Trailering is a necessary aspect of horse ownership. Even if you think that it’s unlikely your horse will ever leave your property, there is always the possibility that he’ll need a ride for veterinary care or in an emergency. Should he need to be transported, teaching him ahead of time to load, unload and travel calmly in a trailer will maximize safety for both you and your horse. Trailering can also open up great opportunities for enjoying your horse through participation in off-site shows, trail rides and training.
Three Rules of Loading and Unloading
Regardless of your riding discipline or your training philosophies, there are three basic rules that must be followed when teaching a horse to load in a trailer:
- The method must be safe for the handlers.
- The method must be safe for the horse.
- The horse should be as calm after loading as before.
If your horse hasn’t been taught to load, won’t load or has trouble loading, please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Trailer.
In addition, there are three guidelines that will help insure a safe load for everyone:
- Horses should only be loaded into trailers when they are calm and under control. If at any time your horse gets frightened or unruly, you should stop the exercise. Out of control and fractious horses are dangerous. Regardless of the method you decide to use for loading your horse, if he is not calm, there is a great potential for danger.
- Never attempt to load an inexperienced horse when you are in a hurry. Easy loading is facilitated by patience.
- Whenever possible, you should only load and unload horses in a fenced area. This way, if your horse escapes, he’ll be contained and easier to catch.
If you cannot follow these guidelines, your horse is telling you that you must go back and help him learn to load in your trailer. Please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Trailer.
A Note About Trailers
Trailers come in a variety of designs including straight load, slant load and stock trailers. Some horses will load more easily into a stock trailer than other styles because it’s more open. Other than the openness of a stock trailer, no trailer style has been shown to have distinct advantages, so trailer choice is primarily based on owner preference. Rear doors can have a ramp or a step-up—both varieties have their good points and their drawbacks. Most horses are okay facing forward or backward during travel.
Safety-Check Your Tow Vehicle and Trailer
The Tow Vehicle
Make certain your vehicle is rated to tow the combined weight of your trailer and horses.
- If your tow vehicle has an automatic transmission and did not come standard with a tow kit that includes a transmission cooler, consider having a transmission cooler installed. A transmission cooler can save you a great deal of stress and money, particularly if you are hauling your horse long distances, up hills or in warm weather.
- Check all vehicle fluids. Fluids include oil, brake fluid, radiator fluid and transmission fluid. If any fluids are below recommended levels, refill and evaluate why the fluid level was low. Low fluids can indicate a problem with performance. Check and refill your wiper fluid.
- Pay special attention to your brakes. Worn or improperly adjusted brakes not only impair stopping, they can make noise and cause the vehicle to vibrate or shake. This is especially important as horses react poorly to high-pitched noise and vibration.
- Check your wheels and tires. First check to be sure all lug nuts are tightened, and then check the tire pressure. Correct tire pressure will be listed in your owner’s manual.
- Check your hitch. Make certain that everything is sturdy. At the minimum, only class three hitches should be used to tow horses (check the weight restrictions of your hitch and make certain it is rated higher, both total weight and tongue weight, than the weight of your loaded trailer). Check to be sure the ball on your vehicle is the right size for your trailer. In addition, check for wear in the coupling that could contribute to lurching during starts and stops.
- Check the pressure of the tires on your trailer. Low tire pressure can contribute to tire wear, which can lead to tire blow-out. Low and uneven tire pressure can also cause the trailer to sway.
- As you did with your tow vehicle, check the lug nuts on your trailer wheels. This is particularly important if your trailer is new or you’ve just had new tires installed.
- Check over your hitch, coupler and safety chains. Cross your safety chains for extra security.
- Check your brakes. If your trailer is equipped with brakes that function off a separate battery, check that battery as well. As with the tow vehicle, worn or improperly functioning brakes can impair stopping ability and cause vibration and noise.
- Check your trailer lights and make sure all lights are working properly before you load the horses.
- Bring a human companion.
- Carry a well-stocked tool kit.
