Reduce Your Horse’s Transport Stress

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

By Kevan Garecki

When things just don’t feel right, you may experience a hollow feeling in the pit of your stomach, or you might actually manifest physical symptoms such as gastric distress, perspiration, or muscle tremors. In humans and in horses, stress can create a multitude of psychological reactions ranging from mild anxiety to debilitating near panic and severe depression, and reduced immune response which can invite illness. Long term stress can produce ulcers, musculoskeletal disorders, heart irregularities, and create a host of psychological vices. Prolonged exposure to stress can negatively impact essential hormone production needed for digestion, metabolism, reproduction, and growth. Minimizing stress creates a healthier environment, reduces illness and fatigue, and helps maintain performance levels. In terms of our horses, reducing stress also protects our investment.

Defining stress on behalf of our horses requires an understanding of the various types of stressors and their individual effects on the horse. In studying medical reports on this subject, I made a number of discoveries, not the least of which was that those who have conducted the myriad of tests to determine equine stressors discovered what experienced horse people already knew – horses react to stress in much the same way as humans, and suffer from similar effects. 

Every horse is claustrophobic, some just hide it better than others; many horses internalize their anxiety, making us believe that traveling is no big deal to them. The most commonly perceived stressor for horses in transit is, of course, the loading phase, but separation from herd-mates, unfamiliar sounds, elevated noise levels, disrupted schedules, changes of food and water, confinement and restraint all elicit stress responses in horses. Proper training of horses, creating a loading plan, using suitable vehicles, and proper driving and handling techniques are also easily controllable factors which combine to create a less stressful experience for our equine friends.

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

Our behaviour can directly influence the amount of stress our horse feels. Pay attention to what the horse is reacting to. Balking at the trailer’s entrance may simply be due to the horse’s eyes needing time to adjust to the light inside the trailer. Photo: Mane Frame Photography

Contrary to what many might believe, stress is frequently cumulative, meaning the more often a horse is exposed to the stressful situation, the harder it becomes for him to cope. While a confident horse will build on successful experiences and increase his self-assurance each time, a more nervous horse might simply regard each attempt as just another horrible thing the human does to him. Eventually the nervous horse can no longer deal with the stress and refuses in an initial attempt to control the situation. We frequently misinterpret this as recalcitrance and force the issue, thereby adding another brick to the wall we’ll hit each time; the cause and effect cycle spirals exponentially until the horse either develops a vice or becomes unmanageable. The predictable result is that the horse gets labelled as “bad,” and we ramp up the “training” accordingly. But by recognizing the individual stressors, we can help the horse overcome them and use that knowledge to make even greater strides toward building confidence, and ultimately, trust.

It’s important to pay attention to what the horse is reacting to, and how. Balking at the entrance may simply be due to the horse’s eyes needing time to adjust to lower light inside the trailer. By not allowing this simple step we can raise the horse’s stress level, making the next stressor harder to take. The ideal transport environment for a horse is one which has a comfortable temperature, offers proper ventilation and footing, is free from excessive noise, and mimics as closely as possible the horse’s normal routine.

Our behaviour can directly influence the stress our horses feel. If we calmly guide the horse, he will take his cue from us. If we are tense or impatient, he will feel our anxiety. While loading, if we present to the horse as anything less than a confident leader, he will be far less likely to follow. 

When in transit, our driving has a significant impact on the horse’s stress level. Poor driving techniques are a common stressor, and ultimately the reason many horses develop trailering issues. Hazardous conditions are equally as important to consider – rough roads, bad weather, delays, traffic and even the time of day can all combine to make the trip more difficult for the horse to bear.

The effects of transport related stress can continue to affect the horse long after the trip is over, so it’s important to allow a horse to rest for a period at least equal to that of the trip itself on arrival. The longer the trip, the more “decompression time” is needed. The rest period allows the horse to recover from not only the stress of traveling, but to recuperate from the fatigue. The importance of this rest period cannot be overstated, as it impacts health and general well-being, performance, reproduction, growth, and the ability of the immune system to deal with infections and disease.

