Choosing a Horse Trailer From the Horse's Point of View
Neva Kittrell Scheve, EquiSpirit
Whether you are looking to buy a new horse trailer or a used one, it's easy to be influenced by fancy options and shiny construction materials. But, for a horse owner who wants to promote safe and stress free hauling for the horse, choosing a trailer from the horse's point of view is very important. Since many horse trailers are built to appeal to the human perspective, this may not be as easy as one may think.
Considering the nature of the horse as a species, it's a minor miracle that our equine friends get into a trailer at all. Horses are creatures of the prairie who are designed for life in wide open spaces. Because they are prey animals, they have a highly developed "flight or fight" response. When danger threatens, horses run away. That is how they survive. Feral horses who don't run fast enough end up as dinner! They also have to watch their footing so they don't fall into a hole or quicksand!
Whenever we deal with a horse, we have to consider this flight response and reluctance to step on suspicious ground in our training. Because a horse trailer is small, dark, and shaky, it goes against the horses' very nature, but because horses are also trainable, they learn to put their natural fears aside and do the crazy things we ask them to do.
However, even if they do what we ask, it may not be comfortable for them, and they can suffer stress in ways that we don't even notice. It's easy to notice when the horse won't load, but it's less obvious that illness and some injuries can be caused by design features in a trailer that make trailering more stressful for the horse. Some trailering problems have become so commonplace that people just accept them as part of the process. Things like breaking halters and loading and unloading problems are some of those "acceptable" incidents that don't need to happen. Other problems like shipping fever, dehydration, colic, and even the acute stress of injury can be prevented by a stress free trailering environment.
Stress can be defined as an external stimulus which is beyond the control of the animal. When a horse is exposed to stress, the autonomic nervous system kicks in to physically prepare the animal to react to the stress. Heart rate elevates, adrenaline and epinephrine are secreted, and other bodily functions such as hormone levels, change to help the animal survive. For the horse, the reaction is to run away to avoid the object of the stress and the system returns to normal, so therefore, this system works in the horse's natural environment. However, if the horse cannot escape the object of stress over a long period of time, the health of the horse begins to suffer. The chronic stress can have a negative impact by changing the immune functions that can predispose the animal to disease.
Putting a horse in a trailer goes against it's very instinct. He cannot get away from the stress of this small enclosed box. He is also put at risk of injury from the trailer itself or the possibility of a traffic accident. Whether your horse is a pet, or you only think of your horse as an investment or a tool, avoiding illness and injury can save you money and heartbreak, and at the very least, can actually improve his performance.
Of course, horses travel all the time without incident, and trailering can be a safe and enjoyable experience. Buying the safest horse trailer will increase your chances of arriving at your destination with a healthy, happy horse.
Manufacturers must build horse trailers to conform to the requirements of the road, but because there are no industry or government regulations concerning the safety of the horse, there are wide differences in horse trailers. Look at your prospective trailer from the horse's point of view.
What does the horse want? Room and light, good ventilation, and safety in design.
Room and light: An average sized horse ( 15.1h - 16.3h) needs about 10 feet of usable length to be comfortable. A larger horse may even need more. A horse needs to be able to spread his legs for steadiness, but is also important that he be able to use his head and neck freely for balance. A light colored interior and lots of windows or slats will make the trailer much more inviting and less claustrophobic.
Good ventilation is important for the horse's respiratory health and to control the temperature and environment of the trailer. Hay dust and noxious gasses from manure and urine compromises the horse's respiratory system and predisposes him to diseases such a shipping fever. Roof vents will remove contaminated and/or hot air from the trailer. A light colored exterior, especially the roof, will make the trailer cooler in hot weather.
Safety in design: There should be nothing sticking out to harm the horse in anyway. Tie rings, and latches should fold flat against the wall. All center posts and dividers should quick release, but should be strong enough to not break apart until you can make the decision. (Exception - dividers should come up and out if a horse would get under it.) No sharp edges anywhere. All parts of the trailer should be strong enough to hold up to the largest, strongest horse who will be hauled in it.
Ramps should be low to the ground and not slippery. It should be possible to reach every horse individually in the event of an emergency. (This is a special problem with many slant load trailers.) Butt and chest bars should quick release.
Safety in design also includes road safety. All brakes and lights should be in perfect working order and the emergency breakaway brake battery should be charged. Safety chains on tag-a-long trailers must be crossed underneath, and ball hitch gooseneck hitches should also have safety chains or cables. Tires should be inflated to the recommended capacity, and rubber torsion suspension will not only reduce road shock for the horse, but will be an added safety feature if the event of a flat tire. It is most important that a tag-a-long trailer be hitched to a frame mounted Class III or Class IV hitch, and that the trailer be towed in a level position. Whether you are towing a gooseneck or a tag-a-long trailer, you must have a properly rated tow vehicle to insure your own safety.