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Nutritional Consideration for Shipping Horses Long Distance

Updated: Feb 27, 2023

When you first set out to ship a horse long distance, whether with a carrier or doing it yourself, there are an overwhelming number of considerations to be made. Who can you trust? What documents do I need? How will my horse stay safe during transport? How can I prevent colic, ulcers, respiratory disease, and injury? I've recently had to ask myself these questions and seek the answers that I was comfortable with. I found many excellent resources online, but none of them specifically addressed nutrition. This article offers a checklist of nutritional considerations to prepare your horse for long distance transport.


INTRODUCTION

Owning and competing horses in Western Montana is defined by long distance travel. The state is 630 miles across which equates to 9 hours of interstate highway; that is, if the road conditions are good and you don't stop for anything! Throughout the show season, I'll make several 4-8 hour trips each month just to get quality jump lessons and compete in my chosen discipline! So, yea, it's a way of life.


I made my first multi-hour haul at the age of 16 to get to Pony Club camp, so I've been gathering the skills necessary for safe horse hauling for over two decades. With that much hauling experience, I felt comfortable picking up my new weanling from Edmonton, Alberta in the middle of winter...and solo... but some anxiety did creep in, because he was so young. I found myself preparing more aggressively than usual. I called the border vet three times, talked to my vet, and ordered more products than I could possibly use at once just to have options. All the preparation paid off though, as he arrived safe, sound, and healthy to his new home in Missoula, MT.

Baby Beauzar and his babysitter, Brando, in February 2023.

At the same time that I was preparing for my big trip, I had friends, clients, and acquaintances preparing horses for other types of long distance travel. I had a client importing a young horse from Spain. A friend, new to owning her own trailer, planning to make her biggest haul ever. I also had a friend ask me to contribute to an article about bringing horses to Montana for hunting season. This is also the time of year that many riders trainers of all disciplines snow-bird to California and Florida. To all of the horse importers, snowbirds, and newbie long-haulers, this article is for you.


ACTIONABLE ITEMS RELATED TO NUTRITION

As I mentioned before, I found many great reliable resources for "how to haul horses", but this article is specific to nutrition related tips. That is, if it goes down the horse's throat, we'll talk about it. For more general tips on long distance travel, by air or by land, check out the references with links at the end of this article.


I'm going to give you the MOST IMPORTANT piece of advice first and straight away. That piece of advice is to start early! Long distance travel often corresponds with multiple dietary changes (i.e. forage, feed, water), so you should start incorporating as many of those changes as possible weeks in advance. Let me repeat that...weeks in advance! If you want to experiment with water and electrolyte changes, start weeks in advance. If you need to transition to certified weed free pellets for backcountry riding, start weeks in advance. If you want to boost the horse's immune system, start months in advance. The worst thing that you can do is to make dietary changes of any kind the day before or during transportation. This is when good intentions back fire.


Long Haul Travel Checklist


1. CALORIE CHECK: Is your horse at a healthy body condition score for travel? I won't go into the nuances of body condition scoring or weighing in this article, but if you have questions about either, follow the link to THIS ARTICLE "Keeping Score: A Xanax for Your Equine Nutrition Anxiety". Do have someone familiar with body condition scoring score the horse weeks before transport. A healthy horse is between 4-7 on the Henneke Body Condition Scoring System. If the horse scores a 4 or less, you might consider feeding aggressively for weight gain at least 30 days before transport. On the flip side, if your horse is over a BCS of 7, you should consider a weight loss program. Horses with healthy weights maintain better hormone and electrolyte balance and are less susceptible to heat stress and contracting disease. Also, assume that your horse will lose some weight during transport if the travel time spans several days. Be prepared to feed MORE when he/she arrives to counter the additional calories consumed by stress.


2. MINERAL CHECK: We know that the horse's digestive system is intimately interconnected with its immune system, so feeding to support that immune system many months in advance is everything. The absolute primary reason that I didn't worry about my young horse's travel stress was because I knew that he had been on an excellent vitamin-mineral program since before his birth!


Make sure that the horse(s) have a very robust vitamin and mineral source. Nutrients like zinc, copper, selenium, and vitamin E are crucial for a good immune response, so you're horse should be getting these things, supplemental to his/her hay, in a fortified product such as a trace mineral supplement, ration balancer, performance or complete feed. Read the feeding directions and make sure that you are using all product correctly, the way that the nutritionist intended, for best results. Check the ingredients lists of each additional product to make sure that you aren't duplicating.


