend in the road that he has to get ready to balance, he balances only when you're going into the bend and the box starts to exert those G-forces. A novice horse will scramble like mad to keep his footing because he feels he's going to fall over. More seasoned horses will sway and keep their balance better, but they still have to work hard at keeping upright.
- Keep your horse up-to-date with his vaccinations to start off with a healthy horse.
- Make sure the ventilation inside the box is good - open all windows and ventilation holes.
- Make sure your vehicle's exhaust fumes don't filter through to the box.
- When you get to about 3 hours' travelling and you find a rest stop, check out the area and make sure you can safely unload your horse. If you can't, open all doors and the ramp to let fresh air flow through the box.
- If you're travelling in cold weather, make sure you blanket your horse for any chilly air circulating - don't close the windows thinking you'll keep him warmer - you need that fresh air moving through the box.
- Wet the hay a bit to get rid of the dust and fungal spores.
Remember from the previous articles about energy expenditure of muscles, that it creates an extraordinary amount of heat with the resultant sweat to rid the body of that heat? Well, by trying to keep his balance, his muscles are working as hard as if you're riding him on the trail, radiating heat inside the box. Add to this the fact that the temperature inside the box will rise significantly due to the summer heat baking down on the box - you now have an oven that your poor horse is standing in. The humidity will increase due to faeces and urine fumes, coupled with the bacteria generated by the droppings and ammonia from his urine. He'll be losing fluids and electrolytes at a good rate and it's been calculated that a horse that travels more than about 80kms in the summer can become as much as 3% dehydrated.
To minimise the travelling stress, there are several things you can do.
After arrival at camp, keep an eye on his stools and if possible the frequency of his urination. Also, keep a check on how much he eats and drinks - it'll be a good indication of his general well-being. An idle horse normally needs between 23 and 32 litres of water just to keep him alive where as he needs upwards of 45 litres to replenish loss of fluid as well as to re-fuel for the miles you're expecting him to work the following day.
- Cushion the floor with a thick woven rubber mat so that any urine or fluid from the faeces filters away from his feet - this will also ease the bumps and vibrations he'll feel through the floor.
- Try and provide a window for your horse to look out of so that he can get a bearing on the horizon, assisting him in his balance.
- Drive carefully, preferably not faster than about 100kph and DON'T RACE THROUGH THOSE CORNERS! When I trailer, I don't care how many people may be behind me, I'll take a corner at about 40kph at the most, because the comfort of my horse is more important than any of the swear words I can well imagine coming from those impatient drivers behind me. Also, when going down or up a hill, take it slowly so that your horse can figure out that he can either lean on the front bar or the back door to assist with his balance. By racing down a hill will not only cause your horse to slam on brakes, but you also run the risk of not being able to stop at the bottom - calculate how much weight your vehicle's brakes have to try and stop (about 450kg per horse + about 750kg for the box + about 1 ton for your vehicle + downhill gravity = TOO MUCH!). Don't accelerate or brake too suddenly, it has a ten-fold compound effect in the trailer, throwing your horse all over the place besides causing him to scramble and slam on brakes himself. Add to that the fact that he'll be bruised from bumping into the sides and divider, so drive carefully, you have a valuable living being in there.
- Try to travel in the coolest part of the day, either early morning or even during the night. But travelling through the night won't let your horse (or you) sleep, so you need to add another day to your schedule if you plan on doing that.
- Arrive at the venue at least a day before the time (Friday for a Saturday ride), giving your horse a chance to loosen those muscles and to replenish any fluid loss. Asking him to perform at peak immediately after travelling a goodly distance, is unreasonable and borders on abuse, in my book! After unloading, take him for a walk to let him stretch out and urinate in comfort. Some riders even go for a short, easy ride in the late afternoon before an event.
- If he's a novice traveller, practice by going for short rides, showing him that he needn't become nervous. He'll soon figure out how to sway to the movement of the box and you'll be able to practice your driving skills as well.
- Hydrate your horse by offering plenty of hay and water about a week before the trip, allowing him to tank up on fluids. You can even make a plan in your box to secure a bucket with water in easy reach of your horse. Otherwise, stop often and offer him some water - don't think that if you're not thirsty, your horse isn't - he's working harder than you are.
- If you're planning on travelling more than 2 hours or so, give him a dose of electrolytes the night before to help cope with the journey.
- If you can't avoid travelling during the heat of the day, sponge him down but leave him wet when you load him. Wet him down as well every time you stop to give him a drink.
- To avoid your horse catching a foot on another leg and cutting himself, invest in some shipping boots or learn to wrap travelling bandages - don't run the risk of having to pull out of an event before you've even started because of bad cuts on his legs - if the vet thinks the cuts are severe enough, he'll disqualify you before you've even started.