Trailering Horses…Keeping Horses and Humans Safe!

by Jenny Rukavina, (RMSAAM’s Equine and Canine instructor.)

We put a lot of miles on the horse trailer these days, hauling rehabilitation horses to and from the clinic, their home barn, or to see other practitioners.  This means loading and unloading a lot of different horses, all with different experiences traveling.  My trailer is extremely horse friendly, and my team is experienced and savvy.  We rarely have trouble loading; the horses generally travel quietly, and arrive and unload without incident.   I see a lot of other people trailering horses to and from various places, and that also means I see some things happen that are less than safe for both humans and their horses!  Hence, the inspiration for this article…

 Weight of the load

     If you’re using a straight load trailer, it’s safest to put the heaviest horse on the left side of the trailer.   If you’re hauling one horse, it should be also be put on the left side of a straight load trailer.  This makes for a much safer ride with the heaver side of the trailer near the center of the road.  Roads are crowned (slightly higher in the center, graded slightly towards the shoulder), so the balance and safety of the trailer is much better when the heavier or only horse is on the left.  Think about your load also!  Try to evenly distribute tack, hay or other equipment that might be hauled in the trailer.

     Slant load trailers should carry the only horse (or the heaviest horse) at the front for better balance.

Preparing to Load – Proper Attire for Horses and Handlers

     It’s best for horse handlers to have boots and gloves on for both the loading and unloading process.   I try to take my sunglasses off so they don’t get knocked off my head and the  horses can see my eyes.  My trailer is very light, open and bright, so it’s very welcoming to the horses.    

     I like my horses to travel in breakaway halters (leather or those with a leather strap that will break) so that potential problems involving a tie or halter that won’t break in a situation where they need to are easier to avoid.

To Boot or Not to Boot?

Because I haul so many different horses, the topic of boots or wraps is complicated.  Horses should be accustomed to boots or wraps if they are to wear them.  Some of my own horses who are prone to loading/unloading drama, will wear good quality shipping boots that go down over all four hooves, and up over hocks and knees.  If I’m hauling two horses that are both used to boots, I will often boot them so that legs don’t tangle and cause issues while traveling.  Horses with lower leg injuries that require support may travel in standing wrap(s) with bell boots to cover coronary bands.  I find a lot of horses don’t like hind wraps or boots and will spend the trip kicking, which is often worse for them than not wearing leg protection.

Loading and Unloading

      I’m going to save the topic of “difficult to load”, for another article on another day.  There are a few really important rules about loading that help make things safe and easy for all involved!  Make sure that the butt bar (or rear door/ramp) are up AND secured BEFORE tying the horse!  I can’t tell you how many horses I’ve seen people load, tie, and then walk around to secure the butt bar only to have a pull-back incident.   Teaching a horse to “self load” or walk in the trailer on his own so that one person can easily load, secure the butt bar, then walk around to tie the horse is the easiest.  If you’re dealing with horse that won’t self-load, then having an assistant to secure the butt bar while you stand with the UNTIED horse is the best method. 

     It’s important to tie the horse short enough that he can’t put his head down and have wreck with the divider or chest bar.  It’s equally important to make sure that the horse has enough room tied to reach the hay bag, and ideally put his head down some so he can clear his airway.  Using a trailer tie with a quick release snap is good, but a smartly tied quick release knot on a lead rope is fine.  My trailer doesn’t have a manger, which I like because the horses can put their front feet forward more during travel to balance.  I also use hay bags, which are great so horses can put their heads down lower when eating, again so that they can better clear their airway.  I like to clip the trailer tie or the lead to the cheek ring on the halter.  That way I can tie the horse shorter, lessening the chance of entanglement, but he can still reach his hay.   I don’t like the Velcro quick release type trailer ties, they seem to be too easy for horses to get undone, and the potential for a horse to get his head stuck again under the divider or chest bar are greater if he is untied!

     Make sure you load the horse(s) last, after you have everything else ready to go, loaded and be ready to get in the truck and head out to your destination.  This is especially important for horses that aren’t seasoned travelers, are traveling alone (remember horses are herd animals), or may have trailering “baggage”, and you want to make their experience as short and sweet as possible.

     Always do a final check of the trailer before you go: look at tires, check trailer doors, windows (more ventilation is better!), lights, hitch, tack room door, truck tires, to make sure there aren’t any problems brewing that might get bigger during the haul.

     When you arrive at your destination, find a safe place to unload the horse.  Make sure that the first thing you do is UNTIE the horse and attach the lead rope BEFORE opening any doors.  THEN it’s safe to take the ramp down, open the doors, and when YOU are ready, un-fasten the butt bar and allow the horse to calmly unload.  If the trailer is opened before the horse is untied, and/or before the lead rope is attached to his halter, this is another prime opportunity for a pull back incident or a loose horse!

     If you are hauling more than one horse, keep in mind that horses are herd animals.  When the first horse unloads, make sure he is safely out of the way, but keep him within sight of the still-loaded horse, so that horse doesn’t panic and have a wreck while unloading.

 Clean up!

     Once the horses are safely put away at their destination, clean the trailer by removing all manure and sweeping it clean.  Weather permitting, it’s best to hose the trailer out if there is urine.  Sweep out any hay from the floor; make sure the windows and vents are shut (unless the trailer needs to dry out).  I like to make sure the butt bars, trailer ties, etc., are all hooked back up so that things aren’t rattling around if I haul an empty trailer.

     I don’t like to use shavings or other bedding in the trailer, particularly for short trips.  Shavings are dusty with a well-ventilated trailer and can blow up into horse’s eyes and nose.  Straw can be slick even when dry.  On long distance trips I put a small amount shavings down at the back half of the horse compartment to soak up urine and also encourage horses to urinate normally, because some horses don’t like to urinate on hard surfaces where their legs will get splashed.

     I use the clean up time to make sure there are no maintenance issues with the trailer, so that it’s safe and ready to use the next time we need it.

My favorite horse trailer resource is the book called The Complete Guide to Buying, Maintaining, and Servicing a Horse Trailer, by Neva Kittrell Scheve.  Check this out for more information!

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