Balanced transport and loading horses so they travel facing the rear respects the horses’ needs for security behind, and can help reduce stress.

In this article, Dr Sharon Cregier, twice awarded the International Animal Transportation Association (ATA) animal welfare award explains why it comes closer to meeting humane animal welfare standards and increases road safety.

Road transport is acknowledged as the most distressing husbandry practice that horses will experience. As horses are the most frequently transported of all livestock, that’s a pile of misery. A human equivalent is walking a tightrope over Niagara Falls – without a balance rod. It can be done, but it isn’t easy or safe.

A horse’s “balance rod” is the neck and the thoracic sling suspended from the shoulder blades. These help the horse maintain sixty percent or more of their weight on their forequarters.

But when horses are transported facing the direction of travel, their balance rod is compromised. Acceleration forces them to throw their weight to the hindquarters, spreading their hindlegs to try to broaden their base of support. If we could see this posture outside the trailer, we might suspect laminitis.  Deceleration, or braking, pitches the horse forward.  This fore and aft movement hinders tow vehicle safety. As the live cargo shifts, the weight on the tow ball may shift affecting steering as well as braking.

Overturned horse trailers require specialised teams to extricate the horse. Without a helmet, the rescuer with the horse endangers himself. Photo: Technical Large Animal Emergency Rescue (

The horse’s high center of gravity makes the balance susceptible to a sidewind from a passing tractor-trailer, a pothole, a poorly navigated curve or roundabout, or an abrupt deceleration. The result subjects horses to just as much injury and death as slaughter horse hauling. An American Horse Shows survey found that transport injuries were the most frequent demand on attending veterinarians.

Thousands of horses have had to be rescued or retrieved from road incidents.

Less visible are the effects of transport on the horses. They may be separated from their familiar companions. The horse is instinctively fearful of close confinement. Exhaust fumes, dust, ammonia, nitric oxide and carbon monoxide fill the transport vehicle. Unable to lower the head, the horse risks respiratory distress. Heart rates increase during transport as the horse struggles to maintain his/her balance.

Transport has been associated with colic, dehydration, shipping fever, weight loss, laminitis, transit tetany, trailer choke and azoturia. Plasma cortisol and enzymes associated with muscular effort, and the reactivation of salmonella have been identified as affecting transported horses.

The horses show their distress by increased calling, diarrhoea, sweating, stamping, and pawing. Longer term, the immune system may be affected.

The European Commission on the Welfare of Animals During Transport concluded that current practices are detrimental to horse welfare and human safety. Current transport practices did not meet the behavioral needs and environmental safety required for humane treatment. The tactics for loading and unloading tended to rely on coercion. During transport, the horse cannot achieve a natural relaxed position.

Horse welfare workers from The Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, Scotland to Massey University in New Zealand met the Commission’s challenge. Their studies demonstrated that a horse maintains a natural resting position when faced away from the direction of travel.

Many standard trailers carry these records of frantic attempts to balance Many standard trailers carry these records of frantic attempts to balance. Photo: S. Cregier
This young lady loads her own horse into the specially adapted trailer to allow her horse to back in. Photo: D. Holmes

Horses who were reversed into the special trailer, had lower heart rates than horses asked to step into the standard front facing trailer.

Human and horse safety was maximized in the rear-facing trailer as the handler never had to be inside with the horse.

Sawdust bedding indicated that the horses rarely shifted during transport. As there was no scrambling during transport, equipment was undamaged.

A short introduction, which requires no ropes, whips, clinicians, or brawny friends, to loading for balanced transport, is all most horses need. Even backyard horse people with basic skills can readily teach their horses to load.

Many horses are loaded in this way without prior introduction, saving time during emergency evacuations. As the horses do not face an enclosed space, they offer no resistance. Children are known to safely load and unload their own horse or pony.

Some manufacturers have not yet grasped the necessity for the horse to have plenty of room to lean forward and stretch its neck and head to the floor. Although the manufacturer may describe its product as “rear face” it does not have all of the features which increase horse and human safety and comfort. To load, the handler must enter a confined area with the horse, always a dangerous situation. The horses’ tie rings may be located ahead of the horse instead of opposite or behind the withers. There is no resistance, then, should the horse step forward or try to mount the breast bar. Some manufacturers insist on a butt bar, though this is no longer necessary and presents an additional hazard.

Some manufacturers are eliminating the breast bar in the rear facing trailer by replacing it with a soft, strong flexible band to increase the feeling of freedom of movement for the forward leaning horse. Of course, handlers and transport designers must take no aspect of a horse’s quieter nature for granted.

As horsemen broaden their understanding of a horse’s needs in transport, trailer manufacturers meeting these needs are increasing their sales. (Note: there are no standards anywhere in the world for horse trailers. Anyone with a welder and a shade tree can build a trailer with no regard to collision or rollover protection, metal strengths, noise levels, and much else. The lack of standards has, for example, led to manufacturers fudging suspension and axle capacities).        

The first motorized transport loaded the horses to face the rear, their heads over the interior wheel wells. To save costs, the wheel wells were moved outside, eliminating the side loading ramp. This modification now forced the horses to enter a dark cave, sometimes trapping, injuring, or killing their handler in the process.

Balanced transport and loading which respects the horses’ needs for security behind, helps us help the horse to maintain its unstressed behaviour. It comes closer to meeting humane animal welfare standards and increases road safety.

Over 5,000 km and this rear face trailer has no damage or kick marks. Feeling secure and balanced, this Australian’s horse prepares to doze. Photo: Suzanne Bellette

Balanced Transport Checklist:

  • Respiratory system cleared at will

  • Halts within 9m at 32 km/h without jackknifing

  • Haunches, not head, contact featureless interior on emergency breaking

  • Horse does not “brace”

  • Upright stance maintained with spontaneous adjustment of head, neck, thoracic sling

  • Axles closer to tow rig reducing possibility of sway

  • More constant hitch weight maintained

  • Hindquarters unburdened by excess weight

  • Safer to euthanise horse in trailer

  • Heads at exit, ready to be led out singly or together

  • Horse not in danger of dragging if tail door lost

  • Loading is like putting a horse to shafts

  • Handler always in control at head

  • Uses passive, familiar aids, such as straw bales, to train to load

Source: ‘Non-commercial Horse Transport: The Need for Standards’ (2015). S. Cregier and R. Gimenez. Available without charge online, through