Shipping a Horse
A horse is loaded onto the trailer
People may see travel as an adventure and something to look forward to, but from a horse’s perspective, separation from friends and home is rarely a fond experience. Because horses are social mammals, learn most of their behavior and form opinions through associations,
a positive experience in travel can help your horse learn that going to new places can be a fun and positive event. Performance and health are connected, so reducing stress in your horse whether for breeding, selling or showing, will help your horse arrive in good shape. Consider these key points when planning your next excursion.
1. TAKE A FRIEND
The best way to reduce your horse’s shipping stress is to always ship him or her with a friend. Regardless of the circumstances, horses usually feel safe when they are with their friends. A horse new to the show world can learn how to relax at shows from horses who have show experience. If your horse’s first experience at a show is with friends, and it has the opportunity to meet new friends, then horse shows can be exciting and fun places.
2. AVOID TRAILER TRAUMA
Getting out of trailers can be more difficult for some horses than getting into them, because many horses, particularly geldings, have little awareness of where their hind ends are located. Teaching your horse awareness about its size and how to physically back out of a trailer is important. This can be done at home by allowing your horse to watch other horses go safely in and out of trailers. You can also teach spatial awareness to your horse by setting up poles on the ground that simulate the trailer space and allow your horse to be comfortable standing in small spaces and backing up.
3. VISUAL ASSOCIATIONS
Horses usually do not mind going into small dark places especially if their friends go with them. It is critical that the first time your horse goes for a trailer ride, it is a positive experience. Allowing your horse to eat near or in its trailer without leaving home can establish a positive association visually with the trailer. Putting the horse trailer in the arena or pasture with hay in it and allowing your horse to “load” itself without any pressure can help the horse make its own decision that trailers are good places.
Since stall areas are almost always 12x12 structures with food and water in them, from a horse’s perspective they are usually fine. This perspective changes if your horse is not used to a stall or if the stall is made of plastic or another material your horse is not visually used to being around. Doing some work before you go to the horse show by allowing your horse to become comfortable with confinement and with various material as boundaries can help tremendously in reducing your horse’s stress while away from home. Putting a familiar object in the stall like a stuffed animal or ball can help your horse feel safe in its new environment.
4. THE IMPORTANCE OF SMELL
It is most important to make sure the van, trailer or stall your horse is getting into smells safe. You can put your own horse’s manure or its friend’s manure on the ramp or in the stall to help your horse feel confident to walk inside. If the van or stall smells like a worried horse with loose manure, your horse can’t help but be worried too.
If your horse cannot travel with a friend, take a blanket, halter or brush that smells like its friends to keep it company. Smelling a familiar friend has shown to significantly reduce stress for animals coming out of anesthesia, as smell/taste may likely be the most important sense to a horse.
5. I LEAD, YOU FOLLOW
Many people learn to lead horses at the shoulder. With confident horses this is fine, but for most horses being the “leader” is not their choice. They would prefer a strong horse leader, usually a mare, to just tell them what to do and what is safe. When a horse has to make this decision on its own, it may differ from your decision.
Teaching your horse “space respect” and that you will thwart off danger by being out in front, can help your horse relax and trust that no matter where you go, they will be safe behind you. This is particularly important in new surroundings. You, the leader, should investigate the trailer first and the stall at the show first to make sure they smell and look safe. Then allow your horse to follow you in. Horses who are stressed or fearful often run past their handlers, causing injury to people and to themselves. This can be completely remedied by simple exercises to teach your horse that you or another person, usually the groom or shipper, are the leader and your horse should follow, not lead you places.
6. ALLOW YOUR HORSE TO EXPLORE
Take your horse for a walk in new places with the freedom to move its head. Many horses become extremely spooky primarily because their heads are restricted, which from a horse’s perspective limits their ability to “escape” if danger comes, thus causing more stress.
7. STAY HYDRATED
Some horses are very picky about the way their water tastes and do not drink enough water to stay properly hydrated when shipped to new places. Adding a little apple cider vinegar to their water a week or two before shipping will get your horse used to a new taste which will seem familiar to them while at shows and away from home. Some people choose to add flavored electrolytes or even a little apple juice.
8. SUPPORTIVE DIET
During stressful situations, proper diet can help to overcome stressors. Your horse may need more nutritional support to balance the vitamins and minerals used up during stressful situations.
9. NATURAL STRESS REMEDIES
Non-drug vibrational essences such as Flower Essences can be added to the water and have no taste, interacting with your horse’s “energetic system,” dramatically reducing stress and helping your horse learn to cope.
THE GENDER GAP
Mares seem to have more difficulty and experience higher stress levels during separation and shipping. Studies have shown that mares are more than twice as likely to get ulcers being shipped than geldings. Why? In nature a mare never leaves her friends unless she is recruited by a stallion, or if she is “kicked out of her herd” for some reason. Mares are the social glue in horse culture, so separation from friends and family is much more stressful for them unless they know what is going on and learn the routine.
Conversely, male horses get kicked out of their natal herd when they’re around 2-3 years old and form bachelor bands until they mature enough to recruit a mare. So wandering around looking for something “fun” to do fits the male horse paradigm better than the mare.
Horses are emotional and sensitive creatures who rely on their strong social bonds for safety. Having an understanding of what your horse’s life would be like if you were not around gives you, the human, the first step towards predicting and preventing stress for your horse. Learning what is natural for your horse’s gender and age can help you plan ways to offset stress during separation such as shipping and showing.
Mary Ann Simonds, MA, is an equine behavioral ecologist with over 30 years of professional practice across the US and Europe. Helping people better understand the natural biology, ecology and psychology of horses, Mary Ann coaches cross discipline with a focus on reducing stress in performance horse/rider teams. She has authored more than 100 articles, and a number of DVDS/CDs, as well as produced a line of non-drug stress management products. She lives in Wellington, FL and Vancouver, WA. She can reached at www.maryannsimonds.com or firstname.lastname@example.org 360-907-4591