Whether your horse is a complete novice when it comes to travel, or he or she has been doing it for a while, it can still be a daunting experience. Lowering your horse’s stress levels when in transit is vital for their health. Let’s walk you through the signs of horse stress, and our top tips for safe and happy horse travel…
Common signs of horse stress
Each individual horse will show stress in different ways, and – like their owners – some horses respond better to stressful situations than others. Nevertheless, stress can be a real problem as it has the potential to cause some serious health issues. Here’s a few of the most common signs of equine stress:
- Tail swishing
- Teeth grinding
- Fast breathing
- Agitated neighing or snorting
- Repeated yawning
- Bad behaviour – like pawing, rearing and bucking
Our top tips for keeping your horse safe and calm during transport
Use the right horse trailer
When picking out a trailer, it’s important to make sure the one you choose is strong enough. Trailers can come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll need to measure and weigh your horse to figure out which trailer is right for them. The perfect trailer will leave plenty of room inside for your horse to turn around and move its head. It should also be able to carry the weight of your horse plus the weight of any equipment you’re taking with you.
Check the condition of your trailer before setting off
Look out for sharp or jagged edges inside the trailer, as your horse might accidentally cut themselves. You’ll also need to check your loading ramp if you have one. It needs to be sturdy enough for your horse and not too slippery.
Lastly, we always recommend taking your vehicle to a garage for a complete inspection before any lengthy trailering with your horse. The last thing you need is to have car trouble when transporting your four-legged companion.
Get your horse used to being around your trailer
Horses that are kept outdoors all year round are used to roaming free in large pastures. When you suddenly try to load them into a trailer, they can be easily intimidated. Leading up to your trip, try and get your horse comfortable in and around your trailer. Give them treats and praise when showing interest in the trailer, or even try to feed them inside.
It seems bizarre that any horse would willingly walk into a claustrophobic metal box – we’re lucky our horses even tolerate it! Therefore, it’s crucial to make your trailer as appeasing as possible. Make sure the trailer is light and airy, ensure the ramp is sturdy enough and try adding their favourite hay to entice them inside.
Complete a travel checklist
Whether you’re moving your horse to a new location, or simply travelling to a competition, a well-prepared travel checklist will help you stay organised. We always recommend bringing extra essentials – like water, hay, food and tack. Your checklist might include:
- A horsey first-aid kit
- Grooming equipment
- A spare halter, lead and reins
- Plenty of water and hay
- A horse blanket
Watch out for the weather
If you’re travelling in the summer, the inside of your trailer can become extremely hot. This can cause heat-related stress, or even heat stroke. Check out our guide on how to keep your horse cool in hot weather – it even includes some handy trailer tips!
If you’re travelling in the winter months, make sure your horse is hydrated and well fed. This helps them to maintain their internal temperature. A horse blanket will help, too! Extreme weather – like thunderstorms or strong winds – might frighten your horse. In the worst cases, it’s best to reschedule your plans. A scared horse can easily hurt themselves when in tow.
Take regular breaks
Long distance transportation can be hard on your horse’s legs and joints. They’re constantly standing and having to balance themselves. Taking regular pit stops gives them some much-needed rest.
Check your horse’s weight and vital signs
Horses can lose up to 50lbs during long periods of travel. If they’ve lost any more than that, they might be experiencing shipping fever (more on this below). Your horse’s gums can easily indicate whether they’re dehydrated or not. Pink gums are a sign of good health and hydration, whereas red, purple or blueish gums indicate lack of water.
By taking your horse's temperature, resting pulse and breathing rate before you travel, you’ll understand the normal range for your individual horse. This way, you’ll be able to more easily recognise when things change. And always keep a vet’s phone number to hand just in case.
Bring heaps of hay and water with you
Horses should eat around 2% of their body weight each day. By providing plenty of hay, you’ll not only keep their stomachs full, but it can serve as a distraction from the stress of travelling. They’ll also drink up to 55 litres of water a day. So, it’s vital that you can match this during your travels. Water deprivation can lead to dehydration or – in extreme cases – colic.
What is shipping fever?
The added stress of long-distance transport reduces your horse’s natural defences. The lowering of your horse’s immune system means that bacteria find their way more easily into your horse’s body. This bacteria can settle in the lungs and cause severe inflammation. Shipping fever is basically the horse equivalent to pneumonia!
How to stop your horse from getting shipping fever
- Only trailer your horse when they’re in prime health. Horses who are already ill are more likely to become sick after their travels.
- Clean out your trailer before travelling. A good spring clean to remove as much dust and debris as possible will reduce the chance of respiratory issues.
- Ensure the trailer is well-ventilated. Especially during winter when you may be inclined to close the windows.
- Allow your horse to periodically lower their heads. When you take pit stops, let your horse’s head hang to the ground. This is their natural position, and it will allow their airways to drain.
The signs of shipping fever
Unfortunately, shipping fever can still happen with even the most diligent horse owners. But what does shipping fever look like in horses? Here are the most common signs:
- Quickness of breath
- Increased body temperature
- Coughing and flu-like symptoms
- Changes to your horse’s natural body language
- Depression and loss of appetite
It’s vital to call the vet immediately if you notice any of these symptoms. If left untreated, shipping fever can lead to severe pleuropneumonia – an infection of the lungs that can potentially be life-threatening.