Transporting Older Horses

Transporting Older Horses: On the Road Again

While transporting a horse of any age raises health and safety concerns, horses in their late teens and older require special attention, especially during a long haul. Thanks to advances in equine research and medicine, older horses are stronger and healthier than they have ever been, but like elderly people, the road-bound senior horse will have his own aches, pains, and potential travel-related illnesses to worry about. By being attentive to your horse's needs and using common sense, you increase the chances of your horse arriving healthy and happy.

"There are several conditions that are unique to older horses," notes Tom Lenz, DVM, a private practitioner from Missouri and president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners. "They are prone to arthritis, so they are going to experience more problems in a trailer than a middle-aged horse. Their immune systems are not as efficient as those of healthy, middle-aged horses, so you want to pay attention to vaccinating them against respiratory diseases in advance of the trip. You really have to pay attention to the fact that they're a lot more prone to disease and infections than younger horses."


"Older horses don't regulate their body temperatures as well as younger horses do, just like old people are unable to," says Lenz. "Pay a lot of attention to keeping them well-ventilated and cool during hot weather, then warm during cool weather."

Midge Leitch, VMD, owner of the Londonderry Equine Clinic in Cochranville, Penn., suggests shipping at night if the weather is hot. "Hot weather is a lot harder on horses that are shipping than cold weather, and you want to take that into consideration when you're shipping," she says. "In general, they are much healthier in cool temperatures than in a hot, stuffy truck with the windows closed."

Leitch advises against administering medications that decrease a horse's temperature. "I'm not a believer in shipping horses on antibiotics, analgesics, non-steroidals, or anything that will diminish fever. These drugs can keep the temperature lowered into a more normal range for an extended period of time, which may sound good, but it doesn't let you know that there may be a problem developing," she says. "You should be looking at rises in (rectal) temperature as an important indicator of how well the horse is withstanding stress. I think giving horses a shot of penicillin before they get on the truck is inappropriate, and they are much better off shipping unchanged by inappropriate chemical therapy so that you can monitor their clinical signs during the trip."

Eleanor Green, DVM, chair of the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences and chief of staff at the Large Animal Hospital at the University of Florida, agrees with avoiding antibiotics and other inappropriate medications. However, she notes that some older, arthritic horses will benefit from low doses of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as phenylbutazone (Bute). This will alleviate some of the stiffness and pain associated with the constant vibration of the trailer. Horses given Bute or Banamine en route should have their water intake monitored carefully as these medications are toxic to the kidneys of a dehydrated horse.

What to Feed

Lenz prefers to see horses eating while in transit. "I always provide hay free choice to my horses while I haul them," he says. "When they're eating, they're more content and they're less likely to colic. With older horses, they do have some dental problems, and if their teeth haven't been floated or maintained well, you have to pay attention to what you feed them. You might consider hay cubes rather than long-stemmed hay."

Green prefers to provide hay free choice during hauling and withholds grain. "Horses are continual grazers of a primarily roughage diet, and it mimics what they do in nature," she says. "I prefer feeding hay in feed troughs, like the snap-on type, as opposed to hanging it in conventional hay nets, because it keeps their heads down better." For those who use hay nets, Green warns that they must be hung high enough that there is no chance the horse will get his foot caught in the netting. To reduce the amount of dust, you can wet the hay.

Leitch advises against feeding grain during travel. "Shipping can frequently result in decreased gut mobility, and if their guts aren't moving, things are sitting and fermenting," Leitch says. "They are much better off with hay sitting and moving slowly than they are with a high carbohydrate grain load. The only time I would consider graining them--and I would do it very lightly--is if they have an extended layover of 12 hours or more, where they can have a small grain meal after they arrive and get settled, and they have time to digest it and get it out of their stomachs before they get on the truck."

In addition, horses fed pellets or grain during transit have been known to choke, says Nancy Loving, DVM, owner of Loving Equine Clinic in Boulder, Colo. This is particularly true of the older horse with poor dentition and/or a dehydrated horse.

It's imperative for horses to drink along the way. After growing accustomed to the taste of the water at home, many horses will hesitate before accepting just any old water on the road.

"If you are just going for a day or two, you can haul your own water that the horse is accustomed to, but if you are going for a long time that's not practical, and you need to acclimate your horses to the drinking water," Lenz says. "If your horse is finicky, it is a good idea to mask the taste of the water."