Air Quality and Thermal Stress

There are several environmental factors to consider for the horse’s sake while in transit, such as temperature and air quality, the physical environment (flooring and bedding, lighting, suitability of the unit for the horses on board, and cleanliness), loading plan (pairing compatible horses together, or moving incompatible horses apart, and stall size) and even trip planning to minimize stress from unfamiliar surroundings. Cleanliness of the trailer provides a healthier environment for the horses inside. Manure sheds bacteria, urine gives off toxic ammonia, and the dust emanating from dried manure can easily overwhelm the cleansing functions of a horse’s respiratory system.

Air quality is always a major concern, yet frequently overlooked or misunderstood. Ventilation is important during transit, and seasonal conditions will dictate how we maintain an acceptable quality of air flow through the trailer. Roof vents should most commonly be open towards the rear of the unit; in this direction they act as exhaust points, allowing the air inside the trailer to escape. With side windows open, this creates a steady flow of air through the trailer while in motion. On extremely warm days, opening the roof vents to the front will reverse the flow of air to a degree and force more fresh air into the trailer, but doing so also causes turbulence inside, which can result in more debris and dust for the horses to inhale or become embedded in their eyes. Simply wetting down the bedding and misting the hay slightly will usually control the majority of airborne debris.

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

Poor driving techniques, rough roads, bad weather, traffic and delays all combine to make the trip more difficult for the horses on board. Photo: Mane Frame Photography

I would like to address the all-too-common and potentially dangerous practice of leaving drop-down windows open while moving. Drop-down windows were designed to allow additional ventilation while the vehicle is parked and to allow head access to the horses, and should never be left in the fully open position when traveling. With the drop-down window open a horse cannot avoid the blast of incoming wind, which is at the very least uncomfortable, but also increases the risk of injury from airborne debris. I have seen some rigs underway with both the drop down and window bars open, allowing the horses to poke their heads outside. This should never be done! Even a moderately sized insect can strike the eye, blinding the horse permanently. There have been many cases where passing trucks have struck horses with their mirrors, horses have spooked and tried to climb out the window, and some have been decapitated when the trailer passed an oncoming vehicle. Transport regulations share a constant throughout North America in that all livestock in transit must be held completely within the vehicle so that no part of the animal may protrude from it. Allowing horse’s head outside while moving is not only completely inconsiderate of the horse’s safety, it’s illegal.

Thermal stress is simply that which the body experiences when temperatures rise or fall out of the normal range. Older and very young horses are most susceptible to thermal stress, as they frequently lack the ability to regulate their own body heat beyond minor changes. Temperature control is another topic that seems to cause some mystery for many folks; this is primarily through a simple misunderstanding of a horse’s physiology and metabolism. Horses are comfortable within a broader thermal range than humans (-1 to 20 degrees Celsius, or 30 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit), so what may feel cool to us is just right for Dobbin. The equine “thermostat” which controls a series of temperature regulating functions is quite remarkable. Tiny muscles just under the skin can alter the angle of hair follicles, allowing them to raise the hair shaft up to trap insulating air underneath, thereby minimizing heat loss. As the surrounding temperature rises, the hair shaft is laid flat against the skin to facilitate dispensing heat through the skin. Blanketing interrupts this function, and the horse can no longer adjust for temperature changes on his own. Metabolic changes can also be regulated to increase or decrease heat production when needed, provided the horse has sufficient forage and water to do so. Contrary to a popular myth, grain and other concentrated feeds do not help a horse warm up; more heat is generated through the digestion of forage or roughage. If you want to help the horse stay warm, increasing his hay ration will stoke the furnace far better than grain.

Horses can experience considerably higher and lower temperatures while in transit than we may think. There are many factors affecting the interior temperature of a horse trailer, including size, ventilation, number of horses on board and whether they are blanketed, ambient temperature, and humidity. The insulating qualities of the trailer itself are dependent on the materials used in its construction, such as bare metal walls or those lined with rubber matting, metal floors versus wood plank, and even the exterior colour can have a significant impact on interior temperature. These variants complicate things so that there is no single right answer for all situations. On longer trips, I may remove and/or replace blankets when the temperature dictates. With sufficient forage and water, a horse can deal with moderate cold more efficiently than excessive heat. Be mindful of weather changes and make adjustments in the ventilation, blanketing, and feed and water as necessary.

