Horses are naturally fearful and flighty animals and can get easily stressed while travelling.
Particularly if your horse has not previously travelled, it can be a very daunting experience for them. Keeping your horse calm whist travelling is vital to ensure they maintain optimum health as there are many transit-related diseases horses can contract. The more comfortable your horse is during transit, the calmer and therefore healthier they will remain.
The following are 14 easy ways to keep your horse calm while travelling:
- Ensure your horse has plenty of ventilation.
- Plan for the journey to keep it as short as possible.
- Use an appropriately sized trailer or van.
- Get your horse used to its trailer.
- Check your horse’s health before departing.
- Provide plenty of hay and water.
- Take breaks every 3 hours.
- Don’t tie your horses head too high.
- Avoid using excess gear.
- Leave extra time to load and unload your horse.
- Drive carefully.
- Try horse calming supplements.
- Horses appreciate travel companions.
- Turn your horse out the night before.
In this article we will discuss each of these calming techniques in detail, so your horse can enjoy stress-free travel.
Why is it important your horse remains calm while travelling?
There are a number of transit-related diseases that your horse can contract while on the road.
Research conducted in 2015 looked into the health problems and risk factors associated with long-haul transport in horses (source: here). Based on the veterinary reports of the horses that were affected during travel, the most common issues included respiratory problems (27%), gastrointestinal problems (27%), pyrexia (19%), traumatic injuries (15%) and even death (12%).
Therefore is is so important that you plan and prepare for the journey. Ensuring that your horse is comfortable and calm while travelling, as well as ensuring there are no problems with your vehicle, are both vital for your horse’s wellbeing.
There are many precautions that you can take to minimise the risk of sickness, which we will discuss in detail in this article.
Ensure your horse has plenty of ventilation.
Ensuring your horse has lots of ventilation while travelling is very important, particularly on long journeys and during warm weather. Horses heat up 10 times faster than humans, so you can imagine how much heat they release. Along with the heat from the sun, a horses trailer can become dangerously hot very quickly.
Heat exhaustion, also known as heat stress, is a life-threatening condition that develops when a horse is unable to cool himself through sweating. If your horse’s core temperature reaches 105ºF, his metabolic system, his organs and circulatory system may begin to shut down. Thus, it’s important to keep windows and vents open to allow lots of air to circulate through the vehicle.
However, you need to ensure that the breeze isn’t blowing directly onto your horses face. Too much breeze can dry out horses eyes. Additionally, you need to make sure that the air isn’t blowing hay onto your horse’s face, which can cause respiratory problems. To avoid this, you should dampen the hay slightly before placing it in hay-nets.
Additionally, please inspect the exhaust system of the vehicle on a regular basis. Keeping engines in proper maintenance can decrease its emissions which are a hazard to your horse. If your vehicle has a vertical exhaust, make sure it’s taller than the ceiling of the van or trailer and thus, not flowing into the intake vent. Breathing in exhaust fumes can damage your horse’s respiratory system and breathing of excessive fumes in a trailer without proper ventilation, can even cause death.
Urine-soaked bedding or poor drainage can also have a huge negative impact on air quality. A substantial amount of ammonia fumes can be generated when urine breaks down. Again, breathing in excessive levels of ammonia fumes can cause respiratory problems in horses. Modern research recommends making periodic stops to remove faeces and urine-soaked material.
To keep your horse calm, you want to keep the journey as short as possible. This can be especially important if your horse has not travelled before and in extreme weather conditions.
Firstly, always try to take the shortest route to reach your destination. Secondly, familiarise yourself with the route so you can prevent your horse being in the trailer longer than is necessary. Additionally, look up any potential delays, such as road closures or accidents. Even a short journey can turn into a much longer one due to unexpected delays, so it’s best to check before setting off.
The quicker your get your horse to your destination and out the trailer, the better.
Use an appropriately sized trailer.
Select a van or trailer that suits your horse’s size and temperament. A horse that struggles in confined spaces will feel calmer in a larger container. However, a horse that is used to travelling may be comfortable in a smaller trailer. Of course if you are travelling with multiple horses, you need to ensure that they all have adequate space.
Furthermore, it is important that you ensure the trailer is suitable for the size of your horse as this will reduce the risk of them hitting their heads or injuring themselves.
If travelling with lone horses, experts recommend using small box trailers where your horse can lower its head to the floor for hay. If horses neck movement is restricted during transit, they are at risk of damaging their respiratory systems.
Before setting off, be sure to complete a safety check on the trailer:
- Tyres should be the correct pressure and in good condition
- Lights and indicators should be working
- No loose or damaged fittings
- Check the breakaway cable is clipped to the car
Get your horse used to the trailer.
A horse that is used to travelling, will be calmer than a horse that hasn’t travelled before. If you have taken your horse to shows in the past, you may have noticed just how much your horse sweats while travelling. Excess sweating is observed more commonly when a horse isn’t used to travelling. Horses tend to sweat more when they are stressed and can even burn the same number of calories as when they’re exercising!
