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Dear Julie:
Your trailer loading advice has helped me so much in the past. Now, I’m ready to take my horse on my first long road trip— we’re heading from Central Texas to a group trail ride in Colorado. I have never trailered a horse more than a few hours. What should I do to make sure my horse is comfortable and safe for that long of a trip? And any advice on what the inside of the trailer should be set up like–to tie or not? Shavings or not? What about keeping him watered, fed, and rested during this 13-hour trek? I’m nervous about where he can get out to rest and if he’ll be nervous in the trailer. Thanks for your help and advice. –Lilly Woods, via e-mail
Thanks for asking for advice and seeking experience as you head out on the road. There’s so much to consider when traveling with horses and it’s always good to gather wisdom from seasoned road warriors. I’ve listened to lots of helpful hints when it comes to trailering—and I’ve learned a lot of things to do (and not to do) over a lifetime of hauling horses. When you’re traveling so far, you’ll need to consider your horse, your trailer, and your goals once you arrive. Think about all of these things before you lay out a travel plan. Here’s a round up of what I consider when I’m getting ready to travel with different horses and for different travel lengths.
Consider the Horse
You’ll need to know what your horse is like in the trailer before deciding how to break up your travel. If your horse is nervous in the trailer—imagine him shaking and nervous—he’ll use more energy on the road, get himself hot, and need frequent breaks. Some horses are anxious when you’re not moving, but they do OK once you’re in motion. My horse Dually is comfortable in the trailer—I can tell because he stands still and isn’t fidgety. There are few hoof prints in the shavings when we travel far distances. When trailering a seasoned traveler, you can drive on a bit farther than with a nervous horse.
Some horses haul really well and aren’t stressed at all. Other horses are anxious in the trailer. You know your horse and what he’ll most likely be like.
How my horse feels in the trailer may impact how I dress him up. I like to have protection for my horse’s legs if he’s a horse that is new to trailering or may lose his balance. I like to wrap legs in a standing wrap so that the protection stays in place. I might not choose to wrap a horse if the temperature is hot or if Dually and I are going a short distance and I’m fairly certain he’ll stand still and relax.
Your Trailer
How comfortable your trailer is will have an impact on how you plan this trip. If your horse has a slant load with padded sides where he can lean against, he’ll have a break from the stress of balancing. If you have an open stock-type trailer, he won’t have a chance to lean and may tire more quickly.
Think about how you’ll access your horse on the road. Is it comfortable for your horse to eat in the trailer? If you can access your horse’s head from the outside of the trailer via a window you can give your horse water and feed on the road without offloading. That will mean you can make short stops to check on your horse and keep moving toward your destination. All these considerations will help me choose how often I’ll stop and if I’ll need to offload my horses when I do stop.
 A few notes on prepping your trailer: I always choose to tie my horses in the trailer so that I know where his head is. If I feel the trailer moving and feel the horse moving around, I know that there’s something wrong. I also like to know that I can get to my horse’s head to feed and water if I need to along the route. I want my horses to stay how I put them. Of course I only want to tie in a halter that is made for trailering—a halter made to break away in an emergency. Never tie in a trailer with a rope halter.
You also ask about prepping your trailer with shavings. Only add in a thin layer of shavings. You don’t want tons of shavings that can blow around and affect your horse’s air quality. Shavings can also become slippery, so keeping them at a minimum is best.
You do need to check your trailer’s ventilation—making sure that the roof vents are open and that air can circulate inside the trailer without the windows being open all the way. You want airflow but you don’t want your horse to be able to stick his head out of the window.
Time on the Road
Thirteen hours is a long trek for a horse and that length of drive time will make you choose whether you drive straight through or stop to rest and board along the route. From my place in Central Colorado, I have to trailer 3 hours just to get out of the mountains. My horses and I are used to a moderately long trailer ride. A 13-hour trip requires a bit more planning than a jaunt across town or my usual 3-hour venture. For short trips, your horse may not need to be fed or watered in the trailer. For longer trips, you’ll need to plan ahead and schedule rest stops, water breaks and feed times for your horse. How often you stop and what you do at a stop will depend on how calm your horse is in the trailer—you’ll stop more for the nervous horse.
With a 13-hour trip, you’re right on the deciding line to know if you’ll make the trip in one day or two. The decision is up to you–as you best know your horse and his needs.