Veteran haulers have a number of "taste-masking" tricks, including adding molasses, soda, apple juice, or cider vinegar to the water to make it sweeter and more palatable. "You should start adding the masking agent four or five days before you start the trip so they become accustomed to it, then carry on through the trip," Lenz suggests. "Some people wait until they're into the trip and then they add masking agents, and that creates a problem."

One popular method of ensuring hydration during travel is the administration of electrolytes. Leitch and Green prefer paste-based electrolytes because they can be force-fed. "You do not want it in their water because you don't to diminish their intake," she explains. "I'm a big promoter of paste electrolytes--you give it to them, you know they've got it, and that will also help them to continue to drink water."

Loving cautions that electrolytes can "burn" the mouth and put a horse off feed. "I have found that mixing a small amount of Maalox with the electrolytes makes a difference in how well the horse accepts the salt," she says. "Also, also there is some argument that oversupplying electrolytes to a dehydrated horse only worsens the problem, so this should not be overdone. They might not be necessary at all for a one-day trip. If a horse is eating well along the road, then supplementation with electrolytes might be unnecessary."

How to Get There

Horse owners who use commercial haulers usually have the option of shipping their horses in standing stalls or box stalls. For long hauls, many prefer box stalls that enable the horse some freedom of movement.

"The best thing you can do for a horse that is being shipped over a long distance is to ship him loose, in a box stall," Leitch advises. "The expense is higher because obviously you have to buy the extra space, but horses who ship in boxes get to where they're going feeling way better than horses that are shipped in double standing stalls or straight stalls. You can hang water in their stalls so that they have water to drink all the time, and you can feed them their hay on the floor, which is the best way. They put their heads down, and all of the gunk drains out of their lungs, as opposed to having them eating from a hay net, which keeps their heads up because they are tied up. If you have the extra money, shipping them in a box stall is the best thing. It's kind of like flying first class."

However, a first-class ticket might not be the best answer for all horses, Lenz says. "Older horses are not as handy at balancing as younger horses, so you want to make sure there is something for them to lean against," he says. "If you have a horse that is arthritic, he is better off moving around a bit. But if you have a horse that is not very stable on his feet and he doesn't have a very good sense of balance, then he's better off being in a stall or on a slant trailer where he can lean against a partition. If you are going to have partitions, it's important for older horses that you use a partial so that they can spread their feet out to maintain their balance."

In addition, a lot of research has been done that has demonstrated easier hauling for horses when facing rearward rather than forward, says Loving. However, this can present a safety hazard if this is done and the trailer was not designed for it.

Many agree that flying is the best option. "If budget is not a problem, it is really nice to see horses fly," Green says. "They have got good facilities on the planes. The horses are handled well and you can certainly take a several-day trip and turn it into several hours. If you can do a three-day trip in a few hours, it has got to be better for them."

Most horses, however, will do their traveling on the ground. For those traveling in vans, the owner must decide on bedding material. Many commercial lines, which usually provide rubber matting in their stalls, offer a choice between shavings and straw. Keep in mind that straw contains high numbers of airway-irritating particulates and mold spores, so this can be a poor choice for use in hauling, says Loving.

"Clean shavings are the way to go," she says. "Some horses won't urinate on the rubber mats because it splashes their legs, so shavings are a necessity. Also, the rubber mats get slippery when wet, and for an old horse, that might pose a balance problem."

Leitch also uses shavings. "I like to see a minimal amount of shavings at the back of the stall so there is something to absorb their manure and urine," she says. "I don't bed the front of the stall and I don't bed a lot because, for the most part, what you want is some level of absorbency." Leitch prefers sizable shavings (not sawdust) over straw, which she feels is not as absorbent.

Respiratory Health

Maintaining a horse's respiratory health on the road involves dust control and good ventilation, just like at home in the barn.

"Dust is worse in the back of the trailer than it is in the front," Leitch says. "You want to ship horses with respiratory conditions in a box because then they can put their heads down, they can eat and drink from the floor, and that encourages the drainage of accumulating fluids in their respiratory tract in the best fashion possible."

It might be a good idea to medicate your horse if he suffers from a pre-diagnosed condition, especially for a respiratory condition, during the trip. "If you've got a horse that is heavey, then he ought to stay on his medication," Leitch says. "If he is a horse that hasn't needed medication but is going to be exposed to copious amounts of dust, then something like Ventipulmin or an antihistamine may be beneficial."

Leitch once again cautions against any fever-suppressing medications.