Training your horse to get used to the trailer prior to travelling can help keep him calm while on the road. During the weeks leading up to your travels, practice loading and unloading your horse so he gets used to the experience. Furthermore, take your horse out on short drives to get him used to the motion of travelling and being in a confined space.
This is particularly important if you are planning on going on a long road trip with your horse. A horse that hasn’t been in a trailer before, is more likely to get stressed on a 6 hour drive, rather than a horse that is used to being in the trailer on the road.
Check their health before travelling.
Have a vet complete a full health check on your horse before taking him travelling. A long road trip can be stressful for a healthy horse, let alone a sick one. As mentioned above, stress makes horses more susceptible to getting sick, due to a number of reasons.
Therefore, experts advise that a sick horse should not travel at all. The additional stress of travelling on a sick horse is likely to deteriorate his health and can even be fatal.
Additionally, ensure that your horse has all of the vaccinations that he requires. This is particularly important if your horse will be coming into contact with other horses during your travels, and if you are travelling to another country. Make sure you leave enough time for these vaccinations to take affect. They usually take two to three weeks to provide protection.
Provide plenty of hay and water.
Not only will hay provide your horse with some much needed sustenance while travelling, it’s also a good distraction during the journey. Additionally, it’s vital that your horse grazes throughout the journey otherwise he risks getting sick.
Horses produce up to 16 gallons of strong gastric acid daily, whether food is in their stomachs or not. Kentucky Equine Research found that travelling can cause increased levels of gastric acid in horses due to increased levels of stress. Excess levels of gastric acid can lead to stomach ulcers, so it’s important your horse grazes while travelling. Hay can help to buffer your horse’s stomach from the stomach acid that is produced quicker during long periods of stress.
It is highly recommended that you soak your horse’s hay in water before placing it in nets and loading it onto the trailer. This is because particulate matter from hay can contaminate your horses air. Contaminated, dusty air can cause problems in your horse’s respiratory system.
Furthermore, it is also important to keep your horse hydrated during the journey. It is advised that you offer water every 3 hours during travel. In warmer weather, high humidity, or when horses are sweating excessively, you should offer water more frequently. If possible, it is advisable to bring water from home as some horses can be reluctant to drink water that is not what they’re used to.
Take breaks every 3-5 hours.
Many top riders in the UK recommend that horses are taken out of their vehicles every 3 to 5 hours. A quick stop will give your horse an opportunity to stretch their legs and breathe some fresh air.
Transport-related diseases, dehydration, or fatigue due to energy expenditure and reduced feed intake, are more likely to be observed in journeys over 3 hours or over 500 miles. Road transport time should never exceed 12 hours from when the horse is first loaded on the vehicle. After 12 hours of travelling, horses should be taken off the trailer and comfortably stabled for a minimum of eight hours. This time period is vital for tracheal clearance, rehydration, and for your horse to get some much needed rest.
Additionally, pit stops are a good opportunity to check up on your horse to ensure that he is healthy and calm. You can also use the time to check your horse’s travel boots and tail bandages to ensure they are still in place and to redo them if necessary. Tail bandages can harm your horse if they are not fixed properly.
Do not tie your horses head too high.
Tying your horse’s head too high will put too much stress on his respiratory tract. Restraint in the head-up posture for prolonged periods of time can severely interrupt lung clearance mechanisms. This can predispose your horse to shipping fever (pleuropneumonia).
Shipping fever is essentially a combined infection affecting the lungs (pneumonia) and the pleural cavity (pleuritis). In bad cases, shipping fever can even be fatal which was sadly demonstrated in 2015 when a high-profile victim, Tina Cook’s De Novo News, was succumbed to the condition. He contracted it on his way home from competing at Strzegom and sadly had to be put down.
To optimise your horse’s health, he needs to have enough room to both stretch and lower his neck whilst travelling. Hay nets should be placed as low as possible without the risk of your horse entangling his feet in the nets. Alternatively, horses travel well in small box stalls where they can extend their heads to the floor to eat their hay.
Avoid using excess gear while travelling.
Avoid “over wrapping” your horse in unnecessary travel gear during transit. Excess gear will cause your horse to lose bodily fluids and electrolytes from excessive sweating. This, in turn, leads to dehydration which causes other systemic illnesses.
A dehydrated horse’s skin will stay up in a ridge, while healthy skin should spring smoothly back into place. Common signs of dehydration include:
- Dullness in the eyes
- Dry mouth and skin
- Thick and sticky saliva
Only use what is absolutely necessary for the comfort and safety of your horse while travelling. These include a good headcollar, poll guards, tail guards, bandages, sweat and cooler rugs.
If your horse is an experienced traveller, you might not need to use a tail bandage when travelling long distance. When a tail bandage isn’t fit properly, it can actually cause more damage than not having one. If the bandage is too tight the chances are it will rub and end up damaging your horse’s dock. On the other hand, if the bandage is too loose, it may unravel and get tangled up in your horse’s legs and feet.
