06/13/2013 3:41PM

Shipping horses is not an easy job

Photos by Z
When transporting your own horse, proper equipment and safety measures are essential for safe travel.

Shipping horses coast-to-coast and internationally by van and airplane has become about as common as shipping a package. But horses, of course, are far more perishable and temperamental than your average box on a FedEx truck.

Equine-transportation companies have many special considerations, from non-slip ramp surfaces to veterinary first-aid kits, and a lot more in between, to ensure horses reach their destination safely.

Safety generally begins with the drivers, according to horse-transport representatives. U.S. Department of Transportation regulations provide strict guidelines for big-rig drivers, and equine haulers must adhere to them. But they also must know horses, be able to handle them, and have the ability to spot, prevent, and handle crises – including potential veterinary situations like colic and injury.

“I think the biggest safety feature we have are our drivers,” said Judi Baumann, the Kentucky-area manager at Bob Hubbard Horse Transportation. “They’re excellent horsemen. It’s a requirement to work for this company. Every lead driver must come from a farm or track background and have really solid working experience with horses because that’s the biggest danger: an inability to handle emergencies with a horse.”

Pre-employment and random drug-screening are common at professional equine-shipping companies, and some also offer horsemanship training for drivers who are less experienced with handling large animals on the move.

“The team members we bring on board, during their orientation process, we have extensive driving and horsemanship training,” said Nicole Pieratt, owner of Sallee Horse Vans, which is based in Lexington, Ky. “We actually have a couple of Thoroughbreds off the track that still are a bit high-strung, and we use them in our training program. All of the employees that come on board go through this Sallee horsemanship training program to include loading and unloading and scenarios they might encounter inside the horse van or trailer. We train on emergency procedures and signs of sick or distressed horses, things they’d be able to notice on the road.

“We also have safety training for our drivers throughout the year, and we have dedicated safety days on probably a quarterly basis. We do ongoing training all year, both for regulations with the Department of Transportation as well as working on improving horsemanship and driving skills, whatever an individual needs.”

Drivers also work in teams for interstate or long-distance travel, a safety feature that helps prevent fatigue, which can result in accidents.

Right equipment is essential

Driver training is key, but drivers also must have equipment that promotes safety on board, shipping companies said. That equipment can be as simple – but important – as veterinary first-aid kits and fire extinguishers, as well as more high-tech gear.

“All of our trucks are equipped with cameras and monitors so the drivers can monitor the horses’ activity and behavior going down the road during travel,” Pieratt said.

Sallee builds its trailers in its own fabrication shop, which Pieratt said allows for other horse-friendly customizations like rounded interior edges and emergency doors in addition to the loading/unloading doors.

Shipping companies don’t just plan for freak accidents or crashes that might require evacuating a horse. Even routine loading and unloading can be risky, and transporters have that covered, literally.

“For loading and unloading horses, we do use sideboards and cocoa mats to prevent skidding and slipping,” said Baumann of Hubbard. “The mats are the material that your front doormat is made out of, but we have big, huge ones that roll out over the ramp, and the horse feels like he’s walking up or down a grassy hill, which is more secure than just walking up a wooden ramp. To add to that, most of our facilities have loading chutes, so the horses don’t even really know they’re walking onto a trailer.”

The deep straw bedding you see in many commercial horse vans also has a safety purpose, Baumann said.

“We use straw because it doesn’t fly around like shavings do,” she said. “If you want to open the windows and let some air in the trailer, you don’t want shavings flying around and getting in their eyes. Also, some horses have an allergic reaction to the oil in shavings, and that can be bad for their skin. Straw seems to stay put, and it creates a barrier between the urine and manure and the horse, to keep the horse dry. It’s also additional padding.”

Major companies’ trailers also are washed and disinfected frequently, said Baumann and Pieratt, with an eye toward disease prevention.

“We spend a great deal of time, effort, and resources on cleanliness and disinfecting our vans,” Pieratt said, noting that Sallee’s standard washing procedure includes using disinfectants and cleaning methods that meet the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s standards. “We don’t just do that when we’re doing imports and exports, but on a regular basis.”

Owners can help

Horse owners also can contribute to their horse’s safety on a van, Baumann said.

“The type of halter the horse is wearing is important,” Baumann said. “It’s gotten very popular to use rope halters or what they call natural-horsemanship halters, but those are really not safe for shipping. They’re loose. A horse can put their foot through under the jaw and get hung up, and if the horse needs to be lightly cross-tied, it’s not really a safe situation. We recommend a comfortably fitting leather halter as the best. Those will break if they have to. The nylon flat-web halter is fine. Those will break. But we do prefer leather halters, especially with a little fleece on them to be soft on the horse’s nose.”

As for bandaging, it is optional, but more carriers prefer shipping boots with Velcro closures.

“We don’t necessarily recommend standing wraps because those do have to be removed and reapplied or a horse could get a bow,” Baumann said. “If a customer really wants standing wraps, we do suggest that we allow a veterinarian to remove those and replace them in transit during intervals so they don’t have to wear them too long. But shipping boots are good, the Velcro type, nice and soft to protect the legs. Bell boots are also good to protect their coronary bands.”

“If you’ve got a yearling that’s never had a bandage on, don’t bandage them because they’re going to do things to try to get them off,” said Sallee’s Pieratt.

And if your horse has never worn equipment like bandages and bell boots, it’s good to try them out well ahead of shipping so the horse gets used to them.

“If they’ve never shipped before, you don’t want to introduce something unusual right at the time of shipping,” Baumann said. “And we take those things off whenever the horses are in layover; they just wear them when they’re on the truck.”

A good rule of thumb, as horsemen know, is that a horse is always looking for trouble to get into, and the people who haul horses for a living take that maxim to heart.

“Anything a horse can get into, they will,” said Baumann, who offered this basic advice for anyone transporting a horse by trailer: “You want to be sure that your equipment is safe, that there are no sharp objects, that the horse is well bedded and padded.”