Confinement, Restraint and Novel Environments

Even for the most experienced road warrior, all it may take is a ride in a different trailer or a trip with unfamiliar horses to set him up for a stressful experience. Aggressive horses can make even a relatively brief trip unpleasant for others through little more than threatening body language; very timid horses can feel threatened in the presence of unknown horses. Tying horses in a situation like this exacerbates their fears and compounds the stress they feel. This is particularly true of horses unaccustomed to restraint. Experiences such as this can hamper future efforts, leaving us wondering why a perfectly quiet traveler suddenly refuses to load.

Whenever someone calls me to help in situations like this, I try to get to the root of the issue. Refusal to load is seldom the problem, but more commonly a symptom of the true reason. Horses never forget, everything they encounter is recorded; so when a horse mysteriously balks at a common task, step back and look at what happened last time. It could be an event that seemed insignificant, but to the horse it may be enough to warrant the fight-or-flight response.

Confinement in itself is not frequently a cause for alarm to a horse, but it’s not always a safe option to transport loose unless the horse can be trusted not to try escaping or use the freedom to bother a neighbouring horse. I haul loose whenever it is possible and safe to do so. Horses need to lower their heads to a point equal to or slightly lower than the withers in order to expel contaminants from the airway. They also use their heads and necks for balance, so a loose horse is significantly less stressed than one that is restrained. I may tie during loading and unloading just to ensure everyone behaves, but once on the road I remove head ties and offer as much freedom as possible. As most savvy horse people have learned, trying to restrain an upset horse usually heightens their anxiety, often making a bad situation even worse.

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

The horse should have a rest period at least equal to the length of the trip to recover from the stress and fatigue of travelling. Pleuropneumonia or shipping fever can manifest several days after transport, due to increased susceptibility to infection resulting from the compromised condition of the immune system. Photo: Shutterstock/Kristyna Kenkeova

The loading phase can be especially damaging for horses like this unless they are allowed to proceed at their own pace with respectful guidance. Rushing them in or using force to load them, and then slamming doors before they can escape sets the stage for an exceedingly stressful trip, as their fear is already piqued before the wheels ever start rolling. Patience, consistency, and a calm demeanour are the best things we can offer our horses at any time, but they are pivotal when it comes to teaching; and we are teaching our horses every moment we are with them. They are also trying very diligently to teach us, so listen up!

Novel environments elicit a number of reactions from horses, from cautious curiosity to the characteristic spooking or shying away. Segregation or separation from herd-mates can arguably be one of the most stressful factors associated with transport. Keeping horses paired up on the road is not always feasible or practical, but I have used my own horses to accompany others that I knew could benefit from the company, and the difference is measurable! Whenever I catch a hint of a horse who may react poorly to separation stress, I take a few precautions on his behalf – I try to unload him first, followed as quickly as possible by his traveling mate(s); I try not to leave him unattended for any length of time, as even our own presence can help soothe an anxious horse; if the stabling or holding area is some distance away from the point of unloading I will lead two horses together, so they can benefit from each other’s support. If necessary, I will enlist the help of another handler if I feel my safety or that of the horse may be compromised. I will also spend a few extra minutes with a stressed horse once he’s been put away, to monitor his behaviour and help ease his worry.

Case Studies

Several transport studies have been conducted in recent years, the most notable of which have come from the University of California, Davis Campus, arguably one of the leading equine research institutions in North America. Their studies in equine health and behaviour have consistently proven not only their dedication to equine wellness, but their innovative approaches to providing knowledge and viable solutions. With the aid of scientific data collection and assessment, the UC Davis researchers determined what some of us already knew: that transport related stress is a very real concern which can and does have lasting and debilitating effects on our horses. What they added to that knowledge was the medical reasoning behind what we knew, and they offered valuable tools with which to help our equine friends deal with transport more effectively.