Using sweat and cooler rugs will help maintain your horses temperature during extreme weather. However, be careful not to over-rug your horse. Field-kept horses and ponies who are used to cooler temperatures may be warm enough without a rug. Therefore, for some horses, rugs will cause unnecessary sweating and overheating, which compromises the welfare of your horse.
Allow extra time for loading and unloading.
Add some extra time to your journey to allow enough time to load and unload your horse. This is particularly important if your horse isn’t used to travelling. Even well-travelled horses, may refuse to load depending on his current mood.
As mentioned above, it’s recommended that you practise loading and unloading your horse leading up to your journey. This will make the journey smoother as your horse will me more used to the experience, and therefore less likely to refuse to load.
Leaving plenty of time to load and unload your horse will not only reduce stress for yourself but also your horse.
A horse will feel calmer if you drive carefully. Whilst driving, be aware of your horse’s welfare. Try to come to gentle stops and always accelerate slowly to keep your horse calm and comfortable.
Stopping and accelerating quickly, and making sharp turns may also lead to your horse injure himself. You may risk your horse banging his head, falling against the side of the trailer or tugging on his headcollar.
Try horse calming supplements.
There are a number of different calming products and minerals that have been proven to help reduce stress in horses.
As mentioned above, research has shown that when a horse’s normal routine and diet are changed, they can develop gastric ulcers in just a matter of days. Within just a few hours, the sensitive microbial population of your horse’s hindgut can be thrown out of balance, causing colic, diarrhoea or laminitis. A study carried out by Ohio State University revealed suppression of the immune system in which horses were transported in trailers. Regardless of how careful you are, some change and stress is unavoidable. Therefore, travelling horses can benefit from nutritional supplementation.
Providing calming aids with nutrients such as thiamine (vitamin B1), magnesium, and alpha-lactalbumin is recommended for calming highly-strung horses. These minerals have been scientifically researched and proven to have a calming affect on horses.
Calmer Equine Plus is an innovative supplement which includes high grade chelated magnesium the ‘anti-stress mineral’. This helps to help relax your horse’s muscles and his nervous system as well as providing pre and probiotics which help to soothe the digestive system. These supplements normally take affect within a few hours, however different horses react differently. Thus, it is a good idea to complete a trial run before your journey. This way you will know how long the supplement will take to impact your horse.
Supplementing horses with electrolytes is also highly recommended for those on the go. A well-balanced electrolyte supplement will encourage drinking and replace electrolytes lost through excess sweating. Horses should be offered water frequently throughout their trip. Experts recommend dosing electrolytes with an oral dosing syringe or mixing them in the feed so you know exactly how much you are providing and how much your horse is taking. They do not recommend dissolving electrolytes in your horses water as horses can refuse to drink if they suspect their water has been tampered with.
Horses are calmed by a travel companion.
Most horses and ponies generally feel calmer and more comfortable sharing their trailer in the company of another equine.
A recent study compared horses traveling on their own, with those travelling with another horse. Research found that less stress-indicating behaviours, such as head tossing and turning, were observed when horses travelled with a companion. Additionally, changes in their heart rate and body temperature were also monitored and indicated that the horses were happier when traveling with a friend.
If it isn’t possible for your horse to travel with a friend, a mirror may actually suffice. Researchers installed an acrylic mirror, measuring 81cm x 60.5cm (32″ x 24″), into the trailer used to haul a single horse. They found that horses were a lot calmer and behaved similarly to when they had a live companion.
However, it is important not to overload a trailer with too many horses. Horses with adequate space will feel much calmer than those with limited space. Additionally, the more horses in a trailer, the hotter it is likely to get, which can lead to health problems.
Turn your horse out the night before.
Some expert trainers like to turn their horses out the night before travel. They say that it allows their horses to graze and hydrate themselves in the most natural way. Horses may also feel calmer while travelling if they spent the night before out in the open.
Yes, it might mean a little more grooming the next morning, however, I’m sure the general improved wellness of your horse outweighs the extra work required.
Travelling with horses can be stressful, however there are many things you can do to calm a horse while on the road. It’s vital to keep horses calm while travelling to optimise their health and prevent sickness. Travelling and stress can cause a number of different diseases, such as shipping fever, heat exhaustion, dehydration and gastric ulcers.
Firstly, research has shown that ventilation and temperature control are extremely important to prevent your horse getting sick. Additionally experts recommend taking breaks every 3-5 hours to allow your horse to get fresh air and stretch their legs. This also gives you a great opportunity to give your horse some water, as well as to check up on your horses health and gear. Furthermore, research has found that horses benefit from calming supplements such as thiamine (vitamin B1), magnesium, and alpha-lactalbumin, as well as travelling with a companion or a mirror!
Hope this has been helpful.