On the move with horses

Before you hit the asphalt trail, consider these expert tips to make sure your horse arrives healthy and happy.

By Lindsay Keller, The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care

What could be more fun than road tripping to shows with your horse? Before you hit the asphalt trail, consider these expert tips to make sure your horse arrives healthy and happy.

Sarah McDonald and her top barrel racing mare, Fame Fling N Bling, traveled thousands of miles from their home state of Georgia to as far away as Washington to compete in rodeos. At the end of their journey, they accomplished their goal—winning the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association Rookie of the Year title. Although the summer was long and the competition intense, “Bling” ended the season as healthy and sound as she started. And this wasn’t just because of good fortune.

“When you travel as often as I do, you have to prioritize your horse’s comfort and health while you are on the road,” McDonald says, “even though this may detour you from the fastest, most efficient route to your destination and/or cause you to miss shows or rodeos to allow your horse ample time to rest.”

If you travel this often, you learn what is normal for your horse on the road and how to recognize signs of potential problems. “At first, traveling was a learning experience for me and my horses, but now we have both found ways to stay mentally and physically prepared for competition no matter how many miles we travel to get there,” she says.

Before You Leave

Quinley Koch, DVM, owner of Kansas-based Elite Equine Veterinary Services, counsels many of her performance horse clients on traveling with their horses safely. She says keeping these animals healthy and sound is key to getting them in the winner’s circle.

Have the proper paperwork

“All horses traveling, even if they are traveling within state boundaries, need a current (within one year) negative equine infectious anemia test, better known as a Coggins test,” Koch says. “If the horse is going to be crossing state lines, they also will need a current health certificate (obtained within 30 days before travel).”

During the appointment to obtain this paperwork, Koch suggests owners discuss with their veterinarian the best ways to keep their horse healthy while traveling.

“Your personal veterinarian will know your horse’s individual history and tendencies,” Koch says, and he or she will be familiar with any potential health challenges and vaccination requirements you might face where you’ll be traveling. This will help you create the most effective plan for your horse.

Ensure Vaccinations Are Current

Koch ensures all her clients’ horses are current on their core vaccinations. These include West Nile virus, Eastern and Western equine encephalomyelitis, tetanus, and rabies. For horses that will be traveling, she also recommends vaccinating against diseases that can be brought on by stress, such as equine influenza and herpesvirus.

Boost the Immune System

In addition to vaccine protection, some owners purchase commercially available immunostimulants and immunomodulators designed to support a horse’s immune system while traveling.

“Owners should be cautious when choosing a product that claims to ‘boost the immune system’ unless they can find veterinarian-supported research to back up the claim,” Koch cautions, noting that good studies do exist for some products. “One of the best immune boosters is just to ensure the horse has a solid health foundation. An effective vaccination and deworming program, coupled with balanced nutrition can go a long way in keeping your traveling horse healthy.”

Promote Hydration

Koch recommends two approaches for encouraging horses to stay hydrated while on the road and after they arrive at their destination.

“Flavoring water with electrolytes and/or artificial flavoring can help create a familiar smell and taste when the water source is changed,” Koch says. “Another trick you can use for good eaters is to sprinkle a little bit of grain or some treats in the bottom of the water bucket. This will often encourage the horse to drink the water to get to the food.”

McDonald trusts electrolytes to help keep her horses hydrated on the road. “Keeping Bling healthy while we were traveling was my No. 1 priority,” she says. “And keeping her hydrated is one of the most important things I can do for her health,” as it helps prevent not only dehydration but also colic.

Have an Emergency Plan

Although your veterinarian might be willing to speculate about minor horse health issues over the phone while you are traveling, you need to have an alternate plan for serious emergencies.

“The American Association of Equine Practitioners has an excellent feature called ‘Get a DVM’ (aaep.org/horse-owners/get-dvm) that can help you find a veterinarian by location,” Koch says. “It may be a good idea to reach out to clinics along your route before you leave to find out their hours, emergency services, and contact information. Hopefully, you never have an on-the-road emergency, but if you do, you will be glad you have an appropriate plan in place.”

On the Road

To wrap, or not to wrap? That is the age-old question. Koch’s answer is to base your decision on your horse’s tendencies and personality.

“If your horse is typically calm in the trailer and is trailering with other calm horses, it may be best to leave their legs unwrapped to avoid them getting too hot,” she says.

But if your horse is prone to pawing or kicking and/or is hauling with a horse with the same tendencies, Koch recommends properly wrapping the legs as a protective measure.

“If you do choose to wrap your horse’s legs, be sure to remove the wraps if possible during rest stops so the legs can breathe and cool down,” Koch says. “This is especially important if you are traveling during the summer.”

