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How to decrease the stress of trailering/hauling horses

As with most things, after each experience you become more comfortable.  I'm always amazed when I meet people that have never had a pet- either as a child or adult.  But animals here on the farm have become "a lifestyle" for me.  That means things that I don't think twice about, such as loading up my dogs in the truck anytime I go anywhere, having the the dog ride on the back of the ATV as I drag pastures, or head out into the mountains with four of five of them is "normal" to me. 

The same goes for horses.  I actually find that taking the horses is "easier" than the dogs... For those who don't know for the last nine years I've hauled 1440 miles twice a year between my farm's summer and winter locations.  Before that I spent years traveling to both near and far competitions, for training, horse vacations, and horse shopping trips. 

As with anything, if you do it long enough, things will go wrong.  Everything from broken down tow vehicles, broken axles on horse trailers, weather conditions causing travel delays, stresses, side trips, to human hospital emergencies.  Some things just aren't preventable; but when it comes to hauling livestock, many stresses can be reduced or eliminated if addressed before the moment of travel- whether in an emergency to the vet or for a long haul trip.

So I've come up with a list of things that I've either experienced or have heard that makes it "stressful" for owners to travel with their horses. 

1) Practice driving your trailer WITHOUT your horse.  Yes, really.  If you have access to a huge field, empty parking lot or even just down a low traffic country road, practice.  Straight, turning (turns on the drivers side are easier to maintain perspective, so learn to become aware of your "size" when turning the opposite way,) and of course the dreaded BACKING.  Most people are stressed about backing because they either haven't done it, or have had a negative experience (usually with a "helpful" spouse/family member screeching at them.) 

I could write an entire blog on backing, but, I'll just highlight a few points.  1.) The tow vehicle is what you must understand first.  For me, I have a very powerful truck but it has NO turning radius, to just make a U Turn on a four lane wide road takes three stop-reverse-turn series. Which means when I back with a trailer, I have to allow enough room and time (meaning SLOW) to just get my truck set up first.  2.) The longer the trailer the "slower" the reaction time.  This can be good and bad.  I have a 42' (12 meter) long trailer- my total rig is 60' (just over 18 meters) - this means I need enough space to allow the very slow reaction time with a trailer that long when I back.  Short trailers on the other hand can "take off" on their own when over corrected, which then causes that "10 time attempt" to get the trailer "straightened out."  3.) Take the time to practice and GET OUT OF THE TRUCK to actually see where you are at when practicing with defined "points".

People get stressed about having to fuel up, and getting into a tight spot at the station, get stressed about their arrival destination not having enough room to turn around, etc.  The more you stress about the "what ifs" the more tense you'll be while you drive- even if nothing has happened and it will become very tiring for you.

2.) Assess your tow vehicle AND horse trailer.  Again this could be an entire blog in itself.  Some people use their every day vehicle as their tow rig, but others have a designated vehicle that only tows- which means it's not used very often.  Make sure your tow vehicle is appropriate for your trailer- remember towing "live" weight is different than hauling something such as a boat. 

Have yearly/mileage services current.  Check tires.  Have a SPARE tire.  Same goes for the trailer.  Most common issues seem to be is the wiring- which makes most people cringe when they inspect "what the last guy did" as a quick fix and now have to find why their lights, brake controller, etc. isn't working.  Don't wait until the last minute to check this.  Things like axle service, check/rotate tires, etc. ARE necessary.  Check for rust, rotted wood floor boards, etc. 

Also this summer I heard of several people who had horses that suddenly wouldn't "load" or had dramatic behavior from their normally easy traveler when loaded.  CHECK for wasp, hornet, or bees nests.  Trailers seem to be "the place" for them.  If your horse is suddenly acting odd about trailering, put in the effort to find out why.

3.) Invest in tow/road side assistance.  Here in the States we have things like AAA.  Let me tell you- whether it's bringing you that spare gas, fixing that flat tire, or having your rig (truck and trailer) towed (first 100 miles free)- they are always smiling and happy even at 3am when you're stuck on the continental divide in a blizzard with ten horses in the trailer.  $50 a year is TOTALLY worth it.

4.) YOU inspect your rig BEFORE loading your horse for your trip.  Even if you hooked up your rig inspect the vehicle, the hitch connection, the lights, everything!!! Don't rely on someone else. Don't wait until just before you load your horse- if you need to fix something you don't want to find out the day you're hauling.

Same goes for feed, bring more than enough feed that your horse has been eating- don't suddenly change his diet.

