Box stalls are better than standing stalls for horse health when traveling, but more than this general advice, a lot of horse owners want to know about the health risks, types of horse trailers, and specific travel tips to minimize your horses’ stress when traveling. Here is all the most important and reliable information and how you can use this information to plan your next trip and/or your next horse trailer purchase.
Knowing the Different Types of Horse Travel Stalls
- Simple Standing Stalls: These stalls are barely wider than the width of the horse. The horses must be tightly cross-tied for their transportation safety. This is like flying coach without any preference seating.
- Stall-and-a-Half Designs: These stalls are configured so that the dividers are one-and-a-half to two times the width of a simple standing stall. Horses can be loosely cross-tied allowing them to lower their head to varying degrees. This is like flying premium coach for horses.
- Box Stalls: These stalls allow the horse to safely travel without being cross-tied at all. The horse can fully lower its head and even lay down if it’s not feeling well or wants to be off its feet for a short time.
What’s the Problem with Cross-Tied Stalls?
Most horse owners and hostlers and pretty much all veterinarians know that it’s not good for the horse to hold its head up for long periods of time. Nevertheless, you may not be as familiar with the specific facts and exact risks associated with this restricted movement.
Veterinarian Robert Holland from Lexington, KY says, “If the head is tied up for more than 12 hours, the horse has 20 to 30 percent more bacteria in the back of his throat. He has to lower his head to have much clearance.”
A UC Davis study found that cross tied horses had a larger increase in specific stress parameters (especially serum cortisol levels and white blood cell counts) 24 hours following transport than horses traveling untied in a box stall. The neutrolphil-to-lymphocyte (N:L) ratio was also much higher in the cross-tied horses.
As one would expect, clinical studies confirm that horses which travel more than 500 miles, and especially those in cross-tied stalls, have higher rates of infectious disease. Pneumonia and pleuritis are the most common and are sometimes called “shipping fever.”
What if You Have No Other Choice?
It’s one thing to know the best practices, but unusual circumstances can create tough choices. For example, a horse owner may travel very short distances with their horses on a regular basis, while needing to minimize the costs of travel as much as possible. As such, this horse owner uses a smaller, cross-tie standing stall trailer. But what does this horse owner do when there’s one or two long-distance trips they need to make with their horse(s)?
You might be able to find other horse people in the area who can lend you an appropriate horse trailer or drive a second trailer convoy-style, but this isn’t an option much of the time. In circumstances where you have no other choice but to travel considerable distance with standing stalls, the best idea may be to plan a slower travel itinerary that can help protect your horses’ health.
Dr. Carolyn Stull, veterinary professor at UC Davis who specializes in animal welfare, says this: “If you have to use cross ties or a trailer design that keeps horses’ heads elevated, unload every 6 to 8 hours to let them move around, graze and rest.” With a little extra route planning, this may be the best—and maybe the only safe—way to transport your horses.
Post-Transport Horse Care
Even horses transported in box stalls may experience slightly higher white blood counts in the first 24 hours after traveling. It’s more like two full days, on average, for horses in standing stalls to have their white blood cell counts return to normal. There is also considerable individual differences in how horses respond to traveling. Regardless, as part of a post-transport horse care routine, horses should be provided with extra support and plenty of rest and light exercise as best suited to that horse’s travel personality.