The real cowboys of the road have horses under the hood and in back.
few years ago, trucker Jack Williams of Beacon Hill Horse Transportation picked up a load of 11 Icelandic ponies from the U.S. Department of Agriculture facility in Newburg, N.Y., where large animals are quarantined after arriving from foreign countries. It was a typical haul, moving horses from New York to California. Somewhere near Nevada, however, Williams’ load suddenly got bigger.
“I had 11 going out, but somehow we ended up with a 12th,” Williams says. “I didn’t even know the mare was pregnant.” On a routine stop, the trucker and horseman noticed several other horses crowded in one of the boxes of his 15-horse trailer. “A few of them were squished together,” he says. “I looked back there and saw those small legs.”
Williams got his long-nosed Peterbilt 379 off the freeway and found a large animal veterinarian to check the new foal and the mother. Both were fine, but Williams had another problem; the foal thought Williams was its mother. “It was pretty strange trying to unload those horses. I held the foal for the veterinarian, and she stayed with me. The foal usually stays with her mom, but not this one. She wouldn’t leave me.
“I should have charged extra for the horse,” Williams says, laughing.
Playing mother to a herd of horses is all in a day’s work for Williams and his fellow horse haulers. Every year thousands of horses – from small ponies considered priceless by their owners to Kentucky Derby winners valued in the millions – crisscross the country in 10- to 15-horse tractor-trailers. Most of the horses hauled by commercial trucking companies are headed to shows, races, events or training facilities. Others are just simply on the move following a sale or headed to a new barn in another part of the country.
While the companies that move horses are in the same industry as carriers hauling groceries or lumber, they’re in a completely different business. For one, the carriers say they’re doing a lot more than just moving freight. “We’re not in the transportation business,” says Joe McGee, president of Equine Express, a 10-tractor horse carrier based in Pilot Point, Texas. “We’re in the horse-care business.”
For many horse haulers, that comment sums up why they have commercial drivers licenses at all – they love horses and wouldn’t be in the business if they were hauling steel out of Pittsburgh instead of thoroughbreds out of Kentucky. Many have backgrounds as farriers (professionals who shoe horses), horse trainers and even as jockeys.
“You’ve got to be a horseman first and a trucker second,” says Mike Whalen, vice president of operations for Creech Bros. Horse Vans., a division of Creech Bros. Truck Lines. “You can make a good driver out of horseman, but it’s harder to make a trucker into a horseman.”
Charlie Venezia, who hauls horses on the Eastern seaboard with two trucks under the name Holly Hill Transport, is a good example. The owner-operator grew up around horses on his family farm in Massachusetts, where they raise hunter-jumpers. The 24-year-old began hauling for them eight years ago, albeit in a much smaller vehicle than the Pete 379 and the new Kenworth T2000 he owns now.
“I wouldn’t do this just to drive a truck,” Venezia says. “It is a lucrative business, but I didn’t get into it for the money. You’ve got to know horses going in and learn about trucks on the way.”
Passion for horses is a prerequisite, agrees Denny Waldman, an owner-operator who runs one truck out of Philadelphia. Like most of his colleagues in the industry, Waldman owns a horse – named Magic – and rides frequently.
“You got to love horses to do this,” he says.
Most major horse carriers move horses with team drivers, so the load can keep moving.
Drivers stop every four to five hours to check on the horses and to water and feed them. The stops are fairly brief. The busy schedule is designed to cut down on the amount of time it takes to move the horses from one location to another because less time on the road means less stress for the horses.
“The only way we would stop the truck (other than layover) is if there was a health issue for the horse, or if there was a mechanical failure,” says Jeff Allison, a dispatcher with Nation-Wide Horse Transportation. “If there were a breakdown we’d have to find a boarding stable close by.”
A typical cross-country trip may involve a layover where the horses spend one to three days at a farm or stable. For example, Nation-Wide will layover horses coming west from the East Coast at its headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colo. “If they are coming from the West Coast, there’s a two to three day layover,” Allison says. “Horses need the rest.”
At a stop, drivers will go through the van checking on horses and will make sure they’re drinking. They will also refill the hay bag and make sure each horse’s kidneys are working. “They’ll check to see if they have a brightness in their eyes,” says Equine Express’ McGee. “Some of them will go to the bathroom in transit and some won’t. That’s why it’s really important to stop and feed and water them. Custom care of a living animal is different than hauling freight. When we unload a horse, we want him to be as well as when we picked him up.”
Equine Express also stops at a terminal along the way in Pilot Point, Texas, just north of Dallas. Horses being shipped coast-to-coast lay over for rest, but also for acclimation. Going from the dry air of California to the humidity of Florida or Kentucky can be a shock to horses, resulting in a number of health issues, some potentially fatal.
“It’s fabulous to have the terminal in the middle,” McGee says. “It’s a good break for them. You’d be surprised at how many horses go east to west and west to east. It’s a tremendous transition. Stopping in Texas gives them a chance to get their feet underneath them.”
