Travel Tips for Horse Owners
By Viveka Rannala, DVM
Show season is upon us and if you want to compete it’s impossible to avoid traveling with your horse. Even with the most experienced equine traveler, there are always risks associated. Travel puts stress on the body, especially the immune system, which can present itself in a variety of ways.
The respiratory system is especially vulnerable, largely due to anatomy. Trailered horses must stand stationary with their heads elevated for abnormally long periods of time, preventing them from normal airway clearance. Air quality can also be variable while traveling. Signs of respiratory disease to watch for include increased respiratory rate, increased respiratory effort, cough, nasal discharge, and fever (temperature greater than 101.5 Fahrenheit).
The importance of vaccinations cannot be overstated while traveling to high-risk environments (horse shows and clinics) in terms of respiratory disease. The spread of disease can be rapid in these situations where a large number of horses gather and co-mingle. Most shows require the recommended vaccinations for entry to the property, but remember to keep accurate and up-to-date records and discuss your individual horse’s vaccination schedule with your veterinarian.
Stress can play a significant role in the development of gastric ulcers, which can have a considerable effect on performance. The following management guidelines can assist in the prevention of these ulcers:
- Increase the amount of time feed is available using a hay net or slow feeder system
- Feed smaller meals more frequently throughout the day and overnight
- Feed hay before feeding grain; it creates more saliva, which buffers stomach acid
- Feed more forage and less high-concentrate grain
- Include up to 25% alfalfa in the diet; it can act as a buffer in the stomach
- Do not exercise on an empty stomach
- Avoid use of non-specific non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications such as phenylbutazone (bute) or flunixin meglumine (banamine) unless directed by your veterinarian
Colic, or abdominal pain, can occur as a result of travel due to multiple factors. Hydration is a significant consideration, as many horses consume less water while traveling. It’s also common for horses to have a decrease in water intake due to the taste of unfamiliar water at a new venue. One way to combat this behavior is to use an electrolyte water additive (as directed by your veterinarian and in conjunction with plain water availability) at home and while traveling in order to mask any differences between the two. Stress and diet changes can alter the gastrointestinal flora, which can lead to colic as well. It is advisable to evaluate each individual horse’s management prior to traveling.
If the unexpected should happen, it’s a good idea to have an equine first aid kit with you while on the road. Some recommended items to have in the kit include a stethoscope, digital thermometer, supplies for a pressure bandage, saline solution, triple antibiotic ointment, and exam gloves. These items can help you provide important information to the veterinarian over the phone as well as allow for basic medical treatment as you wait for the veterinarian to arrive.
There is important paperwork (required by law) that you must carry with your horse if you travel outside of the state or country. A negative equine infectious anemia test (commonly known as a Coggins) done by a USDA-approved laboratory is required within 6 or 12 months dependent on the individual state. A Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (commonly known as a health certificate) must be issued within 30 days before crossing state lines. As of 2019, there is also a new 6-month CVI that is required in certain states. Both pieces of information require an accredited veterinarian.
The excitement and anticipation surrounding show season can make it easy to forget the demands we put on our equine friends. Even the calmest traveler is at risk during this time. Individualized management and preventative measures are the best way to support them. Good luck in the coming season!
Viveka Rannala, DVM was born and raised in Canada and decided at the age of four she was to become a veterinarian. Following graduation from the Ontario Veterinary College in 2017, she completed an internship at Peninsula Equine Medical Center in Menlo Park, CA. Since then, she has moved closer to home and joined the team at Northwest Veterinary Clinic of Stanwood working exclusively with horses. She is a member of the AAEP, AVMA, and WSVMA.