- Tape a list of emergency information and contacts with phone numbers and, where appropriate, addresses, somewhere obvious inside your tow vehicle and on an inside door in your trailer. Include your own information and that of your traveling companions, relatives or friends who can handle and trailer your horses and make decisions for you, your veterinarian, your insurance company, the barn where you board your horse and any barns where you plan to stay during your travels.
- Carry a cell phone.
- Carry at least one spare tire (preferably two) for your horse trailer.
- Check your wheels whenever your trailer is parked.
- Carry a trailer jack.
- Carry an equine first-aid kit in your trailer.
- Handy items to have in case of an emergency are extra halters and lead ropes, a supply of water for your horse and extra hay/feed.
- Never unhitch your trailer with your horses still in it.
- Enroll in roadside assistance programs, such as USRider, that are specially designed for vehicles hauling horses.
- Give your itinerary to a relative or friend and check in periodically to keep them posted on your progress.
Loading and Securing Your Horse in the Trailer
First Things First
Be certain your trailer is big enough for your horse! Trailers that are too small increase the likelihood that your horse will develop loading problems, that he’ll injure himself during transit and even that he’ll scrabble more while in motion. Restricted space impairs your horse’s ability to move and balance himself.
- Trailer beds should be matted with heavy rubber stall matting. Matting reduces abrasion on your horse’s hooves, and most importantly minimizes bumps and therefore protects your horse from muscle and ligament fatigue.
- Mats should be bedded with straw, sawdust or a similar material. Bedding absorbs eliminations and helps your horse keep his footing and avoid scrabbling, reducing both injury and anxiety.
- Bring an extra supply of your horse’s regular drinking water in case he dislikes the taste of unfamiliar water.
- Put hay where your horse can access it easily. (Don’t feed grain while trailering because it can increase the possibility of colic.) Hay will keep your horse occupied and keep his digestive system moving. Stuff the hay in a hay-net and attach the net high enough so your horse’s feet won’t get caught in the net. Be sure the hay you provide your horse is free from dust—misting the hay with water is helpful.
- Before you load, check the inside of the trailer thoroughly for bee and wasp nests. Keep in mind that stinging insects can build nests in small areas, including metal tubes and behind wall pads.
- If you’re loading your horse by himself in a two-horse straight-load trailer, put him on the left side (driver’s side). It helps balance the trailer on roads that slope to the shoulder. Likewise, if you’re loading two horses, load the heaviest horse on the driver’s side.
- Remove buckets or other objects—including hay bales—from the front of the trailer. There should be no clutter that could shift in transit and interfere with your horse, and no protrusions that could scrape or catch your horse.
- Prepare your horse by outfitting him with shipping boots that cover his coronary band. Shipping caps are also available. However, don’t wait until the day you’re going to trailer your horse for the first time to introduce either of these protective articles. Instead, familiarize him with the articles many times before using them for actual shipping.
- Leave your horse’s halter on him during shipping. The halter should be a break-away type—generally made with a leather strap at the crown—and should fit snugly, but not pinch.
- Open all the doors and windows in the trailer—including the forward escape doors—before loading your horse. This will make the trailer more inviting by letting in light, and will provide you an exit if you lead your horse in rather than drive him in.
Loading Your Horse
- Load with a helper. The helper can snap the butt-strap and secure the rear door while you stand outside the forward escape door holding your horse’s lead.
- Load your horse one step at a time. If you have problems leading your horse into the trailer, please see our Teaching Your Horse to Trailer article.
- Lead or drive your horse into the trailer.
- Once your horse is in, offer him hay, and slowly and carefully exit the trailer through the forward escape door. Keep hold of your horse’s lead, and wait for your companion to snap the butt-strap in place and secure the rear doors.
- Once the rear doors are secured, remove the lead.
- NOTE: NEVER TIE A HORSE IN A TRAILER BEFORE SECURING THE BUTT-STRAP AND BACK DOORS! The horse could easily panic while the doors are being shut and attempt to back out of the trailer, and fall and injure himself severely.