The company runs its 10 big rigs weekly out of the centrally located terminal, often switching horses from an East Coast truck to a West Coast truck. “We go all over the country,” McGee says. “Our routes run weekly to the West Coast, New England and Florida. Sometimes we run two trucks a week on those routes.” The company goes other places on demand.
Some haulers spend time at airports, picking up thoroughbred racers for local delivery or loading horses that have flown in from Europe. Whalen says his company often picks up horses that are flown by H.E. “Tex” Sutton Forwarding Co., the name in equine air transport.
“Horses fly primarily for large races or to cover great distances for a race,” Whalen says. “The stress of shipping is part of the reason, but the main reason stables fly their horses is time. If I have a horse that’s running in New York in two weeks, and he’s in Los Angeles now, I’ll fly him and [they’ll] train him in New York for a week and a half. If he does well, he flies home. If he doesn’t, they’ll take their time bringing him back.”
The horses often don’t even touch the concrete tarmac, moving instead from a Boeing 727 by ramp right onto a 15-horse van. While flying first class in the air is a perk any pasture pony would envy, riding in an air ride-equipped van in a box stall isn’t bad either.
The equipment most professional carriers use is top-of-the-line. Not only do the trailers have air ride, many are equipped with cameras and in-cab monitors so drivers can keep an eye on their cargo. Waldman’s tractor-trailer comes equipped with a GPS satellite system, emergency alert weather radio and special strobe lights for safe loading and unloading when a delivery location warrants additional visibility.
“We have the cameras just to check them out when we’re in route and to make sure they’re calm,” Waldman says.
The equipment is important because the cargo is fragile. Pulling horses is a lot like pulling a liquid load, says Whalen. “It’s like hauling swinging meat or pulling a tanker,” Whalen says. “The load is always moving around. You have to be careful. The freight can’t talk.”
Horses are not transported in climate-controlled vehicles even in the heat of summer or the cold of winter. The reasons are simple: recirculated air carries bacteria that can lead to illness, and a sharp climate change can result in pneumonia. Instead, horse carriers open their windows, and a few use fans to circulate air.
While most horses take to truck travel fine, some horses travel with a companion to ease their journey. Some famous horses travel with other horses or even goats and dogs. But Whalen says some of his customers ship a groom with their horses. In addition to horses, the truck drivers have to be careful not to throw the groom around.
Having a human in the back of the truck with the horses also leads to another issue: keeping track of all the personnel when the truck heads back on the highway. Whalen says a miscommunication between a groom (or even a snoozing team member in the bunk) and the co-driver over who’s going in to eat can occasionally leave someone cooling their heels at a truckstop while the horses head down the highway.
While such mishaps are humorous, professional horse haulers say their industry is plagued by amateurs who operate illegally and put their precious cargo at risk. Renegade truckers, who typically operate small gooseneck trailers and dually pickup trucks but also occasionally use rigs, transport horses for about half what carriers with legal authority do. The trailers don’t have air ride, and the haulers don’t operate in teams – often driving through the night or stopping along the way and leaving their horses in the trailer.
“They go out, buy a truck – a dually pickup – and a four- to six-horse trailer, put farm tags on it,” Whalen says. “In many cases, they haul for hire without a bill of lading. If they’re stopped, they just say, ‘These are my personal horses.’ And even though that’s not the case, they get away with it.”
Such transport is common over short distances, but for longer hauls the gooseneck trailers are more stressful on the horses. And the drivers drive a lot longer than they should, Whalen says, which is why they can afford to do the business cheaper. Most horse shippers use reputable carriers, like those that belong to two chief hauling groups, the American Horse Carriers Associations or National Horse Carriers.
Horse haulers formed the two groups in order to help enhance the reputation of quality carriers and educate those looking to ship their horses. Their love of horses also makes most willing to answer questions about hauling even for owners who choose to go with another carrier. “We’ll answer any question. I even tell people that even if you’re not going to use us, you need to do it this way,” Williams says. “The horses can’t take care of themselves.”
Lumping the Horses
Price is a major motivation. Shipping a horse with a legitimate carrier will cost between $1,000 and $1,500 from coast to coast. Rates are high because of the care needed and because shippers typically pay for an empty truck coming back. But successful carriers can find a backhaul or have set up a basic less-than-truckload system to maximize productivity.
Still, even top-of-the-line carriers only provide a minimum of insurance for horses in transit. That minimum – from $500 to $3,000 – will nowhere near cover the value of a stallion, broodmare (breeding mare) or top race or show horse. Nor will it cover the perceived value of a family pet.
Professional carriers do all they can to prevent problems, but many issues are beyond their control. “Owners really have to have their own insurance,” says Jack Williams. “We’re only going to cover your horse for $2,000, and if it dies or gets ill, it’s got to be our fault. If it kicks and kicks and kicks, that’s not our problem,” Williams says. “That’s his disposition. Other horses have pre-existing conditions. A horse that was shaky or colicky to begin with isn’t fit to travel. We won’t haul them.”
