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Travelling Your Horse

It is almost inevitable that at some stage during their life every horse or pony will have to be transported

Their early experiences can have a huge impact on how they travel in the future, therefore, it is vitally important that they have a pleasant journey, so as to arrive at the destination in the best possible condition. A stressed horse will not perform at its full potential nor will it settle easily in a new environment. Older competition horses who associate travelling with going to a party will often load themselves, but should they have a bad journey may not be so keen next time!

My golden rule for travelling is always to allow sufficient time for preparation. If there is to be an early start then to have everything ready the night before and to keep the horses into their routine as much as possible. With a young horse or one that has not travelled much previously I would advocate practising loading and then a few trial runs around the block before departing for real for its first away lesson, schooling session or show. That way the horse is used to the lorry or trailer, wearing travel boots or bandages on their legs and you, the owner will have a good idea as to what rugs, if any to use. My two older horses were both highly suspicious of their brand new shiny lorry after 4 years in the old beaten up one and took some persuasion to go in until they were used to it!

Obviously, the comfort of the horse is the first priority and the aim is that the horse should not sustain any injuries on the journey. Most people use travel boots to avoid tread injuries, but some horses are better with bandages providing they are well applied and do not come undone. It important that the horse is used to its leg protection- In my experience, there is nearly always dramatics when new ones are put on, but you don’t want your horse worrying about how its legs feel during the journey. Regarding the tail, most people would use both a bandage and a guard as routine, but after experiencing several damaged tail heads I would use just a guard on its own if the horse is going on a long journey. (I have witnessed both hair and skin come off the tail head after bandages, put on by experienced people, had been in place for several hours.) A well-fitting head collar is important both for loading and securing the horse once on board. Many horses will get hot when travelling, either through excitement and anticipation of what is to come or though worry about travelling. Many will sweat in all but the lightest of rugs. With these I would advise a wicking lightweight fleece if it is freezing cold in winter, otherwise, a sweat rug or nothing at all whilst the vehicle is moving. On reaching the destination a fleece or similar can be put on to ensure that the horse does not get cold.

When young, unbroken or unhandled horses are to be travelled; if possible they are best left loose in a lorry with bedding in order that they can lie down. Foals travelling with their mothers are best loose too but mum must be able to see and nuzzle her baby. There will always be the emergency situation when a horse has to be rushed into hospital etc. yet it is not used to being transported. In these cases, the attending veterinary surgeon will almost always sedate the horse to relieve stress as well as to assist in loading. If transporting a nervous traveller for reasons other than competition it is probably worth a small amount of mild sedation to ensure that the whole experience is as stress-free as possible. The most commonly used sedatives in equine practice have a 72 hour detection time as reported on the BHB (British Horse Racing Board) website. The withdrawal time should be longer than the detection time, so this option is not suitable for competition horses. Many people will use a calmer, but remember that some of the “natural” ones will contain prohibited substances. If in doubt as to the legality of a preparation ask the manufacturer or your veterinary surgeon for advice.

Regarding airflow, ventilation is vitally important, not only to keep the horse cool but also to allow any fungal spores or pathogens to be moved away. If there is no air movement the horse will be effectively re-breathing any dust and virus particles

Dr GA Ashman MA Vet.MB MRCVS

Research has shown that horses prefer to travel facing backwards and for that reason, most larger lorries have partitions which are herring boned with the horse facing slightly towards the rear ramp. Traditional trailers are always forward-facing but rear facing ones are becoming more popular and a lot of 3.5 tonne vehicles are now designed to be rear facing, One of my horses travelled dreadfully in a  traditional trailer for about half an hour but then turned itself right around and settled, travelling quite happily looking over the rear ramp!  However, your horse travels it is important that there is sufficient, but not too much room in their partition- not enough and the horse will feel claustrophobic- (remember they are flight animals) and there will be too little space for the air to circulate. Too large a partition and they will have nothing to support them if you have to break suddenly or go round a sharp bend.

Regarding airflow, ventilation is vitally important, not only to keep the horse cool but also to allow any fungal spores or pathogens to be moved away.  If there is no air movement the horse will be effectively re-breathing any dust and virus particles along with stale air. If your horse has any breathing problems at all it is vital that any forage supplied is dust free due to the enclosed environment of the horsebox or trailer. It is surprising how many experienced horse owners will feed soaked or steamed hay in the stable only to place a dry net in the lorry! It is also important to try and hang the haynet as low as possible without the risk of it getting tangled in the feet when empty. I use small haylage nets with small holes for this purpose, which means that the net is at least lower than the nasal passages when the horse is standing and they are less likely to get their feet stuck if they were to paw. Remember that as grazing animals horses have relatively poor mucus clearance from the larger airways- they have evolved to eat with their heads down and clearance is due to gravity. On a long journey, I always untie the horses when stopping for refuelling or a coffee for the human passengers. I offer a drink of water and perhaps a little chaff or soaked dried grass from the floor. That way any spores or dust can drain naturally. Shipping fever is a serious, potentially fatal form of pneumonia which has been linked to horses being tied up short for too long whilst travelling. Not all horses will drink on a journey so soaked chaff /dried grass can also help to maintain hydration. If your horse is a fussy drinker it is worthwhile taking sufficient supplies of your own water as they might not like that at the venue and it is important that they do drink, especially over the summer, not only for optimum performance but to avoid digestive upsets such as impaction colic.

If travelling in Europe, remember it is illegal to travel horses at temperatures in excess of 30 degrees Celsius and you must have a thermometer in the horse area as well as means of cooling the horse down. Opening every window as far as possible is not necessarily the best for allowing through movement of air whilst in motion (for complicated reasons involving physics!) but the experts tell me that of alternate ones are open wide that will encourage air to be sucked into the lorry. If you are fortunate enough to have fans or air conditioning in the horse area then, of course, the problem does not arise and of course, opening any roof vents will help to improve airflow. After personal experience of a 2-hour traffic jam on the M5 in early June with a stressy point to pointer on board, I would advocate small battery fans which can be used in emergencies if you do not have any fitted in your lorry.

The priority on arrival at your destination is to check the horses. Most will appreciate lowering the ramp or opening the top front door of a trailer in order that they can look around and see where they are. This also has the huge advantage of allowing fresh air in.  Check that the horse is not too hot or cold and adjust the rugs accordingly before going to declare.

At a competition, I would always offer water on arrival and when they are not stabling at the venue I always leave water in the box for the duration of the show. In the ideal world, you would arrive an hour or so before your class which allows time for everyone to relax before competing. If you are travelling several horses and one is not on until later in the day I would always advise getting him off the transport and taking him for a walk to stretch his legs rather than leaving him on board for several hours. It goes without saying that forage should always be available and if your horse is ulcer-prone a small chaff feed should be given about half an hour before you get on.

Should you be travelling for other reasons- a visit to the vet or farrier for instance then you will obviously be guided by them as to when to unload etc. It is still advisable to let the horse see where he is by lowering the ramp before going to find out if they are ready for you. If you are stabling at your destination, once booked in I would put both forage and water in the stable so that it is ready, before putting the horse in. Once in the stable, you can remove his travel boots and tail protection, change rugs and leave him to settle before offering a hard feed.

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