Should you tie a horse in a trailer?
Most horse owners will have to transport their horse at some point in their life and tying, or not, sounds simple, but it requires essential safety considerations.
The answer, of course, is that it depends – on the personality and training of the horse, the type of trailer, and the internal set-up of the trailer.
I have hauled horses from Colorado to Massachusetts, up and down the East Coast of the US, and around the UK, and the right choice is whatever will be safest for you and the horse on each journey.
Read on to find out how to decide.
CHECK: The 10 Best Safest Horse Trailers
- Horses are tied to prevent them from moving too much.
- Young horses should travel loose.
- Always use safety trailer ties or panic snaps.
- Horses on long journeys require frequent rest stops and, ideally, traveling loose in order to keep their airways clear.
Pros Of Tying a Horse in a Trailer
The main reason we tie horses in trailers is to prevent them from moving and damaging themselves, the trailer, or you.
They can twist around in the stall, lie down, crawl under the dividers, or over the breast bar, all of which could be extremely dangerous.
If you have more than one horse in your rig, tying also stops them from picking fights with neighboring horses.
It goes without saying that any horse tied up in a trailer already needs to know how to tie safely. Youngstock or unhandled horses should be traveled loose since restraint could panic a horse unfamiliar with it.
Cons Of Tying a Horse in a Trailer
A rope is a safety hazard in and of itself, and not tying your horse to the trailer means he can’t get tangled in it.
Additionally, horses who are free to move will find the most comfortable traveling position. (1)
That said, another study found that “balancing ability was not meaningfully affected [by orientation] …”.(2) If you deem it safer to tie, it’s not the end of the world for his balance.
Longer journeys have greater repercussions on respiratory health and stress. An untied horse can easily lower his head, which is necessary for clearing his airways.
According to Total Equine Vets, a practice based in Virginia, “Tying a horse’s head in a trailer has been shown to increase the chance of respiratory disease.” (3)
A 2010 study on long-haul transport (24 hours or more) showed significantly lower levels of cortisol and other stress indicators in horses left loose than in horses cross-tied in a trailer. (4)
It recommended “allowing horses during long-term transportation to travel loose in small compartments, without elevating their head by cross-tying.”
The trailer should, of course, be large enough for the horse to move about safely and not hit his head on the roof. Check out our horse trailer size guide.
Lastly, in the unfortunate event of an accident, it is easier to rescue a loose horse than one attached to the trailer.
However, if you are transporting an untied horse, you’ll either want a stock trailer, which is designed for it, or one where you can safely secure center dividers, breast bars, and anything he can get caught in or climb over.
I had a slant load trailer that could be configured into a fantastic, airy, loose box, and I occasionally used it to move weanlings and yearlings or to transport my own horse untied.
What Can You Use For Tying a Horse In the Trailer?
If you are tying your horse, regardless of trailer type, be it a stock horse trailer or another style, you should always use some breakaway tie or horse-safe panic snap.
In the event of the horse panicking, slipping, or having an accident, you don’t want him fixed to the bulkhead.
The cheapest option is a loop of baling twine and a quick-release knot on the lead rope. You can also buy leads with quick-release snaps or tie rings which are designed to break under stress.
Some experts, like trainer Sabrina Damm, recommend both twine and panic snaps.
Springhill Equine Vets (5) encourage only using leather or breakaway halters. Although it’s relatively common to the trailer in rope halters, it’s not that safe.
Trainer Julie Goodnight says, “The rope halter is designed to put pressure on the horse’s face, and it will not break. That could be a problem in the event of an emergency.”
How to Tie a Horse in a Trailer?
When considering the question, ‘should you tie a horse in a trailer?’ The following are essential.
A horse tied up in a trailer needs to be able to move his head and neck to balance himself and blow debris out of his airways, but he should be restrained enough to stay out of trouble.
It’s a myth that horses brace themselves on the rope – they use their core and shift their legs. (6) You don’t want his head totally immobilized. A horse could also get injured if tied too high and loses footing.
Another study indicated that the pressure a horse experiences if tied too short, might even cause him to panic and jump the chest bar. (7)
However, the rope should not be overly long. Otherwise, he could get the rope over his head, catch his foot, turn around, or wind up under the center divider or butt bar.
Give him enough slack to hold his head comfortably at wither height but no more.
Most people offer their horses hay whilst in transit. Make sure he can reach the hay without his rope getting caught, and if you are using haynet, tie it high enough so the horse can’t get a foot stuck in it.
Another important factor to consider is your horse trailer height. It needs to be suitable for the size of your horse.
When you unload, do not forget to untie your horse before you remove the divider or butt bar. Horses sometimes shoot backward as soon as the door opens and could panic if suddenly caught on the lead rope.
How Long Can You Leave a Horse Tied Up?
