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Why You Shouldn't Transport Horses On An Empty Stomach

To date, it has become common knowledge to never exercise your horse on an empty stomach. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, little has been published about transporting on an empty stomach.

Considering a horse's natural instincts, transport is inherently stressful.  Add to that lack of forage - or lack of access to forage if your hay ends up on the floor - and you've combined two common causes of gastric ulcers. Very alarming - considering ulcers can occur in as little as 24 hours.

Thankfully, you can be proactive by providing forage (hay, pasture or soaked hay pellets) 1) prior to departing, 2) during transport and 3) once you arrive at your destination. Read on to learn why forage (not grain or sweet feed) is crucial for all three scenarios.

Important Exception - if you’ve been instructed to withhold feed due to a medical condition, by all means do so!

Horse trailer hauling horses, don't transport horses on an empty stomach

Why Transport is Stressful

Transport impairs every natural survival instinct your horse has:  sight, sound, smell and flight in order to detect and flee from perceived danger. Impairment of these instincts causes stress. Horses are stoic by nature and don’t always exhibit outward signs of stress.

Suffice it to say that if your horse is transported, he or she is stressed internally to some degree. Some may exhibit stress outwardly by refusing to load, pawing once in the trailer, whinnying or kicking the walls. Horses rarely do anything that doesn’t have a purpose.They don’t have the mental capacity to ponder and carry out acts intended to be annoying. It is our responsibility as their guardians to reduce their stress level mentally and physically to the best of our ability.​

​"Transport is an extended isometric exercise for your horse - requiring your equine friend to constantly balance by engaging the abdominal muscles. Contraction of the abdominal muscles forces acidic gastric juices up into the non-glandular (upper) region of the equine stomach."

Why Feeding Forage Prior to Departure is Beneficial

Horses, donkeys and mules produce gastric acid continuously in preparation for constant uptake (think natural grazing behavior). Chewing and swallowing activate saliva production (an alkaline substance), which buffers gastric acid by increasing the pH of the stomach.

By the time you load into the trailer, your horse's stomach pH will be lowered.  Loading with an empty stomach allows accumulated gastric acid (unbuffered due to lack of saliva from chewing) to slosh and bathe its lining. The fiber that forage provides creates a mat of sorts, which prevents acid from splashing in the stomach.

Why Forage During Transport is Optimum

Transport is an extended isometric exercise for your horse - requiring your equine friend to constantly balance by engaging the abdominal muscles. Contraction of the abdominal muscles forces acidic gastric juices up into the non-glandular (upper) region of the equine stomach. 

Chewing on forage produces saliva, which buffers the gastric acid, and relaxes the jaw.  Tension in the jaw can radiate throughout the body.  ​Mental and physical experiences are synonymous in that each has an influence on the other and both can induce ulcers.

The act of foraging during transport can also reduce mental stress by distracting the individual from focusing on the impairment of their natural instincts and redirecting their attention to food.

Whether caused by isometric balancing or taking bumps in the road, splashing gastric acids can induce ulcer formation or exacerbate existing ulcers to the extent they create an ulcer deep enough to cause bleeding or even burn completely through the tissue. Splashing of gastric acid on ulcers would feel similar to hydrochloric acid being splashed on your face.

Why Forage Consumption is Beneficial After Unloading

The equine stomach can begin to empty in 20 minutes to 2 hours - depending on the type of feed and rate of consumption or when it becomes two-thirds full.

Stress persists upon arrival because your horse is in an unfamiliar setting with a heightened sense of survival instincts engaged. Whether tied outside your trailer, placed in a corral or stall in a strange environment or put into exercise immediately - your horse is experiencing many stressors.

The continuation of chewing and swallowing helps to:
  • Maintain a lower (more alkaline) pH
  • Renew a protective layer of fiber to prevent the splashing of acids
  • Continue to redirect your horse's attention to food

How Slow-Fed Forage Benefits Horses During Travel

Most horses don't drink enough during transport. Offering loose hay - which horses can consume too quickly - results in large amounts of dry matter lacking sufficient saliva to forage ratio - combined with large particle sizes from not properly masticating indigestible fiber. Slow feeders can help address these issues by:
  • Increasing chew time & producing more saliva
  • Further reducing particle size
  • Increasing saliva to forage ratio, which provides moisture and aids in digestion
 Slow feeders can also minimize the risk of impaction colic at home and on the road.

Helpful Tips to Reduce Stress While Traveling

  • Buddy up and take a familiar companion in the trailer.
  • Ensure your horse trailer shocks provide the smoothest ride possible. Use caution when applying brakes and making turns.
  • Provide clean shavings on the floor for traction and mist them with a spray nozzle to minimize dust inhalation.
  • Ensure maximum ventilation.
  • Provide forage to last the duration of your trip - you may need a slow feed net or bag to accomplish this. 
  • Stop at least every 3-4 hours to offer water and give your horses a break from balancing themselves.

Hydration Tips

  • To help keep your horse hydrated during transport, drench your hay with water and let it drain prior to loading into your hay bag for the trailer.​
  • Take water from home and offer along the way (horses that are reluctant to drink water may be even more reluctant to do so if the water tastes different).
  • If you can’t take water with you, start adding something to flavor the water at home in a separate bucket (to experiment with their preferred flavor) such as peppermint extract or powdered Gatorade®. Once you discover your horse's favorite flavor, take it with you to mask the taste of unfamiliar water sources.

Monitor Your Horse Trailer Interior Temperature

Temperatures inside horse trailers should be a concern and monitored at all times. Install a temperature monitor with a base station - the same type used in homes to monitor the outside temperature without going outside. This is an inexpensive investment for your peace of mind and your beloved companion’s comfort.

Hang the sensor in a mesh bag for good air flow or mount it about halfway up the side of the wall in the trailer (as far away as possible from a warm body).

Livestock can generate quite a bit of body heat, even in cold weather. Conversely, in warmer weather it can alert you if temperatures rise to a cause of concern. This allows you to open and close air vents and windows to achieve optimum comfort with confidence for your precious cargo.

All Things Considered

Understanding your horse's natural survival instincts allows you to incorporate measures to minimize the physical and mental stress of transport. Being empathetic to your horse's needs helps to ensure a happier, healthier companion on the road and at home.

​Hay Pillow® Uses for All Your Travel Needs

Hay Pillows® are the perfect slow feed solution while traveling, camping and for therapy horses on the go. Our slow feed hay bags have a solid back drastically reducing wasted hay and keeping it contained in the wind. Our horse trailer manager hay bag keeps hay off the floor and out of your horse's eyes. Easy to load, durable and effective. See for yourself!

​Helpful How to Resources


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Monique Warren, Hay Pillow Founder with the Hay Pillow Slow Feeder product line - standard ground hay pillow, mini hay pillow, hanging hay pillow & horse trailer manger hay pillow

About the Author

Monique Warren invented the Hay Pillow® slow feeder and is the owner of Hay Pillow Inc. ​Warren has been an equine guardian for over forty years and slow-feed advocate for over 10 years. She contributes equine nutrition, digestive and hoof health articles to publications such as Equine Wellness, The Journal, The Naturally Healthy Horse, Natural Horse Magazine, Nicker News, The Horse's Hoof and Miniature Horse World Magazine. Equine nutrition and horses feet are her passions. She resides in Southern California.

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