An illuminating study done in 2003 focused not only on transport stress but the recovery phase, and what it took for the horses to return to a measured baseline in terms of health and wellness. The study was conducted with 15 healthy horses participating in a 24-hour run through typical California summer conditions. The horses were transported in a professional horse van specially equipped to monitor each individual, and were assessed at each rest stop (every two hours). General health was measured by white blood count, temperature, and body weights. The horses averaged a six percent loss of their normal body weight during the 24-hour period; the consensus was that this loss was due to dehydration through perspiration and interruption of their normal feed schedules. It is important to note that this weight was recovered within 24 hours of post transport rest, which echoes what caring, professional carriers have been preaching for many years – each day on the road should equal at least one day of complete rest upon arrival.

By measuring heart rate and cortisol levels, researchers determined stress levels specific to each individual as they encountered the various phases of transport. Unsurprisingly, cortisol levels were seen to rise steadily throughout the 24-hour period, as the horses were continually exposed to the stress of traveling. What did come as a surprise was the length of time it took for the cortisol levels to return to normal; most of the horses had measured cortisol levels far above normal even after the 24-hour rest period subsequent to the trip. As cortisol production negatively affects the immune system, as well as reproductive and other vital functions, it is safe to assume that from a general health perspective horses subjected to lengthy trips may not be completely “out of the woods” until several days later. Professional carriers who have the chance to diligently observe their equine passengers after transport have noted that issues such as pleuropneumonia (shipping fever) can manifest several days later. This delay is likely due to increased susceptibility to infection resulting from the compromised condition of the immune system. While shipping fever is not always life threatening, it can be extremely debilitating even for healthy horses, and most certainly counter-productive to performance horses.

The UC Davis study included a specific sub-focus on tying in transit, the results of which were quite predictable. It was found that horses tied while in transit showed much higher cortisol levels than those hauled loose, suggesting that they experienced considerably higher degrees of stress and were subsequently more prone to post-transport health issues. I have preached long and often about the evils of tying in transit; horses tied in transit cannot effectively clear their airways, which vastly increases the chances of respiratory infection and can invite shipping fever.

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

Drop-down windows allow additional ventilation while the vehicle is parked and allow head access to the horses, but should never be left open when moving. Photo: Mane Frame Photography

Below are some simple measures to reduce the effects of transport stress.

  • A healthy horse has a better chance of enduring the stress of transport than one already compromised with disease or other health issues.
  • Don’t tie unless absolutely necessary; transport loose in box stalls whenever practical.
  • Free access to hay and water throughout the trip helps to reduce stress. Provide quality hay, free from mold and dust, and ensure water offered is clean and easily accessible to the horse.
  • Frequent stops allow the horse to rest tired muscles and can help reduce overall stress effects. Stops should be long enough to allow the horse to feel secure enough to posture for urinating and to afford time to take a drink. Don’t worry if he doesn’t drink at the first few stops; I don’t get worried about drinking until we’ve been on the road for eight hours or more.
  • Ventilation is important at all times, but critical in summer. Experiment with your own rig to determine how best to provide constant fresh air through the trailer while moving, and how to increase airflow at rest stops. Reduce airborne dust by wetting down the bedding or misting hay bags. It is inadvisable to travel with drop-down windows in the open position on angle-haul trailers. This can be extremely uncomfortable for the horses, and also expose them to increased risk of injury from flying debris. As previously stated, never travel with both drop-down windows and bars or screens open, allowing the horse to get head and neck out of the trailer while moving. 
  • Shipping fever seldom manifests immediately after transport; symptoms include depression, lethargy, lack of appetite or going off water, and nasal discharge and coughing. If your horse develops any of these signs after a long trip, call the vet right away. 
  • Special-needs horses may require additional considerations. Before travel, discuss any unique circumstances with a competent equine vet.

Anecdotal Case Studies

The following is by no means scientific, but these are a very few of the real-life events I have dealt with over the years of living with, handling, and transporting horses. I hope they will help increase understanding, and perhaps some small point might come in handy one day.

