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How To Transport Your Horse and Prevent Shipping Fever

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Whether for competition, trail rides, or doctoring, your horse will need to go somewhere. So make sure you know how to haul them safely and understand the risks of shipping fever so that they return home healthy.

When hauling horses, ensure you have the appropriate truck and trailer combination. Perform a pre-trip safety check of your trailer, drive safely and be conscious of your horses. To reduce the risk of shipping fever, make sure your horses are well hydrated, and the trailer has adequate ventilation.

When transporting horses, the goal is to make sure they reach their destination healthy and safe. To meet this goal, it’s important the horse is comfortable and protected from disease during transport.

Picture of a truck pulling a horse trailer.

This article contains information and tips for hauling your horses safely while reducing the chances they catch shipping diseases.

Transporting your horse.

If you have a good horse trailer, then you’ve already successfully cleared a significant hurdle. A high-quality horse trailer makes hauling horses relatively hassle-free. However, your work doesn’t end with the trailer.

Before transporting your horses, you need to take the necessary steps to ensure the safety of horses while traveling. I suggest that you take some time and plan your trip, make a checklist of everything you need for your horse and yourself.

The checklist is essential when getting ready for a long trip with your horse, and it’s also useful for short trips as well. I recommend you have two checklists, one for long trips and the other for shorter ones.

You can’t be too careful with your horse so prepare accordingly. I recommend having two checklists; one list of things needed for long trips and another version for short journeys such as traveling to local shows.

Know the towing capacity of your vehicle

The foremost thing to do while planning on transporting your horse is to know what your truck or vehicle can tow safely. It is recommended to go for trucks with significant tow ratings. These trucks are loaded with high-performance features such as heavy-duty springs, frames, engines, U-joints, transmission, brakes, and rear-axles. 

Before towing the horse trailer, you should determine your truck’s gross combination weight rating (GCWR). GCWR is basically the maximum weight of a vehicle and its attached trailer. This value also includes the total weight of the passengers and cargo in the towing vehicle and the trailer.

After this, the next step is to determine the maximum towing capacity of the entire hitch assembly. A hitch assembly comprises the receiver, insert, ball, and tow vehicle. Make sure every time you pull your trailer, check all the hitch components and look for damage signs such as bent or cracked components, rust, and corrosion.

Recently, one of my horses was involved in an accident caused by something that should never happen. The trailer detached from its hitch, and luckily it wasn’t too bad for the horse. She got a minor cut on her muzzle and was sore for a while.

Make the trailer safe and comfortable for the horse 

A spacious and well-maintained trailer is essential for transporting the horses comfortably and safely through long distances. Depending on your horses’ needs, you can choose from various horse trailer options such as gooseneck, tow-behind/bumper-pull, slant loads, fifth wheel, stock trailers, and straight loads. 

Essentials considerations when choosing the right trailer for transporting your horse:

  • Choose a specific trailer that allows the handler to access each horse individually without disturbing or unloading others
  • Make sure to choose the horse trailer with breakaway brakes, electric brakes, and safety chains
  • The mirrors mounted on the towing vehicle should be positioned at correct angles so that the driver can have optimal visibility of the trailer and the road behind it

Important tips for the safety and maintenance of the horse trailer:

  • Make sure you hook up, back up, and park the trailer correctly
  • You should inspect the flooring of the trailer once a year for any damage
  • Check the wood flooring for signs of dry rot and aluminum flooring for stress fractures
  • Inspect the brakes of the trailer for any wear and the wheel bearings for their greasing
  • Make sure to check there are no loose bolt holes and broken welds

Important things to consider on the road while transporting the horses

Horses are individuals and respond differently to hauling. I’ve had horses that I could load and haul all day without them having any issues, and I’ve also owned some that got nervous and needed breaks every two hours.

For example, some horses don’t feel comfortable urinating on a moving trailer; if this is the case with your horses, you should take frequent breaks so your horse can relieve itself. Make sure you check the vitals of your horse at every pit stop.

You can take a quick look at their gums and eyes and watch their breathing to check if your horse shows signs of discomfort or weakness. Offer them water and refill their hay during these breaks. You must know your horse before taking it on a long trip.

Traveling in a trailer for long distances is not a good experience for horses; it is like an exercise to them with their constant effort to balance themselves in a moving trailer. At these pit stops, your horses can also relax and stretch their legs; otherwise, it can cause soreness and tiredness in their legs. 

Also, monitor the temperature inside the trailer regularly, especially on hot days because temperatures can rise inside and make it very uncomfortable for the horses. Park your vehicle under the shade and check if your horse is sweating or not.

Even in cold weather, the horses can feel very hot, especially if wearing winter coats, so make sure the roof vents on the trailer are open for proper air circulation.

Get all the important documents ready before transporting your horses

Plan to be asked for documentation if you are transporting your horses across state lines. These documents show your horse is in good health, properly vaccinated, and is entirely free of contagious diseases.

Talk to your veterinarian before transporting your horse to get your animal checked and vaccinated if needed. You also should check the regulations for each state you plan to travel to.  

Important travel documents of your horse that are required to cross the states:

  • Veterinarian signed certificate- You should get a certificate signed by a licensed veterinarian for transporting the horse across the states. This certificate should be signed only recently, otherwise, it would be not valid. Make sure your certificate includes all the important details like the origin state, name of all the states that would come along the way, and the final destination
  • Verified ownership card- If you are transporting your horses from any of these places- ID, CO, NV, MT, NM, UT, WY, and portions of OR, SD, then you will require a valid and verified card of horse ownership 
  • Negative Coggins test report- Equine Infectious Anemia (EIA) is common in horses and it can get spread to other horses. It is also known as swamp fever and is caused by a blood virus that is untreatable. Coggins test is done on horses for EIA and a negative report is necessary for their transportation. Most Coggins test are good for a year but check with your vet for current regulations.
Picture of a horse being checked for shipping fever.