Gastrointestinal Health

To promote gastrointestinal health, many horse owners will serve up a decent-sized bran mash prior to shipping. Leitch suggests tubing a horse with mineral oil before a long trip.

"Providing them with some laxative therapy is definitely beneficial," she says. "Clearly it has a lot to do with how far you are going to ship them, and how long they are going to be on the truck on a daily basis, what the layover times are, and also what temperatures they'll be traveling in."

Some veterinarinarians won't recommend mineral oil in certain situations for particular horses. This is something best discussed with your own veterinarian long before the trip takes place.

Loving says that very few people use mineral oil anymore. "It is very impractical because the timing needs to be right before the horse boards the trailer, and that necessitates careful timing between owner and vet," she says. "It will only protect against endotoxin absorption for part of a day and not for a lengthy trip, which is where that would be needed. Mineral oil in the bowel reduces uptake of electrolytes and nutrients from digestion--just the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish by feeding the horse and/or providing salt supplements."

Stopping vs. Straight-Through?

Among those who transport horses on a regular basis, there is much debate over whether it is better to ship a horse straight to his destination, or to stop and let him off the trailer. One argument is based on the theory that the faster you arrive at your destination, the less chance there is for a problem to arise. At the same time, it might be healthier for some horses if the trip is broken up into segments. The general recommendation is that rest stops should be planned for every four to six hours.

"I think if you can do it, it's a good idea to stop and let them rest," Lenz says. "You don't have to take them out of the trailer--just stopping the trailer for 30 minutes and letting them stand is fine. Although, for an old, arthritic horse, the more they move around, the better off they are. You can take them out and walk them around for five or 10 minutes or let them graze on some grass, then re-load them. They're just like we are. They become tired, bored, and stiff."

For long trips, some horse owners prefer to book a layover. "I don't think that most horses get much rest unless they've had 12-plus hours in a layover stop," Leitch says. "Most horses are alert and somewhat anxious in a new place until they become accustomed to the environment, so they don't really rest and relax in a short period of time. I think if one has the luxury of extended periods of time, then shipping and laying over 24 hours really does give a horse a clear opportunity to rest, presuming that the facility is appropriate."

What to Wear

Depending on the horse and the duration of the trip, some horse owners feel safer if the horse is bandaged. The drawback for those using commercial lines is that most companies refuse to adjust bandages out of concern for the safety of their drivers.

"I always put on shipping boots--not so much for support as for protection," says Sallie Kudra, a Seneca, S.C.-based competitive rider who serves as the president of Region 5 of the North American Trail Ride Conference. "The horses scramble around. We have had cases where someone forgot their shipping boots and they had leg injuries because the horses were scrambling around back there."

Kudra, who owns an open stock trailer, also adorns her horses with fly masks to protect their eyes while in transit.

"I don't wrap the legs, although I know many people feel strongly that you should," Green adds. "Certainly there are times when bandages might protect the legs from injury, such as on a horse that does not haul well. But on long distances, if they are not wrapped perfectly, you can end up with a bandage bow. Even if they are wrapped extremely well, with all of that vibration and moving around, bandages can become displaced enough to cause a problem."

In Florida and other warm climates, bandages can become damp or drenched with sweat, rain, or urine, potentially causing and exacerbating dermatitis, she adds.

After the Trip

Once your horse arrives, monitor his behavior. Check his temperature, watch his eating habits, and make sure he urinates defecates on a regular basis. Older horses usually take longer than their younger counterparts to recover from long rides.

"You might want to walk them around or even longe them a bit upon arrival, but basically let them rest--they'll sleep a lot," says Green. "Let them tell you when they have recovered, and watch them carefully. Don't push them too hard. If you're going to a big show, don't arrive the day of the class; don't even arrive the day before the class. Try to get there a couple of days ahead so that you can give them time to recuperate and get ready for what they are going to do."

Learn more about developing a wellness management program for your equine senior citizen based on the practical information in Understanding the Older Horse.

The concerns surrounding the transport of senior horses shouldn't outweigh the benefits of keeping the animal active. While owners of older horses might find themselves worrying about things that they never had to consider during their horse's younger years, maintaining an elderly horse in an active lifestyle promotes his good health.

"I think it's important that people use their older horses," Lenz says. "It's good for the horse, and it's good for the people. These are the horses that have most of the experience and are the calmest to be with. They know the ropes. People have the tendency to believe that when a horse gets up around 20 they are too old to do anything. I believe those that are utilized and taken care of live longer."

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