Credit: Heidi Melocco photo
When you haul your horse a long distance, plan when you’ll stop, where you’ll stop, and how you’ll care for your horse on the road. Here are expert tips from top trainer/clinician Julie Goodnight.
Q: I’m ready to take my horse on my first long road trip, a 13-hour trek from central Texas to a group trail ride in Colorado. I’ve never before trailered a horse more than a few hours. How can I ensure that my horse is comfortable and safe on a trip of this length? How should I set up the trailer stall? Should I tie him or not? How do I keep him watered, fed, and rested?
A: Lilly, you’re wise to ask for advice and seek experience as you head out on the road. There’s so much to consider, and it’s always good to gather wisdom from seasoned road warriors.
I’ve learned a lot of things to do (and not to do) over a lifetime of hauling horses.
When planning a long road trip, consider your horse, your trailer, and your goals once you arrive. Overall, you’ll feel more prepared when you make a plan that feels right for you.
Here’s a roundup of five things to consider.
1. Observe Your Horse
First, observe how your horse travels in the trailer. If he’s nervous and tends to fidget and shake, he’ll use more energy, get himself hot, and need frequent breaks.
Some horses are anxious when you’re not moving, but they do okay once you’re in motion.
Consider hauling with a riding friend. A horse will always travel better with a buddy, and you’ll have driving help.
I can tell that my horse, Dually, is comfortable in the trailer, because he stands still. There are few hoofprints in the shavings when we travel long distances.
When trailering a seasoned traveler like mine, you can drive on a bit farther than with a nervous horse.
How your horse feels in the trailer may impact how you dress him up. If he’s new to trailering or you feel he may lose his balance, protect his legs with standing wraps. I like these wraps, because they stay in place during travel.
I might not wrap Dually if it’s hot or if we’re going a short distance, and I’m fairly certain he’ll stand still and relax.
2. Assess Your Trailer
Next, assess your trailer. The more comfortable it is, the longer you’ll be able to drive without taking a break.
If you have a slant-load with padded sides that your horse can lean against, he’ll be able to take a break from the stress of balancing. If you have an open stock-type trailer, he won’t have a chance to lean and may tire more quickly.
Think about how you’ll access your horse while on the road. Is it comfortable for him to eat in the trailer? If you can access your horse’s head from a window, you can give him water and feed on the road without offloading, shortening your breaks.
Here are a few more trailering tips.
• Invest in a trailer cam. I suggest that you invest in a wireless trailer camera that you can monitor from your truck’s cab. Then you can check in on your horse along the way to see how he’s doing.
• Go light on shavings. Add only a thin layer of shavings to absorb any urine and help prevent slips and falls. If you use too much, they’ll blow around and affect your horse’s air quality. Shavings can also become slippery, so keep them at a minimum.
• Check ventilation. Make sure your trailer has adequate ventilation to support your horse’s lung health and overall comfort. Make sure the roof vents are open and that air can circulate inside the trailer without the windows being open all the way. You want airflow, but you don’t want your horse to be able to stick his head out the window.
• To tie or not to tie? There are advocates on both sides of this debate. I always tie my horse in the trailer, so I know where his head is. If I feel the trailer moving and feel him moving around, I know that there’s something wrong. I also like to know that I can get to my horse’s head to feed and water him, if needed. I want him to stay how I put him.
Of course, if you tie your horse, use only a halter designed to break away in an emergency. Never use a rope halter, as it may not break if your horse pulls back, which can lead to injury or worse.
Tie your horse with enough length in the rope that he can relax his head, but not so long that he can turn his head back behind him.
3. Plan Your Drive Time
Thirteen hours is a long trek for a horse. You’ll need to decide whether to drive straight through or stop to rest and board along the route.
From my place in Central Colorado, I have to trailer three hours just to get out of the mountains. My horses and I are used to a moderately long trailer ride.
Plan ahead for a long trip. Schedule rest stops, water breaks, and feeding times. Keep in mind that you’ll need to stop more often if your horse is nervous.
With a 13-hour trip, you’re right on the deciding line between making the trip in one day or two. The decision is up to you, as you best know your horse and his needs.