The First Timer: One unseasonably chilly September evening I pulled into a small farm in northern BC; I had already decided to stay the night there after asking the owners if they had stalls available for the horses I had on board. As I entered the trailer I noted that a gelding in a box stall was shivering violently, but I couldn’t be sure if it was from the cold or from nerves. I noted that he was also perspiring which gave me a clue that he could be experiencing a colic episode. On checking his vitals and finding nothing out of the ordinary, I called my own vet down in Langley, BC, for an emergency consultation. He agreed that this could be a stress-related issue, and had me quietly move the horse into the barn, making sure his traveling buddy was close at hand. As these two had already buddied up, the company was important to keep the horse as calm as possible.

how to reduce horse tranpsort stress, hwo to lower horse's travel stress, how to relax your horse during transport

Horses use their heads and necks for balance, and must be able to lower their heads to a point slightly lower than the height of their withers to expel dust and mucus from their airways. Photo: Mane Frame Photography

I called back to where I picked up the horse to ask for some insight into his dilemma, and they admitted this was the first time he had ever been away from home (I wish they had shared that with me beforehand). With some grooming, lots of soothing words and just quiet time, the horse settled and even managed a nap later that night. I checked his vitals every hour or so throughout the night, with particular attention to gut sounds just to rule out colic, and he came to welcome the visits with a soft nicker.

The key points in this episode are that the shipper failed to inform me that the horse had never been separated from his herd-mates before, and that a call was made to a competent vet at the earliest opportunity. Food was withheld until he calmed to reduce the risk of colic, and plenty of fresh water was made available. The farm owner even warmed a bucket for him! I blanketed him with a fleece cooler I keep in the trailer just for such eventualities, which helped dry him off, preventing him from getting chilled. Prompt action dealing with this situation prevented it from becoming far worse than it could have been.

Quiet Please: After loading a warmblood filly, I watched her on the closed circuit TV system from the cab of the truck and noted her spinning incessantly. She had gotten herself worked into a frenzy as the truck began to move, so I stopped at the first safe place and stepped into the trailer with her. As I removed the hay bag, I noticed the divider to her stall made more noise than it should have, and on examining it found a broken bolt on one of the support brackets. Even though the divider was still solid, it rattled loudly enough to spook the horse. A few minutes later and the repair made, the horse settled considerably.

This was a simple case of noise-induced stress; horses’ hearing is acutely more sensitive than ours, allowing them to detect a footfall hundreds of meters away. Couple this with their claustrophobic nature and natural aversion to the unknown and a simple rattle was all it took to drive that gal out of her mind! This illustrates the need for diligence when pre-tripping our rigs, sometimes the littlest thing can cause an enormous reaction!

Our Need for Speed: A friend of mine approached me once saying his normally quiet Quarter Horse had developed a mysterious aversion to trailering. I offered a number of suggestions, including inspecting the trailer for hazards, noting weather and road conditions as possible culprits, among other hints. It wasn’t until a few months later I had occasion to ride in his trailer for a short way to monitor an injured horse he had on board. What I experienced in there for those few moments spoke volumes – not only could I not stand unaided, but the horse nearly had to resort to hanging on by his teeth to stay upright! On stepping off that trailer, I saw to the horse we had on, then took my friend aside to offer my advice quietly and calmly… even though I was more rattled than the horse was. He completely disregarded my observation, telling me I was being too sensitive and exclaimed that just because I drove like an old woman didn’t mean everyone had to. His wife overheard my admonishment and chimed in immediately saying that she had been after him for years to take it easier when driving with the horses.

Our own demeanour sets the stage for everything we do with our horses, including our driving when trailering. We may understand how vitally important it is to make it through that amber light, or what a travesty it is to arrive at the show ten minutes late, but the horse does not. Nor does he understand anything but the struggle he endures in maintaining balance. It only takes one instance to create a problem, but it can take many more uneventful trips to help the horse get over a bad experience.

Happy Trails and Safe Motoring!

Main photo: Dreamstime/Bounder32h