3. WATER CHECK: Water is an area of horse nutrition about which I am kinda crazy. I take it very seriously, because I know that the number one cause of colic is dehydration. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you experiment with your horse's water behavior BEFORE loading the horse onto the trailer. How much do they drink? When do they drink? Do they prefer to drink out of certain vesicles? *See OCEN article "Your Secret Weapon: 5 Steps to Predict Water Consumption". Once on the road, water them little and often. Even if you KNOW that they won't drink, offer it anyway. I think that this one practice has made every single one of my horses great drinkers on the road.


Pack water from the horse's original location if possible. When I picked up my young horse, we filled 10 gallons from his home water for travel and the days after he arrived. Knowing that he had never left the property on which he was birthed, I wanted to take one "new thing" out of the equation.


4. HAY CHECK: Travel often means a big change in forage sources. If you move your horse from Seattle, WA to Wellington, Florida, for winter training or you haul from Dallas, Texas to Bozeman, MT for fall hunting, you're going to be quite shocked by the change in your forage options. Whenever possible, bring hay from the original location to sustain the horse through the travel period and up to seven days after. This is, ultimately, the biggest actionable item that you can do to stabilize the horse's microbiome and prevent colic. It's far more profound that adding any one ounce scoop of prebiotic, even though I realize that scoops make you feel better. Consider the following as well...

  • Wet the hay down if it is dusty all all to prevent respiratory irritation.

  • If alfalfa is appropriate for your horse, you could introduce/increase the amount of alfalfa before travel to encourage eating during travel. The act of continuous long stem forage mastication and salivation will buffer the horse's stomach against excessive acidification. Yes, alfalfa is high in calcium, but it's unlikely that this calcium is released during the short time that it is in the stomach. It is more likely that the fiber factor is the hero.

  • Allow the horse to drop its head to eat from the ground whenever possible. This allows the nasal passages to drain and could prevent respiratory disease.

  • In addition, you can consider adding an omega-3 source and/or yeast prebiotic to boost immune health especially when the horse does not have significant access to green pasture.

  • Again, all of these things should be done in advance whenever possible and within reason.


5. ELECTROLYTE CHECK: According to UC-Davis Department of Veterinary Medicine, we should be judicious with electrolytes, and I agree. "Unless a horse has a history of dehydration, excessive or uncontrolled administration of electrolytes may actually have adverse effects on water and electrolyte balance in the horse," says the Center For Equine Health, School of Veterinary Medicine, University of California-Davis (July 2013). I've seen an explosion of electrolyte use in the last few years, and it worries me a bit how cavalier owners are about using them. I see people using them without much knowledge of ingredients, feeding directions or efficacy, so please don't be one of those people. I use electrolytes rarely and judiciously, and only in the most extreme situations such as trailering in 90+ degree temps, winter cold snaps below -10 degrees, and when running cross country in excessive heat/humidity. In most situations, your horse does a fantastic job of regulating their own electrolyte balance, so don't mess with it. Also, the idea that electrolytes (including NaCl salt) "always" increase water consumption is flat out false. New flavorings, including electrolytes, in feed and water can often discourage a horse from eating and drinking normally, so please know before you go and do not assume 100% benefits every time.


In my personal and professional experience, adding electrolytes benefits the human more than the horse. With that said, adding a 1-2 Tablespoons of plain white salt (NaCl) to your horse's regular feed ration for several days leading up to travel, is safe and could/maybe increase your horse's desire to drink. Consider stocking your trailer with KPP Summer Games paste tubes of electrolytes or Purina Replenimash for emergencies.


SUMMARY

The fact is, humans have been shipping horses around the world for thousands of years, and horses have been incredibly resilient to those miles. I realize that this article might seem basic and full of common sense stuff, but I am greatly concerned that horse owners are creating unnecessary anxiety around the non-basics rather than feeding confidently around good basics. THE BASICS in horse management and nutritional health can not be understated, and in the majority of cases, commitment to simple strategies pays of in the end. Safe travels!


 

REFERENCES


Barakat, Christine. 2019. Equus Magazine. Retrieved from https://equusmagazine.com/horse-care/traileringtips_030504/


Brook Ledge Horse Transportation website. FAQ. https://www.brookledge.com/ground/faq


Smith BL, Jones JH, Hornof WJ, Miles JA, Longworth KE, Willits NH. Effects of road transport on indices of stress in horses. Equine Vet J. 1996 Nov;28(6):446-54. doi: 10.1111/j.2042-3306.1996.tb01616.x. PMID: 9049493. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9049493/


Center for Equine Health. University of California Davis. 2013. Transporting Horses by Road and Air Recommendations for Reducing the Stress. Retreived from https://ceh.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk4536/files/local_resources/pdfs/pubs-July2013HR-sec.pdf


Padalino, B., 2015. Effects of the different transport phases on equine health status, behavior, and welfare: A review. Journal of Veterinary Behavior, 10(3), pp.272-282.

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