The Compromise of Equine Transport Vehicles

Restar Mountain Shelley IIIIt was one of those slap-the-forehead moments.  Why hadn’t I thought of that before?!  An email crossed my desk suggesting that most equine transport vehicles are designed for the convenience of us humans rather than the comfort of the equines being transported. (1)  I immediately knew the truth in the statement.  After reading a little further, I laughed.  My late mare Sleddale Rose Beauty had taught me another lesson!

Two physiological characteristics of equines in motion are hindered by most equine transport vehicles.  We may not think of equines being in motion when they’re being transported, but they are, most especially during acceleration, deceleration, cornering and the change from stop to backing.  The first physiological trait that I realized was impaired by most vehicles is that equines use their heads and necks to balance out movement in the rest of their body.  When an equine’s head is tied up during transport, or if they are unable to raise or lower their head or move it side to side because of the design of the vehicle, then they are unable to compensate for movement in the rest of their body as they normally would, likely resulting in stress or tension somewhere in their bodies.

In addition to the physiological stress of having their heads tied or otherwise constrained by vehicle design, there is also the risk of contracting shipping fever.  Not being able to lower their heads to cough normally can cause dust and other airborne contagions to accumulate, facilitating potentially deadly respiratory illness.

The second physiological characteristic impaired by most transport vehicles and practices is that equines carry more than half their weight on their forequarters.  Yet when loaded in a vehicle facing the direction of travel, their weight is often thrown to the hindquarters, especially by deceleration.  My mare Beauty was very difficult to transport unless she was facing opposite the direction of travel.  In fact, all my ponies when given the choice will choose to stand facing the rear.  Having their weight thrown repeatedly onto a part of the body not functionally intended to carry it will also produce stress and tension.  I have a new appreciation for how willingly my ponies travel in my trailer despite the compromises to their physiology the travel imparts.

A related article had to do with transporting broodmares. I’ve always been concerned about the impact the stress of travel might have on a freshly settled mare.  A Colorado State University study found that while most mares do fine being transported during pregnancy, which has certainly been my experience, those with low progesterone levels have a greater chance of aborting.  The researchers also speculated that “vulnerability to stress may be greatest at about 25 to 45 days after conception, when the embryo is attaching itself to the placenta.” (2)

It was noted in one of the articles that youngstock have different biomechanics in motion than adult equines.  And obviously, foals during transport have the additional need of being able to nurse.  I have found, as was also described in the article, that foals have no problem nursing facing the direction of travel but then choose to ride facing rearward like their dams.

I try not to take trailering for granted and therefore endeavor to make trips as comfortable as possible.  In my three-horse slant load trailer, for instance, if I’m going more than a few miles, I remove the lead rope from the halter to enable up and down movement of the head and neck.  If I’m only transporting a single pony, I leave the stalls open and let them ride loose.  Always, I find them facing rearwards when I check on them.

After slapping my forehead at the obvious truth of the compromise of equine transport vehicles, I was even more grateful for how willingly my ponies travel.  And I was grateful once again for my late mare Beauty and yet another lesson she taught me.

  1. See for instance, Creiger, Sharon E. “Reducing Equine Hauling Stress:  A Review,” Journal of Equine Veterinary Science, 2:8 N/D 1982.
  2. Thomas, Heather Smith. “Transporting Broodmares,” California Thoroughbred Breeders Association, February 2001, at

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2016

Book The Partnered PonyOne section of the book The Partnered Pony is dedicated to practical aspects of partnering with ponies including trailering.  The Partnered Pony:  What’s Possible, Practical, and Powerful with Small Equines is available internationally on and by clicking here.


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Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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