- If you’re alone (not recommended), leave your horse standing loose once you have given him hay, exit the forward door and go to the back of the trailer, snap the butt-strap in place and secure the doors. Then if you choose to tie your horse, return to the escape door and tie him.
- Once your horse is loaded, the choice to tie or not is yours. Tying can make handling the horse upon removal from the trailer easier, but it can impair a horse’s ability to keep his balance.
- If you choose to tie your horse, tie him with a trailer tie with a quick-release snap. Lead ropes are too long and the end may entangle him, and they usually do not have quick-release snaps. The quick-release snap should be attached to the trailer rather than the horse so that if the horse panics, you can safely and easily release the snap.
- Attach the trailer tie in the position that best allows your horse to move his head up and down. Don’t tie him too high, too low or too short. Although tying high reduces the possibility that the horse could get a leg over the tie, tying high is very fatiguing for a horse and contributes to the development of respiratory infection. (Respiratory infection is a common problem in horse transport.) Tying short restricts a horse’s ability to move and can contribute to panic.
- Leave windows secured open and close screens to prevent things flying into the trailer and hitting your horse. Large windows should be closed, as a nervous horse might try to escape through one.
- Shut all doors tightly, checking to be certain that they are latched. Unsecured doors can allow horses to stick their heads out and contribute to things blowing about in the trailer. In addition, unsecured doors can jar open and bang against the trailer, frightening your horse.
Helping Your Horse Enjoy the Ride and Stay Safe and Healthy
- Offer your horse water every time you stop for fuel, bathroom breaks and meals. Check him over during these stops and look for fatigue, cuts or nicks and excess sweating. Perspiration can be caused by both warm conditions and stress. If the temperature is mild and your horse is perspiring heavily, allow him to rest in the trailer until his coat dries before resuming your travels. Do not climb in the trailer and groom him, as handling a horse in quarters as close as a trailer can be dangerous. Resist the urge to take him from the trailer, as this can be dangerous for both you and your horse.
- Do not take your horse from the trailer while traveling unless you are in a completely enclosed area and your horse is calm—horses can get upset during transport, and taking them from the trailer and then loading them again can open up opportunities for the horse to spook and run into traffic, or to refuse to reload.
- Schedule your first fueling stop so that you fill your tow vehicle after your horses are loaded and before you get on the highway. Take this opportunity to recheck everything—including your hitch, safety chains, doors and your horses.
- Stop at least once every four hours to give your horse’s legs and muscles a rest. If your horse is tied, untie him and let him drop his head to the ground (but don’t take him from the trailer), and offer him plenty of fresh water and hay.
- At each rest or refueling stop, double check that your hitch, safety chains, brakes and lights are connected correctly.
- Give yourself extra time and distance when stopping. This is important for two reasons: even with excellent electric trailer brakes, the weight of your tow vehicle, trailer and horses will require more time to stop, and your horses need the opportunity to shift their weight in preparation for stops. Stay at least the length of your vehicle and trailer behind the vehicle in front of you, and use lower gears when traveling down hills.
- Turn corners and change lanes slowly to allow your horse to steady himself. Don’t return to normal speed until you are well out of the turn and your horse has had an opportunity to shift his weight and regain his balance.
- Try to park where you can leave the space by simply driving forward.
- When parking, don’t keep going forward and back in an attempt to carefully position your trailer with your horse inside. Backing and going forward repeatedly can frighten your horse and make unloading and even reloading very difficult and dangerous.
- When you unload, always untie your horse and undo the butt-strap before opening the rear doors. The horse may panic if you open the door and he tries to back up but finds himself still secured by the tie.
- Unload your horse in the first area available where your horse will be able to safely exit.
- Unload your horse one step at a time. If possible, do not allow him to rush out of the trailer. If he rushes, be sure to spend time teaching him to load and unload before your next trip. (Please see our article, Teaching Your Horse to Trailer, for help with training.)
- Hand-walk your horse for 5 to 10 minutes after unloading him from the trailer. This will help relax his muscles and give you the opportunity to detect any irregularities in his movement that could signal injury. In addition, allow him time to recover from the trip before tacking and riding.