VANCOUVER–More than two million U.S. and Canadian horse-keepers haul more than nine million horses an average of more than a dozen times each per year, one or two in a trailer.
Farriers and veterinarians usually drive to the horses’ barns, to minimize horse transport, but horses are routinely hauled to riding trails, shows, races, parades, and other recreational and competitive events. Then they are hauled back home again, enduring a drive in each direction which is often more stressful for the horse than the event itself.
Most horses, allege increasing numbers of horse transportation experts, are frequently bruised and sometimes bloodied, bouncing around in conventional front-facing trailers.
Many horses suffer hoof injuries from scrambling to keep on their feet during braking and cornering. And transportation bruises that may not show, but are painful to the horse, may account for untold numbers of riding accidents, when a rider inadvertently touches a sore spot.
Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue training organization president Rebecca Gimenez, of Georgia, can show slides by the hour of accidents resulting from horses losing their balance, causing a horse trailer to tip, or becoming helpless ton-plus projectiles after a panic stop or otherwise routine fender-bending collision.
Yet, while the abuse of horses in transport to slaughter has been among the recurring hot issues for animal advocates since the dawn of humane work, routine horse-hauling has been barely addressed by the humane community.
Lack of humane awareness of horse injuries and deaths in routine transport may in turn be a big part of why the horse industry itself has paid little attention to 50 years of evidence accumulating from around the world that front-facing horse trailers are so unsafe that Odessa Holmes, whose father built the first known rear-facing horse trailer, believe front-facing trailers should be considered inherently abusive.
“Every kick, every piece of damaged interior in today’s transport, every requirement for tranquilizers in shipping, every two-week $1,200 horse transport loading clinic, is a testimony to the failure of current transport practices,” fumes horse behavior consultant Sharon Cregier, of Prince Edward Island, Canada. “Every failed rescue because a horse refuses to load, even as floods or fire threaten the horse, is a testimony to the failure of current transport practices. Every announcement at a show to check horses on arrival for fever, choking, hoof inflammation, and other injuries is a testimony to the failure of transport practices. The regulations and manufacturing specs for horse trailers are so few as to be worthless. The result is often loss of animal and human life,” Cregier emphasizes.
The humane way to haul horses, Cregier has determined from decades of investigating accidents, is in a trailer designed to allow the horses to face backward–exactly the opposite of how almost all horse trailers are built.
Cregier is scarcely alone in her conclusion. Horse transport and horse behaviorists participating in the March 2012 Animal Transport Association conference in Vancouver, British Columbia were nearly unanimous that when it comes to horse-hauling, bassackward is right.
That is, the opposite of rump-backwardThe only exceptions to the view that bassackward is right were some people involved in building and selling conventional front-facing horse trailers.
Formal recognition of the risks inherent in hauling horses facing forward appears to have begun with the late New Zealand competitive rider, automotive engineer, truck driver, and truck driving instructor David James Holmes in 1962.
Holmes suffered an almost fatal crash while hauling a standardbred mare. Facing oncoming traffic in a conventional horse trailer, the horse “scrambled and thrashed, causing the trailer to weave out of control,” Cregier recalled.
Added Odessa Holmes, “The rig overturned as it approached a bridge, nearly plunging into a river.” The accident, remembered Odessa Holmes, led David Holmes to “study the anatomy and balancing mechanisms of horses at rest. He observed horses in their natural relaxed stand, noting that 60% or more of their body weight was ahead of the girth [the point where a saddle would be strapped]. The position required a forward lean. He concluded that a horse has what he called ‘automatic balance,’ permitting the horse to sleep while standing. He noted that when facing the direction of travel, the horse could not maintain a natural stance.”
Five years after David Holmes built his first rear-facing horse trailer, with the back door doubling as a platform that enabled horses to turn around and back in, the rear-facing Kiwi Safety Trailer debuted in 1967. Of 20 Kiwi Safety Trailers built during the next 15 years, “13 of these original trailers are still in use,” said Odessa Holmes. “The design was taken up by Rice Trailers of England in 1975.”
Following their father’s design principles, Odessa Holmes and her sister Sheri recently built two prototypes of an improved trailer they call Equi Balance, which Odessa pledges “will challenge the global transport legislative environment.”
Others independently reached similar conclusions. Glenn and Kelly Wilson run four horse-related businesses from Waterfall Creek, in the Tallangatta Valley of Victoria state, Australia. “It was very interesting to spend some time in the back of the truck while various horses were given the experience of rear-facing transport,”
Glenn Wilson recently posted to the Waterfall Creek web site. “Lateral sway caused by cornering is compensated by the horses adopting a fairly wide stance with their hind legs. Often their front feet do not move at all unless the driving is very rough and jerky. In a braking situation they use their bums to brace against the wall or bulkhead. They are not thrown against a chest bar with their weight coming off their back end and losing balance, as happens in a forward facing hard braking situation. If the horses’ weight moves to their rear ends, they can raise or lower their heads and necks to counter balance.”
Riding with the horses
Offered Ohio farriery instructor Gretchen Fathauer, “My interest in trailering was sparked by my horse Max, who used to load and haul just perfectly in a 13-foot stock trailer. He voluntarily rode facing rear. He got on and off quite sanely. This changed when I began hauling him in standard forward-facing 2-horse trailers. He was blasting out of trailers like a cannonball out of a cannon. And not wanting to get in any more. I boarded at a 90-stall barn. Most of the other boarders were having the same problems, only worse. Refusing to believe that these were entirely discipline problems, I started riding in trailers with horses. I saw horses trembling and bracing, practically sitting down like dogs to ward off the next application of the brakes. This explained why I was seeing so many horses rubbing the base of their tails thin on the back doors and breaking butt chains. When turns were taken too fast, I saw them throw themselves into the center divider and scramble where the side wall and floor met. One scrambled so hard he got a shoe loose. The center divider in my trailer, despite being quite sturdy, was bent from this.
“I also tried riding in trailers on all fours, facing forward and later backward,” Fathauer continued. “Braking practically landed me flat on my face when I was facing forward. But facing rear, I could absorb the force much better with my hinds, which are designed to push forward, and could counteract the force of braking much better than my fores being propped out in front. If I was backed up to a solid wall, facing rear, all the better!
“I came away from with all this was a renewed appreciation for how much horses will do for us, even when they know they’re going to have a terrible experience,” Fathauer concluded.
Confirming Cregier’s observations with experience was an occasion when she was called to help evacuate two horses from a flooded farm, after the farm family and a professional transporter could not get the horses to load. Two girls who had never seen a rear-facing trailer and loading platform before managed to load each horse, while Cregier made two relatively uneventful 60-mile trips to safety, one horse at a time because her trailer would only hold one, through high winds and water that was at times hub-deep.
Another time, Cregier was called after “two transporters worked all morning trying to get a horse to load. When I arrived,” she remembered, “the horse was trembling and wringing wet from the ordeal.” A 14-year-old girl loaded the horse. At destination, Cregier testified, “The horse was cool, calm, and a 12-year-old boy on crutches was waiting for the arrival. Before I even had the tailgate down he shouted with glee, ‘Mom! Dad! I can unload my own horse!,’ and he did.
“Highways won’t always be wholly safe,” concluded Cregier. “There will always be a need for humane society rescues of horses [from road accidents], but it will go smoother and safer with the right understanding of horse needs, and the right tools.”