6.) Check weather conditions, Road Conditions, and ROUTE options.  This goes for both cold and heat.  Horses walk the ENTIRE time that they are being hauled, so both the cold and heat can affect them.  Dehydration is the most common issue.  Most horses don't drink as much as they would at home, but make sure they keep drinking.  Once a horse becomes severely dehydrated things like colic and other health issues can arise.  Make sure you check the temperature of the trailer, even in 10 degree weather, with ten horses in my rig, I can have all the windows open and it feels like a sauna.  This is another reminder about trailering in blankets.  It may feel chilly outside to you, but with all the "walking" the horse does when he is hauled, they usually get pretty warm.

Here in the northwest our "good weather" seasons tend to be very short, therefor if it's nice out, you can expect road repairs.  The time I came in from a 24 hour haul and had less than 60 miles left and got held up on a Montana Hwy for 45 minutes- I was fuming.  Never mind the poor horses standing there breathing all the asphalt vapors.

Don't just "trust" mapquest and other easy access online directions.  Depending on where you are in the country, you may not want to take the main road or route.  Talk to other horsemen who have traveled that way to get current advice.

7.) Bring drugs & medical kit.  Now I'm an organic, all natural food, no meds type of person.  BUT in an emergency, things like a mild sedative, such as Acepromezyne, Banimine for colic, and Bute for an injury can be a life saver.  Also I always keep a sharp knife, cotton rolls and vet wrap.  Horses can bleed A LOT, and you don't want to have to "start looking" for stuff to stop the bleeding if there is an injury.

8.) Keep a lead rope handy and use quick release trailer ties.  Now this is a personal preference, but in the moment of emergency or the unexpected, I don't want to have to start searching for a lead rope.  Quick release trailer ties can help eliminate a tied horse's lead rope from "burning" to itself making it difficult to untie the horse in an emergency.

9.) Have a map, with route alternatives, AND phone numbers for possible layover options on your journey.  Don't just have one place designated.  I've found that usually the initial "planned route" can change, therefor having options and contact numbers printed out ahead of time will make your life way easier.  You don't want to have to call home while sitting on the side of the road, trying to find numbers of options to stay when the unexpected comes up.

10.) Practice small trips ahead of time- for you and your horse's sake.  Seriously.  Load up and head around the block a few times.  Trailer to your friend's arena, head to the local fair grounds, etc.  Especially if you have a young or inexperienced horse, this is a great way to build their confidence that getting into the big metal box is not a bad thing.

11.) Keep your cell phone charged.  Today with all the technology make sure it's accessible.  The worst is when you have it but can't use it!

12.) If you can, bring a buddy.  It's more fun, and in general easier to have a second person whether they share the responsibilities or are just good company.  Make sure they are familiar with horses.

13.)  Don't drive when you are TIRED.  Seriously.  It's not worth it.  Bad decisions, stress and increased possibility of accident. 

14.) Work out your horse's trailering "issues" ahead of time.  The day of your trip is NOT the day to start training your horse to load.

15.) Research what paperwork/travel documents for your horses are required for your journey.  Have them ready and easily accessible.

Whew... I'm sure there are more, but these cover the basics... Many people ask me about how long I haul my horses, do I layover, etc.  Every trip is different and depends on the stock I'm hauling. The other thing I want to mention is that I don't compete anymore- so that means my horses don't have to "perform" when we arrive at our destination.  They usually have a week or two to recover before I "use" them.  Also, the distances I travel tend to be a lot farther than the average "long haul."  In my experience most horses that don't travel well are carrying a huge amount of stress before you ever get to the "hauling" part.  Therefor, the hauling isn't the actual issues, but rather one in a long list of symptoms the horse is displaying due to his stress.

So on Monday I'll be heading out for another trip south... This year hopefully I'll keep a photo journal and will get it posted online after my Arizona arrival... Stay tuned!



  1. All very good advice.

    I use US Rider for roadside assistance and they can't be beat. They always make sure the horses get taken care of first, and will find you horse lodging and even a vet if needed - no horse trailers left by the side of the road if your truck breaks down. They service trailers as well as your tow vehicle and also service diesels and even dualies, which most standard roadside services will not.

    A handy trick to use when backing - I think taught to me by the trailer dealer - put your hands on the bottom of your steering wheel, and move the bottom of the wheel in the direction you want the back of the trailer to move - so if you want the rear end of your trailer to head left (when you're facing forwards), you move the bottom of your steering wheel to the left (clockwise) - easy to remember and works like a charm.

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