Veterinary studies have shown that after twelve hours of transport, the risks to the horse’s health increase, mainly from respiratory infections.
One UC Davis study found “a modest occurrence of transport stress related to respiratory disease in horses traveling up to 12 hours. (8) After that, the occurrence of shipping fever rises dramatically and in proportion to the duration of transport.”
However, traveling any distance is hard work for them. Imagine the balance and constant small movements required when you stand on a bus.
UC Davis recommends that you stop every four to six hours (or three to four in hot weather) to give him a break and offer him water. (8)
It’s not necessary to unload him. But after eight or nine hours, he will appreciate being taken off the trailer to stretch his legs, and male horses especially will find it easier to urinate.
There may be situations where your horse has to stay on the trailer overnight. Ideally, you want to avoid this, but emergencies happen.
If it does, make sure he has enough hay to last through the night and access to fresh water. You should remove any droppings, put shavings down to soak up urine, and make sure that the trailer is as well-ventilated as possible.
Should I tie my horse in a slant load trailer?
You should tie a horse in a slant load trailer if he is at risk of turning around or going under or over the divider or butt bar. If the trailer’s design makes this unlikely, if he is a good traveler or has not been trained to tie, he can be loose.
Can you leave a horse in a trailer overnight?
It is preferable not to. But in an emergency, you can manage, so long as he has bedding, water, hay, and adequate ventilation.
Can you trailer a horse without a divider?
Yes, so long as your rig can be operated safely without one. Setting up the trailer as a loose box could be preferable for young stock or unhandled horses, who should not be tied and might find the journey less stressful if they have more space.
Where does the heaviest horse go in a trailer?
In a straight-load trailer, the heaviest horse should go on the driver’s side due to the camber of the roads. In a slant load, the heaviest horse should go over the axle.
Transporting horses on the roads is one of the most dangerous activities we do with them. Deciding how should you tie a horse in a trailer is one of the most important pre-travel checks you can make.
There are many ways to make it as safe as possible, and the decision to tie or not tie is important. Your horse can look forward to a pleasant trip with a few considerations and the correct equipment.
So, do you tie a horse in a trailer? Let us know in the comments section!
- 1. SMITH BL, JONES JH, CARLSON GP, PASCOE JR. Body position and direction preferences in horses during road transport. Equine Veterinary Journal. 1994;26:374–7.
- 2. Gibbs AE, Friend TH. Horse preference for orientation during transport and the effect of orientation on balancing ability. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. 1999;63:1–9.
- 3. Trailering 101 [Internet]. www.totalequinevets.com. Available from: https://www.totalequinevets.com/client-center/resources/TEVApedia/equine-trailering-101
- 4. STULL CL, RODIEK AV. Effects of cross-tying horses during 24 h of road transport. Equine Veterinary Journal. 2010;34:550–5.
- 5. Cat T the C. Trailer Safety [Internet]. Springhill Equine Veterinary Clinic. 2018 [cited 2022 Oct 12]. Available from: https://springhillequine.com/trailer-safety/
- 6. Colborne GR, Tang L, Adams BR, Gordon BI, McCabe BE, Riley CB. A Novel Load Cell-Supported Research Platform to Measure Vertical and Horizontal Motion of a Horse’s Centre of Mass During Trailer Transport. Journal of Equine Veterinary Science. 2021;99:103408.
- 7. Cregier S. Non-Commercial Horse Transport: New Standards for Trailers in Canada [Internet]. Research Gate. 2015 [cited 2022 Oct 12]. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Sharon-Cregier/publication/283794562_Non-Commercial_Horse_Transport_New_Standards_for_Trailers_in_Canada/links/5647493408ae9f9c13e92b61/Non-Commercial-Horse-Transport-New-Standards-for-Trailers-in-Canada.pdf
- 8. Transporting Horses by Road and Air Recommendations for Reducing the Stress [Internet]. UC Davis Vet Med. 2013 [cited 2022 Oct 12]. Available from: https://ceh.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/sites/g/files/dgvnsk4536/files/local_resources/pdfs/pubs-July2013HR-sec.pdf
Emily is a native of Colorado, currently living in Glasgow, Scotland, working as a freelance writer. She is a long-time horsewoman, having started riding at the age of 6, then competing in dressage around Colorado and Massachusetts, where she finished her undergraduate degree in psychology.
Following a move to the UK and a PhD, she worked for a few years as a freelance horse trainer in Central Scotland. She’s interested in holistic horsemanship, fostering better communication and understanding between horses and humans, riding with lightness and softness, and she’s forever seeking out the newest research into equine behavior and psychology. When not writing, she can be found at the barn with her two equine partners, Foinavon, an ex-feral Highland pony, and Hermosa, a young Andalusian.
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