Fit horses that are used to traveling are the easiest to haul, Williams says. They tend to be spooked less. Most thoroughbreds and show horses are handled so often they are used to moving around. But because loading and unloading is the most stressful time for horses, drivers have to be extremely knowledgeable about horses in general.
“Loading and unloading is a challenge,” Williams says. “When you load the horses, they’re going to end up head to head with each other. You’ve got to make sure the stallions and mares are away from each other. You’ve got to have an idea of which horse can go next to which horse.”
Most horses are crosstied in standard straight stalls, facing horses across an aisle. Mares nursing a foal, broodmares and horses that do not like the confinement of a stall will ride in boxes – the equivalent of two stalls. Single horses are occasionally sent in box stalls, but the cost is often double, since such configurations take up the space of two stalls.
Problem loaders abound. Owner-operator Waldman says it’s natural for horses to resist loading. “Going into a trailer goes against millions of years of instinct,” he says. “It’s not natural to go in there.”
Williams recently picked up a load in Goshen, N.Y., that included a breed of racing ponies. There was a gelding, one mare and four stallions. Williams didn’t know the stallions had been breeding recently. “They were a handful,” he says. “Stallions will strike out at you. It was a pretty good challenge. We only had six horses on, so we were able to configure the trailer where they could be loaded safely.”
A striking stallion is par for the course, but smart drivers know how to carry themselves around their loads. Still, injuries happen. A 1,200-pound Tennessee Walker can snap a careless handler’s foot, or a kicking thoroughbred can ruin a driver’s day. “Every once in a while you get stepped on,” Williams says. “After you have been at it for a while, you know where to stand and know what to watch for.”
Because there is very little downtime, drivers also have to be passionate about their work. While carriers take a breather in February when a lot of horses are at shows in Florida, there aren’t many other times to take vacation, catch up with family and friends or relax. In fact, Venezia says he works almost every weekend – but the effort is worth it.
“The horse transportation business is a way of life rather than a vocation,” he says. “Trucking in itself is a way of life, but not in the same way. We have the privilege of catering to creatures far more magnificent than ourselves. The sense of accomplishment that comes with doing that job well is what makes all the long hours and hard work worthwhile.”
—Linda Longton contributed to this report.
Quality Haulers Becoming Harder to Find
Horse haulers face the same driver shortage as other carriers, only they can’t pull drivers from just anywhere.
Qualified drivers are hard to come by, says Jeff Allison with Nation-Wide Horse Transportation. “We’ve been fortunate in the last couple of years to be able to keep around the same people,” he says. “It is very hard to find drivers who have horse knowledge and have the driving experience.”
Companies seldom hire truck drivers who have little or no experience with horses, although some companies that haul both horses and freight will let their horse haulers drive freight in slow seasons. “A lot of our drivers are ex-trainers, jockeys and exercise riders,” says Mike Whalen with Creech Bros. Truck Lines, which hauls horses with one of its two divisions. “Most of them wouldn’t be driving a truck if they didn’t have horses in there.”
Driving is also different. Drivers must be careful when turning, stopping and starting.
“You can’t drive a tractor-trailer with horses like you could one with gravel or steel,” says Allison. “We try to pick employees who have some horse experience and then put them with other drivers who have more knowledge, so they can train the person who doesn’t know as much.”
Pay is similar to other kinds of trucking. Most drivers are paid by the mile, with owner-operators often being paid a percentage. They can also earn base pay and safety bonuses as well as trip bonuses. Sometimes this can add up to an extra 15 cents or more a mile.
“We’re all primarily good horse handlers,” Whalen says. “You have to be a good driver, but you also handle horses and have certain instincts.”
Transporting the Rich and Famous
Sometimes a load can be really valuable. Just ask Creech Bros. Truck Lines.
The company once hauled Affirmed, the last horse to win the Triple Crown (the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes) in 1978.
Such horses can be worth millions. Of course, their owners are usually worth substantially more. Mike Whalen says Creech Bros. hauls for the rich and famous alike, with many hauls out of Southern California, including clients like Star Trek star and equine aficionado William Shatner, actors John Forsythe and Dennis Hopper, and music stars M.C. Hammer, Toby Keith and Reba McEntire.
Truckers Jack Williams and Charlie Venezia occasionally haul horses for the U.S. Olympic team. Williams says he’s hauled a lot of horses over the years for Joe Fargis, who won gold in show jumping in the 1984 Olympics.
“We move a lot of high-dollar horses,” says Joe McGee of Equine Express. “We just moved a stallion in Florida worth $1.2 million. Of course, in our market place, a family with a horse that’s a pet thinks as much of that horse as the guy who has a $2 million horse.”