by Katharine Mertens, DVM
Sunshine is appearing often enough that it’s time to start preparing your horse for summer fun. For many of you, this means looking ahead to trailering your horse somewhere, whether a new trail across town or a horse-show out of state. Whatever the occasion, here are a few reminders to help your horse travel without a hitch. (Well, you need a trailer hitch.)
Start with the trailer. Safe tires, wheels, and brakes are essential trailer components, no matter what you are transporting—and I’ll leave caring for those to the professional mechanics. But there are several horse-specific concerns to check, as well.
First, the floorboards. These are often hidden out of sight beneath sturdy mats—don’t let them be out of mind! Pull up the mats and check the floor surface from above; then crawl underneath and check from below. Poke wood with a blunt probe to reveal any rot or weak spots.
Next, check feeding areas. Who knows what rotten hay, dead critter, or sharp object has accumulated into these spaces over the winter? Yuck, but true. I wouldn’t mention it if it hadn’t happened to me.
And despite what my colleagues in wasp medicine would have to say about it . . . search for and destroy wasp nests! A wasp-sting inside the trailer will make your horse trailer-shy at the least, or cause a bucking, kicking wreck at the worst. I prefer to find the wasp nests prior to loading.
Introduce the horse. If you have a seasoned traveler, you won’t need to repeat this step each year, but if your horse is new to trailering, they need a proper introduction. Trailering is just another task that these large, powerful animals need to accept willingly if both horse and human are to remain safe. You need to teach your horse that a trailer is a treat, not a trap.
Introduce trailering in small, positive steps: Maybe the first day you feed the horse near the trailer; another day you practice ground work near the trailer; later you load and unload several times in a row; and only after several good days of this you take the horse for a short drive. Give your horse experiences that demonstrate that what goes in (him, to the trailer) will always come out in a calm and controlled manner.
Block the Exit Before you Tie the Head. In my work experience, the most common trailer injury I see is a lacerated forehead. This happens when the horse tries to back out of the trailer while its head is still tied. Invariably, the tie-rope or halter breaks, and the horse slams its head on the ceiling as it makes a rapid exit. What’s most frustrating about these injuries is how easily they could have been prevented: when loading, secure the body first!!
Tying a horse in a trailer is a means of keeping him from nibbling the horse next-door, or from getting his head stuck under a stall-divider—it is not a means of keeping him inside. The back door, butt-bar, or stall divider (if a slant load) serves that purpose. The corollary to this rule is: when unloading, release the head first!! Then provide an exit.
Wellness. Travelling means stress and disease exposure, even if these are things you can’t see. Be sure your horse is on schedule with vaccinations. Most horse vaccines are boosted yearly, with contagious (horse-to-horse) diseases boosted every six months. A boosted vaccine needs two weeks to achieve peak effect—so schedule vaccinations well ahead of planned travel dates. If you are traveling far afield, ask your veterinarian if there are special vaccines required at your destination that are not routinely given here.
And the Paperwork. If you are travelling out of state, you will very likely need a current Health Certificate and Coggins Test. The exception here is that no paperwork is required for Oregon horses travelling to Washington for less than four days. Otherwise, most states require non-native horses to travel with a Health Certificate written within the past 30 days; and a negative Coggins Test sampled within the past 12 months.
The Health Certificate is a state-of-origin paper, signed by an accredited veterinarian, certifying that the horse was examined on the date indicated and found to be free of signs of infectious disease. The Coggins Test, for Equine Infectious Anemia, was invented by Dr. Coggins in the early 1970’s and is run on a blood sample pulled by an accredited veterinarian.
While Health Certificates are valid as soon as written, the absolute shortest turn-around time for a “Coggins” is 24 hours. It’s better to allow at least five business days to get back all original paperwork before you head for the hills.
Plan ahead—to enjoy a great travel season with your horse this year!
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Katharine Mertens, DVM is the owner of Mertens Mammals, LLC, a mobile, equine veterinary practice based in Boring. You can reach the practice at (503) 663-6400.