McDonald says she prefers to wrap for transport. “I like to keep my horses’ legs wrapped for their protection and my peace of mind while they are in the trailer,” she says. “I also bed my trailer down with shavings and pack their feet (with a commercial hoof-packing product) to help provide cushion (to the sole) during the haul. If special care isn’t taken to ensure the horse’s comfort, I think the hauling can be harder on them than the actual stress of competition.”

Should you offer water and hay? Koch says one of the most important things you can do during a trailer ride is offer the horse a drink of water every time you stop the rig (we’ll talk about frequency coming up).

As for hay, Koch says offering it can be beneficial if done so properly. “Never offer dry or dusty hay in the trailer,” she says. “Feeding dry hay in the trailer where a horse’s head is often elevated is a good recipe for a respiratory infection.”

Instead, Koch suggests that owners feed hay cubes, blocks, or chopped-hay products that have been soaked in water

“By feeding soaked hay, you are giving the horse forage, which will help keep their gastrointestinal tract moving during travel and can keep them from getting excessively bored or nervous during a trip,” she says. “Because it is soaked, you are feeding them a safe option that is unlikely to cause a respiratory infection and helps increase their water intake.” Keep in mind that soaked regular hay doesn’t provide extra hydration, but it does reduce dust.

But Koch cautions against converting to these forages abruptly, especially during travel. If you want to feed soaked hay products, introduce the new forage gradually beginning seven to 10 days prior to leaving for the trip. This will give horses time to adjust to the nutritional change before you add travel stress to the mix.

How often should you stop? “Horses need an opportunity to rest every two to three hours while on the road,” Koch says. “However, what these breaks look like needs to be determined on a horse-by-horse basis.”

If your horse is difficult to load, spooky, nervous, etc., or he simply isn’t a seasoned traveler, it might be safest to leave him in the trailer rather than unload him in an unfamiliar location. Koch says parking the truck and trailer for 15 to 20 minutes and untying the horses can be an effective way to let them rest during a trip.

“One of the most important things to do during a rest stop is to give the horse a chance to lower his head,” Koch says. When he does this he is able to clear his respiratory tract of irritants inhaled during travel. “This is crucial to prevent respiratory infections.”

If your horse is easy to load and safe to handle in an unfamiliar location, unload and allow him to move around. This can help rejuvenate him both mentally and physically during a long trip.

In addition to stopping frequently to let her horses rest, McDonald tries to find horse-safe locations to stay overnight if the trip is longer than nine hours.

“I like to let them spend the night at a place where they have the opportunity to run around, play, roll, and just be a horse, if I am making a two-or-more-day trip,” she says.

Regardless of how you break up your road time, Koch says to keep two things consistent across the board during stops:

Offer Free-Choice Water, and

Untie horses so they can lower their heads and clear their respiratory tracts.

Special Considerations and Concerns

The travel tips covered so far are for the “normal” healthy horse, but you might need to make adjustments to accommodate other horses’ specific needs.

The arthritic horse Thanks to modern-day advancements in veterinary medicine, many horses that are either older and/or have pre-existing musculoskeletal problems are still able to show and travel safely and competitively. But standing still for a long period of time and bouncing around while on the road can pose problems for these horses.

“If you are hauling a horse with musculoskeletal disorders such as mild osteoarthritis and/or navicular syndrome, work with your veterinarian to determine if prophylactic pain medication can help keep them comfortable during travel,” Koch says. “Pain medication can help prevent stiffness, soreness, and swelling that might occur during the haul. But, be sure to check with your governing show board to determine appropriate drug amounts and allowable withdrawal times if you are hauling to a show.”

The colicky horse Abdominal pain is always a concern, but owners must be particularly vigilant about it while traveling. Stress, reduced water intake, and change in routine and environment are the perfect recipe for a bout of colic.

“Closely monitor your horse at all times for signs of colic, especially while you are away from home,” Koch says. “Monitor their drinking, eating, manure production, and attitude as often as possible. By detecting subtle changes early, you may be able to intervene before the problem becomes major.”

It’s possible to keep your horse healthy and comfortable on the road, even if you’re covering long distances.

“Some extra care and consideration for your horse will pay off during your trip,” Koch says. “If you are traveling to a competition, please allow adequate time for your horse to rest before asking them to perform.”

McDonald agrees. “With this being my rookie year, I learned a lot about my horses and what it takes to keep them comfortable,” she says. “Traveling can be hard on horses, but with a little planning and attention to their needs, you can keep them feeling their best even while they are in the trailer.” 

Reprinted with permission from The Horse: Your Guide to Equine Health Care/TheHorse.com. Find more veterinarian-approved horse care information at TheHorse.com.

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