By Julia Edwards-Dake
I grew up a Navy brat. My parents hauled me across the country more times than I care to remember. Hwy 40 and Route 66 are not just names to me. I know them. The sights and sounds. The motels where my family slept or the diners with shiny counters and plastic booths that always offered ‘French toast.’ The Painted Desert and how big Texas seems in the back seat of a hot car are clear childhood memories.
Just as clear is the memory that each time my family picked up and moved to a new station, I left something or someone behind; a best friend, a school or a pony. The best friend and the school I could forgive but the pony? The pony was the unforgivable.
As an adult, I hauled my horse all over the west, riding the mountains and the coast. However, circumstances often dictate changes in our lives and after 35 years in California, I found myself once again on Hwy 40, traveling east toward South Carolina. This time however, I didn’t leave the pony behind.
The decision to haul across country wasn’t made easily but once made left me both exhilarated and a bit frightened. I would be doing this alone, a 50 year old woman — alone. Two thousand forty seven miles with a dog and a horse, staying in strange places with nothing but the amazing, blazing internet and the experience of others to guide me — I was planning a real adventure!
I started my journey with research. I searched the internet, surfing the websites, reading and planning. I found places to stay with links to the various horse motel websites. My favorite and most used sites were www.horsemotels.com and www.horseandmuletrails.com. I followed links to other related sites such as www.usequestrians.com and found more information.
I emailed people at the various facilities along my planned route, getting directions and distances. It is important to know what one can expect as far as roads, conditions, and when the weather might turn bad. I determined that I would haul no longer than six hours per day with half hour rest stops every two hours. Layovers of a day or more were planned to give my horse a real rest from the vibration and noise of the road.
Professionals, such as my vet, counseled me making certain I had the correct health certificates as well as ownership/brand papers. My gelding’s vaccinations were all up to date and he is microchipped. I updated that information. Lastly, I had him freshly shod as I planned to ride during the trip.
I spoke with professional horse haulers, most of whom were willing to answer my questions. I needed to know what to expect on such a long haul. The consensus among the professionals was to ship the horse. The trip could be made in four days with a day layover. My horse would ride in air-suspended luxury with the best of care. Interestingly enough, in 2006, the cost to transport professionally and the cost of fuel to cross the country were about the same. But why haul an empty trailer? I was going anyway so why not ride some of the places I’d only read about in magazines.
On such a long haul, there are a myriad of things that must be attended to, some of them so mundane as to risk being forgotten. I included in my ‘travel kit’ a power of attorney both for myself and my animals should an accident leave me unable to direct medical treatment. I had ‘In Case of Emergency’ information about my horse, my dog, and myself in the travel kit. I wanted authorities to know who to call. I also purchased roadside assistant from U. S. Equestrian, designed specifically for those of us who haul horses. I used the service twice while on the road and then again when I reached my destination.
I would never have considered this haul if I’d not had a large horse trailer and a big safe truck. My rig is a three horse slant with living quarters. I haul with a Dodge 3500 dually diesel 4x4. The rig is comfortable with good suspension, well padded and well ventilated. I have fans over the horse slots to keep the air moving during rest stops. The slot for my gelding is wide and safe. (The only change I would make is to pad the side of the divider to ease the right hip. Dakota bumped the right hip for nearly 3000 miles. At the end of the journey he had a significant bruise that took some time to recover from.)
I didn’t wrap my gelding’s legs as he is not used to traveling that way. I didn’t tie his head. I don’t believe in tying, thinking that a horse is better off lowering his head and having a good cough. Nor do I travel with shavings in the horsebox. The dust fills the air and the lungs. These are my personal preferences gained from years of hauling this particular horse. Another horse with a different temperament and I might have made different choices.
At each rest stop, I offered water but no food. Because my gelding loves watermelon, I had several in the bed of the truck along with hay, bran and pre-measured grain. I would offer him slices of the melon to keep him hydrated and encourage him to drink. He eventually took water at each rest stop. My biggest concern, hydration, was eased within the first two days of travel.
Having the living quarters meant I didn’t need to stay in motels thus saving money. In addition, I was able to stay on the site with my horse or leave him and the trailer at the horse hotel to explore. The Cowboy Hall of Fame and the American Quarter Horse Hall of Fame were nice stops along the way. A guided tour of Native American ruins was one of the highlights ranking right up there with the nights in the Painted Dessert. I spent one night in Amarillo with the Budweiser Clydesdales in a beautiful facility. My quarter horse suddenly looked very, very small.
While on the road, I never pulled my horse from the trailer. The risk of losing control of him due to a spook or something equally silly was too great. So Dakota stayed in the rig until we reached our nightly destination. Once at my destination, I would unload and walk, giving my horse (and me) the opportunity to settle from the road and get his legs under him. I would water him and, if the facilities allowed, would turn him out to roll and relax.
Parking the rig, hooking up to electricity if available and cleaning out the horsebox portion of the trailer takes up the next hour. Keeping the mats clean and dry makes the road more comfortable and safer for your horse. Eventually I am able to tend to my dog. He was welcomed at every horse motel at which I stayed, as long as he was well behaved (I always checked with my hosts before I hauled in). An invaluable companion along the way, Dru never once criticized my driving and he was always happy to finish off a meal.
Dakota would be stalled for the night. At some facilities, I provided my own bedding. Others provided a varying quality or type of bedding. I provided my own alfalfa hay and, as the trip progressed, slowly changed to the hay I would be feeding once I reached my destination. A warm bran mash to compliment his hay inevitably ended up in his ears or on his knees but he enjoyed it and again got plenty of moisture.
Finally, I would find a moment for myself: dinner, a glass of wine and time to unwind. My very own shower topped off the evening followed by television or, if the horse hotel offered it, a surf of the web. I kept my friends and family updated via evening emails and uploaded photos.
I followed this routine for nearly three weeks. Unlike the breakneck races across the country with my Navy parents, I had the luxury of taking my time. No new station or posting awaited me. No children wailing for a bathroom break or the tee pee motel in the desert, the rumble of my truck and the occasional country music station was the sound I enjoyed as I hauled my pony and my dog to a new life.
In retrospect, I am struck by the difference between crossing the country in the 21st century and crossing the country via Route 66 in 1966. Cell phones and wireless laptops, food chains and horse-friendly motels make the trip safer and a lot easier. I didn’t see a single road sign that read “Next services 400 miles” but I remember such signs. I also remember my parents taking the advice seriously.
What would I do differently? Fewer clothes and more food come to mind. Definitely more hay. I’d also take more time to ride and ride more of the places I passed. There are never enough pictures when you get to the end of the road. I am sorry I don’t have a picture of myself and my dog beneath a Route 66 sign. I would also include a real, paper map in addition to my navigation system.
As a woman traveling alone, I would remind others traveling alone: if your intuition nags at you or screams at you, pay attention. A ‘horse motel’ in Alabama comes to mind along with the twang of banjos and the theme from ‘Deliverance’. I turned around, hauled out. I called my mom and tasked her with finding me another place to stay. Later that night, in beautiful Leeds, Alabama, I blessed the folks at Heather Farms for welcoming a stranger into their midst even though they were not a horse motel or even a boarding barn.
Planning with more depth and following the plan would have made a few moments a bit less harrowing. I missed rush hour in Amarillo but hit it dead on in Atlanta. I spent several hours on a ‘detour’ because I missed the turn back to the freeway. On the other hand, I consider spontaneity to be the chocolate syrup of life. Three extra nights in the Painted Desert are still with me. The trip is a little sweeter with a drizzle of chocolate sauce.