Consider what you’ll ask of your horse when you arrive at your destination. Will you be arriving the night before a big trail ride, requiring him to work hard as soon as he arrives? If so, build in some downtime.
If you’ll have a day of rest once you arrive in Colorado, you might be able to speed through if you have two drivers, and build in some time to stop and rest.
Keep in mind, too, that you’ll be traveling from a low altitude in Texas to a high altitude in Colorado. Your horse will need time to acclimate, especially if you’re going on a mountain trail ride, where the altitude is around 10,000 feet above sea level.
Don’t push through and drive all at once, then ask your horse to carry you through mountainous terrain without a good day or two of rest at your destination.
If I were going that far and decided to break the trip into two days, I wouldn’t offload my horse during each day’s haul. Along my route, I’d stop and eat, while making sure the trailer was in a safe place.
I’d open the windows so my horse had air, check on him, then sit down and rest for a half hour. I get a break and my horse gets a break from balancing while the trailer is in motion. When we stop for the day, he’ll have a rest and get off of the trailer.
With a two-day trip, I’d travel 6½ hours each day. That’s a good amount of time. Optimally, I’d travel no more than eight hours a day. That allows me to arrive early at the overnight accommodations I booked ahead of time.
When I arrived, I’d make sure to take my horse on a nice leisurely walk to help his digestion and his muscles. Horses aren’t made to stand still all day, so walking can help them relax.
If your horse has time to rest when you arrive at your destination, he travels well, and your trailer is comfortable, you could make it all the way through in one day.
With that plan, I’d stop every two hours, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. I’d open the windows and make sure the ventilation is okay. I’d feel his chest to see whether my horse is too hot or cold, then make any necessary changes.
4. Consider Feed and Water
If your trailer allows you to access your horse’s head, hang a haybag and water bucket when you stop to rest. If you can’t get to your horse’s head, you’ll be able to feed and water him only when you offload.
Hydration is vital to your horse’s health when you’re hauling a long distance. Bring a few five-gallon buckets with lids so your horse has some water from home that he’ll recognize and drink.
You’ll also need hay from home. Your horse’s digestive system is designed to have food moving through his system throughout the day. He’ll tend to be healthy and relaxed when he has access to feed.
However, make sure that there’s adequate room in the trailer for your horse and the haybag. If you stuff a full hay bag in a slant-load, there will be little room for your horse to move. He won’t be able to relax his neck.
When you haul shorter distances (less than three hours), make sure your horse has eaten well before you start. If he gets into the trailer with a full belly, he won’t be thinking about food for an hour or two.
Then give your horse hay and water as soon as you arrive. This also means he’ll have more room to move in the trailer without a space-limiting haybag.
5. Offload Safely
Offloading along your route may seem like a good break for your horse, but it’s tough to find a safe place to unload and load safely if you’re not traveling a familiar route.
Avoid offloading onto concrete or asphalt, where your horse can easily slip.
And only offload him if you know he’ll load up again easily. If there’s any question about your horse’s intent to get back onboard, wait until you reach the overnight-stabling facility to unload him. Don’t do a trailer-loading training session along a busy highway.
If you choose to offload, make sure that you have as many people with you as you do horses, so you have enough help managing your traveling herd.
If I’m by myself, I want to get there as fast as I can and make sure I don’t have any incidents along the way.
Good luck on your trip, and let us know how you do!
For more information on equine behavior, see Julie Goodnight’s new book, Goodnight’s Guide to Great Trail Riding available from HorseBooksEtc.com. Also, watch the Horse Master television show, airing each Monday and Saturday night on RFD-TV.
Julie Goodnight (www.juliegoodnight.com) lives in central Colorado, home to miles of scenic trails. She trains horses and coaches horse owners to be ready for any event, on the trail or in the performance arena. She shares her easy-to-understand lessons on her weekly RFD-TV show, Horse Master, and through appearances at clinics and horse expos held throughout the United States. She’s also the international spokesperson for the Certified Horsemanship Association (www.cha-ahse.org).
Heidi Melocco (www.wholepicture.org) is a lifelong horsewoman, equine journalist, and photographer based in Mead, Colorado.