University of Vermont AAHS

Long Haul Plus Big Show Equals Equine and Human Stress

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

[reproduced from the Winter 2001 issue of Caution:Horses]

Long distance hauling, more than 8 hours on the road with a major, multi-day competition upon arrival, is a serious source of human and equine stress. Some horses may be facing this situation frequently and may be on the road occasionally throughout the year or they may be on the road several months of the year. Others may only be in this situation occasionally.

Both equines and humans involved in this equation are stressed. The horses are valuable. Most are insured for many thousands of dollars. The horses are athletes and need to be back in the game as soon as possible, if this can be accomplished without detriment to them. The experienced horse show veterinarian is also a breed apart. Much different from the veterinarian on call at the local horse show or the one who makes farm calls at the home barn, the official veterinarian at the large multi-day show must deal with horse and human populations that travel many miles and compete for large prizes, purses, position, and prestige. He or she must treat the horses and try to keep them on their competitive schedule, if possible.

The veterinarian at the large, multi-day show is not just facing a horse with a health problem but a horse with a health problem many miles from home. To complicate matters more, these are shows that represent either the culmination of a year’s work, travel, and investment, or an important link to that final show that does. These shows for some are a social event but for the trainers they are chances to show their products. The trainer needs to get each horse into its class. The owner wants to see the horse in the class. No one wants to damage the horse or jeopardize its health in any way. It is a fine line with a great deal at stake and stress crackling in the air.

What types of emergencies does one find arriving at the larger horse shows and what can be done to prevent them? We asked Dr. Hank Gendron of Naples, Florida and Dr. James Travers of Datil, New Mexico. Preventive maintenance by boosting the immune system and managing the stress was the unanimous answer.

According to Dr. Hank Gendron the most common problem facing traveling horses is shipping fever. This is a catchall term that encompasses a multitude of upper respiratory conditions brought on by stress, coupled with a compromised immune system.  Gastro intestinal problems or colic is also present at the large shows. While the majority of the colic cases are in the treatable range, some are more serious. This seems to be a problem that follows horses everywhere. Occasionally there is a horse that seems headed for surgery that makes a stunning recovery and even wins his class. The third most common problem is lacerations.

Another common problem is dehydration. While this was not on Dr. Gendron’s principal list, it was mentioned repeatedly in interviews with competitors at shows and we have found this to be a common problem to varying degrees. Horses may not drink enough water when offered and they may not drink enough at an overnight stop. On a prolonged trip some horses can dehydrate to the point of developing an electrolyte imbalance and tying-up syndrome leading to, among other things, the need for several liters of IV fluids.

Often at the large shows an owner or trainer will find the veterinary staff to be of a quality expected at a veterinary teaching hospital. A recent case at a large show in the west involved a stressed horse with minimal gut sounds that was going to be given oil as a precaution. The veterinarian inserted the tube several times but retracted it each time and finally said he was going to get a different size tube. He felt that he was running into an anomaly of some sort and that the small tube he was using was turning back on itself and he wanted to use a larger one that would not do that. The larger tube worked fine. The owners wondered what would have happened if a less experienced veterinarian had been present.

In a telephone conference with Dr. Gendron, we asked him to tell us what owners could do to protect their traveling horses more. Vaccinations were the first protection he mentions. “Be sure the flu vaccination is up to date and give an immunostimulator such as Extem to boost the horse’s immune system.” Dr. Gendron also felt that many problems were caused by horses being tied so short that they could not get their heads down enough to clear their airways, although he noted that this is a fine line since one needs to be careful to make the tie short enough so the horse cannot get a foot over the tie. While there was considerable disagreement as to whether or not any additional electrolytes should be given to a horse prior to a trip to encourage water consumption, most agreed that mineral oil, if the horse is willing to eat it on his food, is a good precaution against impaction problems. One can also start the horse on mineral oil two to three days before the trip. The problem of lacerations at shows can be lessened by taking a page from the Pony Club and checking all stalls and places where the horse will be taken, tied, or cared for before he is taken there. Do not wait till the horse has cut himself to discover the nail that the last thoughtless person left in the stall. Lead the horse with care and do not take chances by taking him into places where there is not really enough room for him to pass safely.

If possible, arrive several days early, not just one or two but up to five, after a really long haul. To prepare a horse for a long haul, Dr. Hank Gendron also said that it is important to take the horse for many shorter hauls so the horse will be comfortable in the trailer. For some horses this is really important as they may never have the opportunity to attend local shows and unless someone thinks about checking them out in the trailer on progressively longer hauls a problem may show up the first time in a particularly inconvenient place.

We found some disagreement between the veterinarians interviewed about types of trailers recommended but total agreement about the way to haul. While Dr. Travers felt that he saw fewer problems in using stock-type trailers, Dr. Gendron preferred the more modern trailers with some type of smooth suspension. He emphasized headroom and ventilation. The inability to clear the airways, he felt, contributed to the complex of upper respiratory problems that seem to plague the traveling horses. Under those circumstances, the best trailer then would be a modern jockey style trailer with air or rubber suspension and six extra inches of headroom, thereby pleasing everybody. Dr. Gendron did mention the study that showed that when horses’ heart rates were studied in trailers that the horses that were hauled backwards had the lowest heart rates.

All the veterinarians that we interviewed were in agreement that it was easier to haul horses straight through without stopping rather than trying to stop overnight. Dr. Gendron did say that ten years ago his opinion would have been different but now he believes that it is easier to just haul the horse and arrive at the destination early instead of stopping at a strange place at night giving the horse one more source of stress.  He believes that it is better to arrive early at the show and let the horse rest and adjust to the show grounds. On the human side, this means take an extra driver, one that will let the primary driver sleep. If that is not possible, at least have company, someone who will keep the driver alert and open sodas and change tapes and CDs. (We must emphasize that we are addressing only the bigger shows and the long hauls, not the short four to six-hour hauls that one can make in an easy one-day drive, although it is always better to have two people along when hauling.)

Dr. Gendron also stresses that on any long distance haul it is important to stop and turn off the truck for 45 minutes to an hour every five or six hours to allow the horses to urinate and defecate as some horses cannot perform these acts when the trailer is moving or the truck is running and vibrating. According to Dr. Gendron it is not necessary to get the horses out to walk them as they are walking in the trailer all the time anyway. It is also important to offer the horses water and hay at these times when the horse will have the water in front of him long enough to possibly drink it. All of the veterinarians recommended extreme caution if hanging water in the trailer to make sure that the manner in which the water was hung prevented any spillage that could result in a slick floor.

It is amazing how if the horses arrive in good shape and with plenty of time to rest the same will apply to the humans. Relaxed horses usually equal relaxed humans so allowing enough time for the former automatically gives enough time to achieve the latter. While the schedule may seem like an unnecessary luxury, after several hundreds of dollars in vet bills and a poor showing in a class where the horse should have been quite competitive, it will no longer seem like a luxury.

Following an eight to 12 -hour haul give the horse one full day’s rest.

Following a 16 – 24 hour haul give the horse two to three days rest.

For a trip where driving time will be over 24 hours please allow your equine veterinary professional to assist in the planning and preparation.

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