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Hydration and Winter Transport

by Dr Clair Thunes PhD Nutrition
Consulting Nutritionist for EnviroEquine & PET
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The winter migration to warmer areas is well under way on the east coast with horses shipping from New England to South Carolina and Florida. Soon too, the west coast will join in with horses shipping to the winter desert jumper circuit and the dressage circuits in southern California.

Hydration is an easy thing to think about in the summer heat because we can see our horses sweating. We are easily reminded to give them electrolytes. Even in the winter cold we often worry about whether our horses are drinking enough to avoid those scary winter impaction colics and are motivated to feed salt. However what we do not think about so much perhaps are hydration needs during winter shipping.

When you load up your trailer and it is below freezing outside it is easy to think that your horse should be shipped wearing blankets and with the trailer vents closed. Sweat is likely the last thing on your mind. However you might be surprised at how much warmer it can be inside the trailer versus outside. I recently read a report online that while not scientific was a pretty eye opening reminder of how much heat horses in a trailer can create.

The author of the article had shipped 2 horses in a trailer in below freezing temperatures. In fact when they loaded up the outside temperature was 22°F. However, within 30 mins of being on the road, the thermometer they had set-up inside the trailer registered 32°F. Despite the outside temperature dropping as low as 14°F the thermometer inside the trailer never registered less than 39°F and mostly held steady around 44°F. It would have been temping to blanket these horses based on the external temperatures however they had full winter coats and blanketing would likely have led to unnecessary sweating.

Clearly the temperature in your trailer will depend on the temperature outside, the amount of ventilation in your trailer and the number of horses being shipped. There are some important points to consider here.

First do not be tempted to shut all vents, fresh air in the trailer is important not only for temperature regulation but also respiratory health. Determine how to have at least some vents open in a way that will avoid cold air being blown directly on to the horses.  Typically this means having them open to the rear of the trailer. Then crack a window so that air comes in to the trailer and exits through the roof vents taking heat with it. If ventilation is inadequate condensation will build up due to moisture in the horse’s exhaled air and with humidity comes an additional risk of sweating.

Secondly while it may be tempting to blanket your horse during transport it may not be necessary. Consider installing a thermometer in your trailer so that you can monitor the temperature inside the trailer. If you decide you will need to blanket, for example in the above scenario the horses had a full winter coat but if clip they likely would have benefited from a blanket, make sure it is breathable. This way if the horses do become a little warm and sweat that develops in their coats can wick away. Wool coolers are a good choice.

Electrobalance has really helped to keep my horses from dehydrating while traveling, competing, and during big weather changes. It's palatability makes it an especially easy choice to feed.

Bronze Medal Winner, Allison Brock
Member of the 2016 US Olympic Dressage Team
Enviro Equine Brand Ambassador

Also consider how relaxed your horse is in the trailer. Research suggests that maintaining balance in a trailer is equivalent to a moderate level of work. This would typically generate sweat on most horses. If your horse is a nervous trailer it is likely he will generate even more body heat and sweat. You may not see this sweat when you unload because the air moving over the coat as the trailer moves will wick it away leaving the coat dry.

And lastly that issue of hydration. Hours in the trailer can result in reduced fluid intake and if sweating does occur a reduction in body stores of electrolytes as well as fluid loss. If water is not constantly available in your trailer for your horse you need to stop at least every 3 to 4 hours to offer water. At the same time check the horses body temperature. This means reaching under blankets it they are being worn and adjust as necessary.

Research has shown that horses can lose significant amounts of fluid and electrolytes due to sweating during transport possibly as much as that lost completing the traditional endurance day of a three day event (roads and tracks, steeplechase and cross country) during a 10 hour journey.

Giving excessive levels of electrolytes during transport may be detrimental. A better approach to insuring horses stay hydrated is to provide adequate electrolytes in the days running up to travel and to insure horses are drinking properly before departure. Then on arrival administration of electrolytes can continue. It is also important to make sure that the electrolyte you choose provides large enough amounts of sodium, chloride and potassium per serving to have an impact on electrolyte status.

ElectroBalance is a unique electrolyte that provides levels of sodium, chloride and potassium at levels to restore sweat losses in a base of bentonite clay. Bentonite clay may help support healthy gastrointestinal tissue by acting to buffer stomach acid and coat the stomach lining. This makes it an ideal choice for horses that display gastric sensitivity when consuming electrolytes and for those horses at risk of gastric ulceration when stressed.

Other tricks for horses that do not drink during transit include feeding soaked hay, adding water to any grain meals to create soups and putting a handful of grain in a water bucket to temp drinking. For horses that tend not to drink in strange locations, add something like apple juice to your water at home and then do the same at the new location to mask any unusual taste. Note that untreated water should also always be made available.

With careful planning you can minimize shipping stress when hauling in the winter months and insure that your equine partner arrives at your destination ready to perform at their best.

Consulting Nutritionist for EnviroEquine Dr. Clair Thunes is passionate about her profession—one that she decided upon at the age of 14. After earning a Bachelor of Science with Honors from Edinburgh University, and a Master of Science in Animal Science and a PhD in Nutrition from the University of California, Davis, Dr. Thunes went on to found Summit Equine Nutrition LLC an independent consulting company in 2007. An experienced nutritionist and accomplished scientist, Dr. Thunes understands the vital role that nutrition plays in managing horses today. Most importantly, she believes in making nutrition accessible to everyone and removes the guesswork so that owners have the peace of mind that their horse’s diets are optimal for maximum health and peak performance.  Her clients include all horses from competitors at the 2016 Rio Olympics to retired pasture friends, mules and miniature donkeys. She writes a weekly online commentary for and her nutrition articles have been published in noted publications including: The Horse, Equine Wellness, Trail Blazer, Horse & Rider and The Horse Report. Besides consulting she teaches equine nutrition and equine exercise physiology in the Animal Science Department at UC Davis and equine health at Cosumnes River College.  Clair continues to be involved with The United States Pony Clubs, Inc. and she is currently the Regional Supervisor for the Sierra Pacific Region.

Top Photo: © egonzitter / Can Stock Photo