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Pets Large & Small


Dr. Kimberly Brokaw
Walkersville Veterinary Clinic

(6/2012) Trailering a horse should be a very simple procedure yet I can recall numerous occasions where things have not gone smoothly. Many horses are injured while trailering. Many owners have also had bad experience while trailering.

Before taking your horse on the trailer, you should inspect the trailer. Bee's nests and other hazards need to be removed. The trailer should also be checked for rotten floor boards. I know of a couple of incidents where horses have fallen through the floor of the trailer while going down the highway. Obviously those resulted in catastrophic injury to the horse. After the trailer is determined to be safe, make sure it is hooked correctly to the trailer. One of my former neighbors forgot to hook and close the ball on the trailer hitch. It separated when they went over a bump and the trailer rolled down the hill and flipped while the truck continued straight ahead. Luckily the horse was only minimally injured and was small enough that it could be led out the through the person side door. Make sure that the trailer ties are safe.

I like to fasten the trailer ties to the trailer with a single strand of baling twine. I also like to use the trailer ties that have velcro in the middle of the ties. If the horse falls in the trailer or the handler forgets to unfasten the horse before unloading, the ties will separate without breaking the metal hardware. This avoids the possibility of the metal hardware flying through the air and taking out a horse's eye. If the trailer has a ramp, it should be covered with a nonslip surface. A horse who falls down the ramp every time he gets in or out, will not want to load in the trailer. Any manure should be removed from the back of the trailer before loading or unloading to prevent the horse or handler slipping in the manure.

After you have determined that your trailer is safe and is correctly hooked to your towing vehicle, teach your horse to trailer well. The horse should not be afraid of the trailer and should willingly go in it. My horses are very easy to load. In fact if I leave the trailer parked with the ramp down where they have access to it, they will get in even if I am not there. After the horses are loaded, be sure you drive carefully and avoid sharp turns. If a horse falls while in the trailer, he may be injured or may refuse to load into the trailer again.

Having a trained horse that is easy to load is important for several reasons. First it means that you won't have to wake up hours early on the day of a show to make sure you have enough time to try and load your horse before the competition starts. You won't be the one who is left on the show grounds long after the show is over, still trying to load your horse. It also means that if your horse colics or injures itself so badly that he or she needs to go to a surgical facility, you have the option to take your horse there for life saving procedures.

Another plus is that when things don't go according to plan, your horse doesn't further complicate things. Having personally had a few trailering issues over the past 15 years from flat tires, to broken down trucks, it was always comforting to know that I could take my horse off the trailer on the side of the highway and load him onto a new trailer without having to worry that he would refuse to get in or spook and get hit by traffic.

If you can't teach your horse to load well, you should get a trainer to work with the horse. There is no shame in "contracting out" when you aren't getting the job done. Several years ago, my mother bought a 4 year old. He would dutifully follow her into the trailer, and then back out as she went out the escape door. The only way she could successfully keep him in the trailer was to have a second person who would fasten the butt bar of the trailer as she went out the escape door. After months of stopping cars on the street and asking neighbors to fasten the butt bar, she went to a trainer. The trainer advised her to tell the horse to self load, and showed her how to do it. In 20 minutes, the trainer solved the loading problem that had frustrated my mother for months.

Recently I was called out to treat a horse for injuries related to trailering. The owners had loaded the horse and were driving out the farm driveway when the horse panicked and tried to jump out of the trailer. Luckily I was near by and on the scene before the horse could injure itself too badly. I arrived to find the horse's head, neck, and right front leg out the back window. The back legs were in one of the other stalls partially suspended by the divider panel. Fortunately the trailer was a beautiful slant load in good condition and hence the divider supported the horse’s weight, and the window didn't have any sharp edges. I was also pleased to see that the owners had not decided to get in the trailer with the panicking horse and get themselves hurt.

Extricating the horse was actually going to prove fairly easy and straight forward. First a large dose of sedatives was administered. This stopped the horse from panicking and permitted us to slide the head and leg back into the one trailer stall. Next the divider was swung around and the horse was pushed the rest of the way off the divider.

Surprisingly the horse was relatively unharmed. There were a few lacerations on the left knee, chest, and inside of the right leg. Those were cleaned, blocked, and sutured back together. I gave the horse some anti-inflammatories and it was trailered back to the owner's farm to recover. While the horse and trailer came out of the situation relatively unscathed, the unfortunate part is that this could have been avoided. Apparently the new owners had not been told that the horse had always been sedated for travel. Had they known that they could have done one of two things. They could have either spent time teaching the horse to trailer or two, sedated it prior to travel.

While there are many techniques for teaching a horse to trailer, the important part is that it learns to trailer safely. Some people can successfully teach the horse themselves. Others should call a trainer out to assist with trailering. Trailering is an important skill for a horse to know, not only for the health of the horse and the longevity of the trailer, but also for the safety of the owner.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw