Safely Trailering and Loading Your Horse

By Jenifer Nadeau, Equine Extension Specialist

Department of Animal Science

Publication # EXT017 | 2018

Reviewed by Crystal Smith

In order to have a successful trip with your horse, there are some safety considerations involved. It is important to know how to safely load and trailer your horse. Unsafe trailering and loading can lead to accidents and health concerns.

When trailering a horse, you want to be sure that:

  • Your trailer is modern and safe in design. New features making trailers even safer arrive on the market every year. Some features that may increase safety and minimize stress include insulation, mats, screens, window bar guards, removable or no center post, removable hay bags, and water tanks. More expensive features include things like interior fans, air-ride suspension, closed-circuit TV cameras, and air-conditioning. This may not be affordable for the average person.
  • Your hitch is perfectly rated for your trailer. Hitches can be weight-carrying or weight-distributing. The difference is that a weight-carrying hitch supports the weight of the tongue as it presses down on the hitch while a weight-distributing hitch (equalizing) lets more tongue weight be carried and keeps the trailer more stable and level by distributing the tongue weight to all the wheels of the tow vehicle and trailer. Using a weight-distributing hitch is especially important when driving a shorter wheelbase vehicle such as an SUV versus a full-size pickup. The rating is stamped on the hitch; there will be a rating for weight-distributing capacity, tongue weight and weight-carrying capacity. The slide in ball mount and the ball will also be stamped with a rating of capacity. Remember that the actual capacity is only as great as the capacity of the weakest part: slide-in ball mount, coupler, or hitch. Also remember that you can tow a lighter load with a heavier hitch but not a heavier load with a lighter hitch.
  • Your tow vehicle is appropriate for your trailer. Preferably you should know what type of trailer you will be towing or have in mind a specific trailer before buying your tow vehicle to be sure that you are selecting the appropriate vehicle. Read the automobile or truck manufacturer’s towing vehicle guide and select according to which tow vehicle meets your needed towing capacity. You will be considering engine size, transmission, and axle ratio. Axle ratio is the gearing in the differential that multiplies torque to the rear wheels.
  • The horse is positioned in the trailer in a way that minimizes stress. Recent studies have examined these effects and found that:
    • Heart rates were not different between horses facing forward or backward.
    • Horses shipped parallel backwards slipped more than horses shipped parallel forwards, slanted 45-degree forwards, or slanted 45 degree backwards.
    • There was a slight preference for horses to have a 45-degree orientation in trailers, but no preference for facing either away or towards the direction traveled.
    • Untied horses spent more time facing backward than forward in a moving trailer and several horses had strong preferences for the directions they faced while being transported.
    • In one study, rear facing horses were better able to maintain their balance and horses seem to be able to balance better if they can freely raise and lower their heads (i.e., no saddle compartment in the way).
    • In one study, horses on the right side of the trailer had a tendency to lose balance more often.
    • Unshod horses had more foreleg movements than shod horses but only tended to slip more than shod horses.
  • When hauling long distances, consider feed, water, rest stops and unloading a necessary part of the trip.
    • Have enough feed and water on board for the number of days you expect to be on the road, and extra in case of emergency.
    • If hauling horses a long distance, you should feed on their regular schedule.
    • Make a rest stop at least every three to four hours and stop for at least 15-30 minutes. Offer water at the beginning and end of each rest stop. Dehydration is one of the potential side effects of trailering horses. Be sure your horse is drinking regularly. Inspect boots and wraps and reposition shifted headgear such as fly masks and head bumpers. Check the length of your horse’s restraint if your horse is tied. Assess ventilation conditions and make adjustments as needed.
    • Stop for 45 minutes every 7.5 hours to change hay nets and remove feces.
    • If stopping overnight hand walk the horse or turn it out if you are at a place where there is a paddock available.
    • It is not wise to unload your horse in any area where it may be dangerous to horses or humans. Nervous horses may spook and become free creating a dangerous situation. Use your judgment when choosing to unload and exercise a horse. Many commercial haulers do not unload horses during transport due to concerns about their ability to reload the horse and the horse’s reaction to an unfamiliar situation as well as the potential danger. If horses are hauled long distances, they should be given a week to recover before being strenuously exercised.
  • The trailer has enough space and light inside for your horse to feel comfortable. Since horses are prey animals, they will be unlikely to want to go into a dark, enclosed space. They run from prey in the wild if possible and try to avoid dark, enclosed situations. Also make sure that the trailer is tall enough and wide enough for the horses you are hauling. Recent research indicates that the number of injuries is less if a floor area of 1.14 to 1.31 square meters per horse is provided. The trailer should not reach temperatures above 75 to 90º F, which is the upper critical temperature, at which the horse cannot remove heat quickly enough to avoid heat stress.
  • Humidity above 50% will interfere with their ability to remove heat. If you do not have an air-conditioned trailer, you should consider these factors and attempt to transport horses at times when heat and humidity are decreased or avoiding transporting the horse at all in these conditions.
  • The trailer has adequate windows, slats, and roof vents for proper ventilation. Proper ventilation is very important to the respiratory health of your horse. In one study:
    • Ammonia and carbon monoxide were below acceptable limits for human exposure.
    • Articulate matter was above safe limits for human exposure.


Friend, T. H. (2001). A review of recent research on the transportation of horses. Journal of Animal Science, 79(suppl_E), E32-E40.

Gibbs, A. E., & Friend, T. H. (1999). Horse preference for orientation during transport and the effect of orientation on balancing ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 63(1), 1-9.

Houpt, K. A., & Lieb, S. (2000). Horse handling and transport.

Purswell, J. L., Gates, R. S., Lawrence, L. M., & Davis, J. D. (2010). Thermal environment in a four-horse slant-load trailer. Transactions of the ASABE, 53(6), 1885-1894.

Yorke, A., Matusiewicz, J., & Padalino, B. (2017). How to minimise the incidence of transport-related problem behaviours in horses: A review. Journal of Equine Science, 28(3), 67-75.