Monday, May 14, 2012

Trailering long distances…what I learned from personal experience.

The photo above is of my mare, Tia Maria, as viewed via a wireless video camera as she trailered from Florida to New York. This was the first time I had trailered horses more than 6 hours at a time myself, and I fretted about the best way to do it. Previously, when my horses needed to ship long distances I hired commercial shippers with larger trailers and air-ride systems. I had used shippers that drove straight through to the destination and ones that did stop-overs at barns along the way. Unfortunately, when I shipped my horses to FL in November of 2011, Tia had complications during the trip that made me want to take full control of the trailering situation. I knew my two-horse bumper pull trailer was not the best way to go, so I gladly went shopping for a trailer that would be more up to the challenge (I was glad about it, my husband not so much). I settled on a gooseneck 2+1 design that allowed me either to pull the horses side by side as a straight load or convert the trailer into two box stalls. But now that I had this option, I truly had a hard time deciding whether to haul them straight or in box stalls. I polled a lot of people I know. I called commercial shippers and asked them, and I scoured the scientific literature for research on trailering horses. Here is what I heard and what I found:

1) The commercial shippers strongly believed horses shipped better in box stalls. From their personal experience, they thought the horses arrived more fresh and relaxed than horses shipping in straight stalls. Remember box stalls in commercial rigs are very expensive- over $2000 for one horse, one way from FL to NY.

2) The Quarter Horse road warriors I talked to all gave a thumbs up for slant loads. Since I did not have a slant load trailer, this may have seemed a moot point, but shipping them in box stalls would allow them to orient themselves on a slant if they wanted to be.

3) Based on personal experience, I was leaning toward shipping them straight. I hypothesized that the chest, side bars and rear of the trailer would add stability for the horses if they wanted to lean on something. I also cared for a horse once that was shipped via a box stall and he stumbled in the trailer and cut his head so badly we could see his skull when we unloaded him. Shipping free in box stalls seemed a little scary to me.

4) As for the research, there was some interesting information to consider, but overall a good review article summed it up by saying: “Orientation either toward or away or diagonally from the direction of travel does not seem to significantly affect a horse’s ability to maintain its balance. Allowing horses the ability to raise and lower their heads or hind quarters and to take at least one step in any direction seems to be the most important factor in their compensating for changes in inertial forces.” (T. H. Friend, Journal of Animal Science 79:E32-E40). Furthermore, work in the early nineties by Clark et al. (Applied Animal Behavior Science 38:179-189) showed that horses did not brace themselves on the sides of the trailer or against saddle compartments, chains or other restrictions. In fact, horses tended to attempt to minimize any contact with the trailer.

So, armed with this information, we chose to ship the horses loose in box stalls without tying them. And what direction did they travel in? They traveled in the direction that allowed them to have their hay directly in front of their noses at all times. So based on the way I placed the haynets, Tia rode backwards and Pizzaz rode forwards. And they each hardly moved around at all. We rigged up the wireless baby monitor camera and watched in anticipation as we pulled out of Loxahatchee, FL. And we quickly got bored. They hardly shifted from side to side, didn’t seem to have any troubles with the starting, stopping or turning, and just kept nibbling away at their hay. Nobody banged their head, thrashed around or caused a raucous. Pizzaz did choose to walk around in a circle from time to time, probably 10-12 times for the entire 24 hour trip. Tia never turned around at all. And we got extremely lucky with weather and traffic, hitting some rain in Florida and Washington DC, but nothing horrible and no major accidents. We drove straight through with 3 drivers and some coffee, junk food and 5-hr energy. As expected, the horses were a bit sweaty in FL when they left, as it was over 80°F, but they were shivering in NY when they arrived the next morning at 46°F. They had not been shivering in NJ a few hours earlier!

And since I am an equine nutritionist, let’s talk about feed and water during trailering. I typically do not recommend changing the horse’s diet before shipping. I am not a fan of oiling or fasting horses or giving large amounts of bran mashes. I like to keep things as consistent as possible leading up to the trip, the same as the horses are used to. On the day of the trip, I may choose to withhold concentrate feed or decrease the amount of concentrate feed before the horse loads up. Some people like to administer electrolytes for horses that are difficult drinkers on the road, but you should never load your horse up with electrolytes without providing them access to fresh water at all times. Since my horses typically only have intermittent access to water during trailering, I don’t give my horses electrolytes before the trip. I do however, take the following steps to ensure my horses eat and drink well on the road:

1) I bring water they are used to from the farm and offer it every 3-4 hours during the trip.

2) I bring the hay they are used to from the farm and also bring enough hay to properly transition them to any new hay they may be receiving at the new destination.

3) For horses that are bad drinkers on the road, I have soaked the hay to help get water into them, but make sure the horse you are doing this for will eat soaked hay. Some horses hate it and then won’t drink or eat on the trailer.

4) On this trip, I used a new product we are working on that encourages hydration in horses. By using this product, my horses drank at least 6 gallons of water while traveling in addition to the water I offered at gas stops.

5) I like to feed succulent treats like carrots and apples while they are traveling. A few carrots or an apple at each stop shows me they are still bright, happy and interested in food. You can also throw apple or carrot pieces in the water bucket and sometimes the horse will drink while he goes searching for the treat.

Overall, I am very grateful that we had a safe and uneventful trip. The horses arrived happy and fresh. Let’s hope we can repeat it in the future!

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