There is an old saying among touring rock ’n’ roll bands that goes something like this: “What happens on the road, stays on the road.” Devised to keep peace with those back at home, this playful old adage seems to work in practice. (Most of the time, at least.) Sadly, horse owners cannot be so carefree. When traveling with horses, what happens on the road can come back to haunt you for a long, long time.
Competitive riders face two main challenges: maintaining their horse’s health while in transit, and ensuring that the horses are ready to compete once they have arrived at their destination. Dr. Catherine W. Kohn, professor at Ohio State University’s Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences, advises riders and trainers to allow for plenty of recovery time between the arrival date and the first event.
“One of the first things that the competitor or coach needs to consider is the medication rules that apply to the particular discipline that the horse is engaged in,” Dr. Kohn says. “(Some shows require that there) is no use of therapeutic drugs during a specified period of time prior to the competition. Transport, particularly over long distances, can cause disease in horses, so we recommend to clients that if they have to haul or fly their horse from New York to California, they should allow a few extra days at the other end in case they need to treat the horse. (This way,) they can do that and still comply with the medication rules of whatever discipline they are competing in.”
If your horse is sick, he shouldn’t travel, period. “If you have a horse that is in any way sick when you put it on the trailer, it’s probably going to be sicker when you take it off on the other end,” Dr. Kohn says.
The goal is to make the journey go as smoothly as possible. This requires that riders, trainers and horse owners know their animals inside and out. In preparing for a long journey, owners should take their horses on smaller trips to determine how their animals react to the travel experience.
“If you have a horse that is a bad traveler, you need to minimize the things that are making it hard for him,” Dr. Kohn says. “If he is bad at traveling alone, bring a traveling buddy along. If he is a bad loader, teach him to load before (the trip).”
One of the most common illnesses horses acquire in transport is shipping fever. A bacterial infection, shipping fever causes inflammation of the lungs and fluid to collect in the chest cavity. This condition will not only prevent a horse from performing in competition; it can become life-threatening.
“The head-up posture is a potential problem because when you put a horse in a trailer and tie his head up in a safe position, you make it impossible for him to expectorate, and his whole lung clearance mechanism is comprised,” Dr. Kohn says. “The other problem is the air space from which the horse is inhaling is often filled with dust.”
Dr. Kohn, who collaborated on “Guidelines for Transport of Horses By Road and Air” (USA Equestrian), advises horse owners to ship no more than 12 hours at a time.
“After that, you take the horse off the truck and put him in a stall for eight hours, you hand walk him, let him drink and rest, and then the next day you can haul for another 12 hours,” she said. “Many horses will ship for 36 to 48 hours at one time, but the longer the duration of the journey, the more likely the horse is to develop transport-associated diseases.”
While in transit, horses should be regularly monitored for any signs of impending illness. “Every four hours or so, check on the horse and maybe take his temperature,” Dr. Kohn advises. “If you find that the horse is getting sick, you have to stop hauling him to let him recover.”
Merry C. Hardy, owner of Red Hot Quarter Horses in Alexander City, Alabama, notes that keeping a horse hydrated while in transit is one of the biggest challenges associated with hauling horses. Through the years, she has devised a number of ways to not only lead her horses to water, but to also make them drink.
“Some horses are very tricky about water that’s not from home,” Merry says. “One trick that I will use is I will pour apple juice into the water and offer it to them.”
To get even more water into her horses, Merry will soak their hay. “One feeding of hay will absorb about two gallons of water.” Soaked hay provides the added benefit of less dust flying around the trailer.
Cherry Hill of Horsekeeping.com and author of “Trailering Your Horse,” suggests that horse owners start “disguising” the water prior to the trip to give the horses the chance to become accustomed to the taste.
“It’s impractical to haul enough water (from your own barn) to a week-long competition,” she says. “But you have to play around ahead of time to make sure that the horse will drink it, because sometimes the water smells so different that the horse will go off of it.”
Dr. Kohn advises clients to cut the horse’s grain intake during the trip. “I don’t think that the horse needs to eat a lot of grain when he is on the road,” she says. “We recommend that you don’t feed him grain while on the road, but once the horse is in his stall for the night, he can have half his normal ration. You want to avoid setting him up for a muscle problem.”
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Photo: Follow these helpful tips to ensure that your horse arrives safe and healthy at the horse show. Journal photo.