Prepare your horse for hauling.

If you plan on hauling your horse, getting them ready for the trip is essential. Here are a few tips to help ensure your horse is safe and comfortable during the journey.

First, make sure your horse is in good health and has been recently vaccinated. You will also want to trim their hooves or have them reshod before you leave. Pack plenty of hay and water for your horse, as well as any supplies they might need during the trip.

Keep a check on your horses’ hydration level

Long-distance journeys can be very stressful for horses, and they can also catch infections during the trip. Therefore, checking your horse now and then and keeping them comfortable is essential for a safe journey. 

Your main concern is to ensure that your horses have hay and are hydrated adequately during the trip. When it comes to supplying hay and you’re hauling more than one horse, make sure you keep separate hay bags for each horse.

You can also consider keeping enough hay that would last for 1-2 weeks for your horse even after reaching the destination.  A continuous water supply for your horses is essential to keep them from dehydrating. At every rest stop, offer your horse some water to drink.

I have heard of horses that refuse to drink unfamiliar-smelling water; if your horse has this issue or if it’s picky about drinking, you should bring a tank of water from your home.

Other than this, there are different ways to increase water intake in horses, such as feeding them soupy grass hay pellets, beet pulp mashes, or alfalfa pellets.   

Protect your equine passengers from infections during the journey

Transporting horses involves long-distance journeys through difficult conditions, which might also increase the risk of infections. While traveling, a lot of dust particles present in the air get accumulated inside the trailer, eventually blocking the airways of horses, leading to many respiratory infections

What is shipping fever?

Did you know that about 10% of horses develop shipping fever even after travel? Shipping fever is basically a common term used for non-contagious bacterial pleuropneumonia, which happens during travel.

It is a combination of infections in the lung and pleural cavity. Infection in the lungs is known as pneumonia, whereas the infection in the pleural cavity is called pleuritis. It can occur due to some damage to the horse’s lungs during a long trip.

As the length of the journey increases, the risk of damage to the lungs increases, and in some cases, it can be fatal. In most cases of shipping fever, the symptoms occur within 24 hours of travel.

However, the horses catch pneumonia after 14 days. If your horse is suffering from fever for more than 24 hours and there are also other respiratory diseases, you should immediately call the veterinarian for an investigation.

What causes shipping fever?

The leading cause of shipping fever in a horse is dehydration, as it compromises the normal clearance mechanism of the respiratory tract. Dehydration is prevalent in horses during travel. 

Some reasons for dehydration and shipping fever in horses while traveling:

  • Crowded transportation or increase in temperature inside the trailer
  • Sweating due to heat results in loss of fluids
  • Exposure of horses to dust and fungal spores, mold in bedding, and other irritants from urine and feces
  • While traveling, the horses’ heads remain elevated and that allows normal bacteria present in the throat to contaminate the lower airway

The stress from the long duration of travel compromises the natural immunity of the horse, causing shipping fever. If the horse is suffering from shipping fever, he will be in pain and resist movement, and also, their fluid can build up in its lungs and pleural cavity that can be fatal.

The stressful situation during long journeys when the horse’s head remains in the same position for a long time, and he does not even get an opportunity to stretch his legs, causes this fluid build-up.

Especially horses who are highly stressed during long-distance trips and immune-suppressed are at higher risk of catching shipping fever.

What are the common symptoms of shipping fever in horses?

Shipping fever in horses starts from a strong cough that can last for weeks even after reaching the destination. 

Some common symptoms associated with shipping fever in horses are:

  • Increased rectal temperature
  • Coughing
  • Hyperventilation
  • Nasal discharge after travel
  • Depression
  • Lethargy
  • Lack of appetite and not drinking water
  • Fever

If you see your horse suffering any of these symptoms after its travel, it is imperative that you call the vet immediately. The faster the treatment starts for the infection in the lower airway, the quicker the horse can recover.

It is crucial to check for these symptoms in the horses as if shipping fever is left untreated; it can lead to severe pleuropneumonia that can be life-threatening.

How to treat shipping fever in horses?

Antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, and hydration are part of the initial treatment of shipping fever in horses. However, suppose pneumonia becomes severe in the absence of any treatment. In that case, the vet might suggest surgery that includes removing a rib and placement of chest drains to remove fluid around the lungs.

However, you can prevent your horse from developing respiratory diseases during long-distance travels:

  • Make sure your horse is well-hydrated before the trip starts. You can administer oral or IV fluids prior to travel
  • You can improve your horse’s immunity by giving him Vitamin C or Echinacea
  • Keep the trailer well-ventilated and make sure you maintain an appropriate temperature inside to minimize the stress
  • The trailer should have extra space so that your horse can lower his head during the travel as often as possible. Being able to move its head makes it easier to clear particulate matter from his respiratory tract. You can also get a custom-designed trailer with extra head space from Double D Trailer to make the journey comfortable for your horse
  • If your horse is on any immunosuppressant drug or steroid such as dexamethasone, make sure it is discontinued 48 hours prior to travel
  • Make sure you take frequent breaks in every 3-4 hours so that your horse can come out and breathe in the open air

Conclusion

Yes, we want to keep our horses comfortable during the transport, but we must not forget that we also need to keep ourselves safe. Make sure you take precautions while loading and unloading your horses from the trailer. 

In the end, we are driving with equine passengers, so be considerate about that and drive very carefully.