Keeping Horses Healthy While Shipping

By Cynthia McFarland

Horses in Trailer

How many times has it happened? You take a trip, either for pleasure or business, and end up with the flu or a nasty cold. Definitely not the travel memories you had in mind.

Travel-related illness can also be a reality for equine athletes who often ship long distances to compete. When horses are on the move and dealing with changing environments, you'll want to do everything possible to keep them healthy during and after travel.

Veterinary Advice

If you have any concerns about whether your horse is or isn't ready for travel--especially for a long trip--consult with your veterinarian.

The best plan to prevent horses from becoming ill during or after shipping is to insure the horse is healthy and does not have a temperature prior to travel. This includes making sure horses are current on their vaccinations.

“Make sure horses are up to date on their vaccinations, but don’t vaccinate less than two weeks before shipping,” advises Mark Donaldson, VMD, DACVIM, a practicing veterinarian and one of the partners at Unionville Equine Associates in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Hydration is a critical factor in horses remaining healthy, so it is very important that they not be dehydrated before shipping. If a horse has recently competed, or been in any situation where he may have been dehydrated, try to wait a couple days before shipping to make certain the horse is well hydrated. (Adding powdered electrolytes to the horse's feed or giving a serving of paste electrolytes can encourage water consumption.)

For horses that are hesitant to drink unfamiliar water, Kool Aid® or Gatorade® can be used to flavor the water. Horses should be introduced to any such flavoring agents well before travel so they have time to get accustomed to the taste. (Any time you add flavoring to water, always offer the option of a bucket of plain water, too. This way you won't discourage drinking if the horse doesn't want the flavored water at that time.)

In the van or trailer, hay nets often put the hay - and any accompanying dust - right at the horse’s head level. If possible, put the hay on the floor for the horse to eat so he is not breathing in dust. This works fine in a box stall, but for horses that are in tie stalls or standard horse trailers, tie hay nets low enough that the horse isn’t reaching up and breathing dust into his lungs, but high enough that he can’t get a foot caught.

Box stalls are more expensive than tie stalls in a commercial van, but they allow the horse to move around, lower his head and position himself in the most comfortable way for travel.

“The ability of the horse to lower his head helps him get dust and food particles out of the airway,” says Donaldson. “A box stall will also allow them to choose the direction they want to face while traveling. This, and the ability to put their heads down, helps reduce stress.”

Horses should only be tranquilized if absolutely necessary for safety, and never enough to cause heavy sedation. Too much tranquilizer and the horse can be unsteady on his feet. In addition, “if they are heavily sedated, they lose their cough reflex and are less likely to cough, which is a normal defense mechanism of the lung,” Donaldson notes.

Even if the horse seems perfectly healthy upon arrival at his destination, to be on the safe side, you should closely monitor temperatures, feed intake, manure and overall attitude for several days.

“This way you can detect any problem quickly and intervene right away,” says Donaldson.

Healthy at the Start

A reliable commercial carrier will do everything in its power to see that their equine charges arrive at the destination point in good health. Yet the greatest contributing factor to this goal is that horses are healthy when they ship, something that is completely out of the control of the carrier.

“We require a health certificate and Coggins on any horse traveling out of state, but the primary thing is that the horse is healthy at pick up. You want to start out with a horse that is in good condition and ready to travel. If there is any question, that horse should not be put on the van,” notes Kathleen Billman, dispatcher for Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation, Inc. (www.bobhubbardhorsetrans.com) and based in their Colton, California, office.

Billman advises owners not to tranquilize horses for shipping unless it is absolutely necessary, but says this is up to the owner. "Horses are very social animals and seem to calm down once they're in van with the other horses," she says.

To keep horses healthy, it is important that they keep drinking, especially on long distance trips. Water buckets are hung in van during transport, but many horses aren't inclined to drink while the vehicle is moving.

“We stop every four to five hours and all our long-distance trips are done with two drivers,” says Billman, noting that each stop lasts about 45 minutes to an hour.

“At each stop they inspect the horses, offer them water and make sure they’re drinking. Horses will relax when the truck is at a full stop and are more apt to drink and also more likely to urinate. Our lead drivers are always experienced horse people and will notice any change in the horse from one stop to the next.

"During warm weather, or any time a driver is concerned about the amount of water a horse is drinking, they will give oral paste electrolytes or add powdered electrolytes to the water," she notes.

If necessary, a veterinarian is contacted en route to check any horse that may have a problem.

Most commercial carriers will not take the responsibility of administering injectible medications, and require that any such treatment be handled by a veterinarian.

To blanket or not? That is left to the customer shipping the horse. Vans are not heated, but even in winter a heavy blanket may cause the horse to get too warm.

"The heaviest thing we recommend a horse wearing on a van is a sheet," says Billman, noting that the body heat from the horses keeps it warm inside, even in cold weather. "When customers want to send blankets, we accept them, but the horses might not need to wear them except for when they're off the van at a layover stop."

When it comes to long distance shipping, stall size matters. A box stall has advantages. In addition to the fact that horses can freely move around, a prime advantage of the box stall is that the horse doesn’t have to be tied and can lower his head.

Some vans do have tie stalls that are fully caged, meaning they have a front gate that extends from ceiling to floor, allowing the horse to travel untied. This makes it possible to feed hay from the floor so the horse is not breathing in dust from a suspended hay net. Not all commercial carriers have such stalls available, so an owner would have to inquire when making shipping arrangements.

To relieve stress and keep horses healthy, layovers are critical for long distance trips. For example, on a trip from Kentucky to California, horses would be taken off the van at approximately the half-way point. Horses are allowed to rest in stalls at the lay-over facility for a minimum of 12 hours, while the longest period for a layover is up to 24 hours.

"If a horse comes off the van at the layover and the driver has any reason for concern, they will take the horse's temperature and we will call the owner," says Billman. "If necessary, we will also have a veterinarian out to examine the horse. Our drivers are horsemen, but they aren't veterinarians. A lot of times you can catch a problem early."

If for any reason the veterinarian feels the horse shouldn't continue to travel at that time, the horse owner and veterinarian make that decision.

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