For me, I want to know what the horse will be asked to do once he arrives at the destination. If you’re arriving right before a big trail ride and your horse needs to work hard as soon as he arrives, you’ll want to build in some downtime. If you have a day of rest once you arrive in Colorado, you might be able to speed through (if you have two drivers and build in some time to stop and rest).
Keep in mind, too, that you’re traveling from a low altitude in Texas to a high altitude in Colorado. Especially if you’re going on a mountain trail ride–where the altitude is around 10,000 feet above sea level—your horse will need time to acclimate just like you will. You won’t want to push through and drive all at once then unload and ask your horse to carry you through mountainous terrain without a good day or two of rest at your destination.
If I were going that far and decided to break the trip into two days, I wouldn’t offload the horse during each day’s haul. Along my route, I would stop and eat at a restaurant while making sure the trailer was in a safe place. I’d open the windows so the horse had air, check on him, then sit down and rest for a half hour. I get a break and the horse gets a break from balancing while the trailer is in motion. The horse will have a rest and get off of the trailer once we stop for the day.
With a two-day trip, I’d travel 6 and a half hours each day. That’s a good amount of time. Optimally, I’d choose to travel no more than 8 hours a day. That allows me to arrive early at the overnight accommodations I chose and booked ahead of time. I’d make sure to take my horse on a nice leisurely walk when I arrive to help his digestion and his muscles. Horses aren’t made to stand still all day so walking can help them relax.
If your horse has time to rest when you arrive at your destination, your horse travels well, and your trailer is comfortable, you could make it all the way through in one day. With that plan, I’d stop every two hours (even if it’s only for 20 minutes). I’d open the windows and check to see if the ventilation is OK in the trailer. I like to feel the horses around the chest (if I can reach in through the window) so I know if my horse is too hot or cold.
For that one-day trip, I’d offer water and put in the feed bag so the horse can eat and drink a bit. Plus, the horse gets a little break from balancing as you move on the road.
Feed & Water Along the Way
Hydration is most important when you’re hauling a distance. If your trailer allows you to access your horse’s head while the horses are in the trailer, you can hang a hay bag and water bucket when you stop to rest. If your have a stock trailer where you can’t get to your horse’s head, he’s only going to get feed and water when you offload.
I like to bring a few 5-gallon buckets with lids so my horse has some water from home so that he’ll recognize it and drink.
You’ll also need hay from home. Your horse’s digestive system is designed to have food moving through his system throughout the day. He’ll keep eating and be more relaxed when he has access to food. However, I do like to make sure that there’s adequate room in the trailer for my horse and the hay bag. I don’t like to stuff a full hay bag in a slant load because there’s little room for my horse to move and my horse can’t relax his neck when the bag is full in front of him.
A note about shorter distances: If I’m only going a short distance (less than three hours in my slant-load trailer), I make sure the horse has eaten well before we start. If the horse gets on the trailer with a full belly, he won’t be thinking about food for an hour or two. Then I’ll make sure he has hay and water as soon as we arrive. This also means he’ll have more space to move in the trailer without  a space-limiting hay bag.
Advice from the Road
Offloading along your route may seem like a good break for your horse, but it’s tough to find a safe place to unload and load safely if you’re not traveling a familiar route. I don’t like to offload onto concrete or asphalt where horses can easily slip. Plus, I’d only offload a horse that I know will load up again easily. If there’s any question about your horse’s intent to get back onboard, don’t offload along your path and wait for an overnight boarding place where you can safely unload and have the appropriate conditions to load when it’s time. I don’t want to do a trailer-loading training session along a busy highway.
If you choose to offload, make sure that you have as many people with you as you do horses. A horse will always travel better with a buddy—he’ll be most calm when he has company in the back. I like to make sure there is enough help if I’m going to unload along the way. If I’m by myself, I want to get there as fast as I can and make sure I don’t have incidents along the way.
Building Confidence
Overall, you’ll feel more prepared once you make a plan that feels right for you. I recommend bringing along a friend who is good with horses and can help. I also urge you to check into a wireless camera that can be placed in the trailer and you can monitor from the cab. You’ll know how your horse is doing and you can check in on him along the way. Good luck on your trip and let us know how you do!