Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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When a Horse Needs a Ride

Pet Column for the week of June 2, 2008

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

It might be relatively easy for your Labrador to jump in the backseat of your car, or easier yet if you own a scaled-down version like a Chihuahua, but what about a 1,200 pound horse? Although SUVs are getting bigger each year, you are unlikely to fit a thoroughbred in your cargo hold and it probably wouldn't be advisable to try.

Dr. Mike Karlin, an equine surgery resident at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, is quite accustomed to his patients walking off a trailer ramp to greet him after a long ride. Horses are transported everyday across the country without a problem, but if not done carefully trailering can cause problems. With a few precautions you won't be meeting Dr. Karlin in the clinic with an injured horse.

Although it might seem too logical to overlook, inspect the trailer to make sure it is safe. "One time an owner neglected to realize a panel in the floor of their trailer was rotten, and the horse's leg broke through onto the pavement," says Dr. Karlin.

Once you have found a solid trailer, it is imperative that you have quality food and water for your horse at all times during the trip. "Some horses are finicky about their water intake during transport," mentions Dr. Karlin. To alleviate this problem, there are trailers on the market that have a water storage tank so the horse has a beverage it is used to. Even if you can't bring your own, make sure water is always in front of the animal.

Now comes the hard part: loading your horse. This step, as many horse owners can attest to, is often the most difficult aspect of transport, but practice makes perfect. Meaning, don't expect your horse to load on the first try. But once you are in the trailer with the horse make sure there is adequate ventilation and that you would be comfortable riding in a similar environment.

Unfortunately, there are no horse seatbelts but Dr. Karlin advises using shipping wraps which cover the lower part of the horses leg for protection. Research has shown that horses seem to be less stressed when they travel in a rear facing position, likely because they can control their body movement better. However, most trailers cannot safely transport a horse in such a manner because of their design.

If your journey will be long, "it is probably best to check on the horse about every three hours, or when you stop for gas, whichever comes first," recommends Dr. Karlin. He also explains that if the animal becomes agitated, you can stop and walk it around if it is safe to do so.

Although there are already enough items to worry about, interstate travel requires paperwork. Regulations vary from state to state but, in general, a USDA health certificate is required as well as a negative Coggins test (for Equine Infectious Anemia).

If trailering your horse sounds too stressful, FedEx will fly it on a cargo jet for a few thousand dollars. Better yet, if you are an equine athlete competing overseas in the summer Olympics, you can rest easy knowing there will be a first class stall on a chartered jet with your name on it. Sorry, no peanuts and pretzels, just hay and oats.

For more information about transporting your horses, contact your local equine veterinarian.