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Safe and stress-free horse transport – A Veterinarian’s perspective

Transporting horses is commonplace; whether that be for competition, exploring trails, breeding or other reasons, we want our horses to arrive in good health and perform at their best.

The process of transport carries with it both physical and psychological stressors. Noise, new environments, changes in feed and water intake, trouble balancing, and the reduced ventilation and higher temperatures in a trailer can all contribute to increased stress. Even short journeys can cause significant increases in cortisol, a stress hormone, and alter immune function1,2. If the combination of these added stressors is high, there is increased risk of serious health problems such as gastric ulcers, dehydration, pneumonia, colic, diarrhoea, and traumatic injuries3.

Understanding the most recent science on equine transport can help you reach your destination with healthy horses that can perform at their peak, and allows for early detection of potential health problems.

Before You Go

Practice loading

  • Injuries are most common during the loading portion of transport4. This period is also associated with increases in heart rate and cortisol, suggesting horses find this one of the most stressful parts1.
  • Practicing loading in a calm environment without the stress of a deadline is one of the best ways to reduce the risk in this part of the journey.

Choose the best time to go

  • Plan to get there with time to spare – studies show that arriving 3 to 4 hours before the start of a competition to recover is best 1. This lets the horse eat, drink and gradually return to normal behaviours.
  • If travelling on a hot day, leaving early in the morning or early evening can help to avoid the heat.

Provide an electrolyte drink before travel

  • One of the major challenges of transport is dehydration – and this isn’t only from going without during the journey. Keeping balance in the trailer is equivalent to medium-level exercise, including losing electrolytes and water through sweat5.
  • Electrolyte supplementation in the hour before transport can reduce these effects.

Monitor your horse’s normal

  • If your horse is a little under the weather, the change in immune function associated with transport can make things worse.
  • In the days leading up to the planned transport, take particular note of your horse’s eating and drinking habits, and their manure output; changes in these before or after arrival can be early signs that things may be wrong.
  • Take your horse’s temperature in the 2-3 days before travel; if it exceeds 38.4 °C, contact your veterinarian.
  • A first aid kit including wound care and bandaging materials is also a great idea just in case.
  • There is some evidence that the change in immune function is partly related to increased oxidative stress; it is unclear if antioxidant supplementation would help this, but it is unlikely to do any harm so is worth consideration particularly on long trips6,7 .

Talk to your vet about gastric ulcer prevention

  • Transportation has been associated with the development of gastric ulcers. Horses that show more stress-related behaviours during transport, such as pawing, heading tossing and scrambling, may be more likely to develop higher gastric ulcer scores8,9 .
  • If your horse is an anxious traveller, consider talking to your veterinarian about gastric ulcer prevention for transportation.

During The Journey

Feed up

  • Providing feed during travelling provides stimulation of gut function, reduce risk of gastric ulcers, and can help your horse relax.
  • Feed should be wet down to reduce circulating dust, and fed from below the withers to help encourage a head down position which is better for their lungs.

No rugs needed

  • Horses generate a lot of heat in the trailer, and lose most of their heat by sweating. Rugs can interfere with the way horses lose heat, and contribute to dehydration.
  • Horses also don’t feel the cold like we do – they feel comfortable down to 5°C. Unless it’s below this, no rugs are needed.
  • Protective leg covers are fine as long as the horse is used to wearing them.

Open those vents and head down

  • Respiratory problems are one of the most common health issues that can occur during transport4. The enclosed environment increases circulating particles that can irritate the airways. Opening up the vents helps to reduce this risk10.
  • Tying your horse long enough that they can put their head down below the shoulders also helps them protect their airways, and reduces stress as they look for the most comfortable balance position11.

Take breaks

  • Regular breaks to offer water are important to prevent dehydration, as well as prevent muscle fatigue from balancing during motion
  • Horses should have a break at least every 4 hours where the vehicle is stationary with the engine switched off, ideally in a quiet location. On a hot day, every 2 hours is more appropriate.
  • Unloading and reloading should only be done with caution in a safe environment, and may be best avoided if the horse finds this distressing.

Provide bedding

  • The floor can quickly become slippery and make it difficult for your horse to keep their balance. Shavings are a low dust option to absorb excess moisture and reduce scrambling and balance behaviours

After the Journey

Settling In

  • Feed and water on arrival.
  • Plenty of feed and water when you get there will help you horse settle in. Horses drink and eat the most in the first 2 hours after arrival once they have started to acclimatise, so this is a great time to give them a meal and a drink1.
  • Flavoured or electrolyte water can encourage them to drink more to replace their losses from their trip.

Keep monitoring

  • The risk isn’t over at the end of the journey – it is in the days after travel where more serious illness may become obvious. If your horse is unfortunate enough to become unwell, early detection and treatment are important.
  • Keep monitoring your horse closely, including taking their temperature twice daily for the next 3 days – this is one of the earliest indicators of any respiratory or gut infections. Above 38.4°C is abnormal.
  • Things to monitor for include nasal discharge, increase in the rate of breathing, reduced manure output, diarrhoea or a change in appetite or demeanour – but any change from normal should prompt a discussion with your veterinarian.

Safe and stress free horse transport

Safe and stress free horse transport

 

References:

1. Tateo A, Padalino B, Boccaccio M, Maggiolino A, Centoducati P. Transport stress in horses: Effects of two different distances. J Vet Behav: Clin Appl Res. 2012;7(1):33–42.

2. Miller AB, Harris PA, Barker VD, Adams AA. Short-term transport stress and supplementation alter immune function in aged horses. PLoS ONE. 2021;16(8):e0254139.

3. Padalino B, Raidal SL, Hall E, Knight P, Celi P, Jeffcott L, et al. Risk factors in equine transport‐related health problems: A survey of the Australian equine industry. Equine Vet J. 2017;49(4):507–11.

4. Padalino B, Hall E, Raidal S, Celi P, Knight P, Jeffcott L, et al. Health Problems and Risk Factors Associated with Long Haul Transport of Horses in Australia. Animals. 2015;5(4):1296–310.

5. Lindinger MI. Oral Electrolyte and Water Supplementation in Horses. Vet Sci. 2022;9(11):626.

6. Butterfield C, Grumpelt B, Kimmel D, Patterson R, Jones K, Scott SL, et al. The Pretransport Management of Stress in Performance Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2018;69:145–8.

7. Gharehaghajlou Y, Raidal SL, Freccero F, Padalino B. Effects of Transport and Feeding Strategies Before Transportation on Redox Homeostasis and Gastric Ulceration in Horses. J Equine Vet Sci. 2023;126:104268.

8. Padalino B, Davis GL, Raidal SL. Effects of transportation on gastric pH and gastric ulceration in mares. J Vet Intern Med. 2020;34(2):922–32.

9. Padalino B, Raidal SL. Effects of Transport Conditions on Behavioural and Physiological Responses of Horses. Animals. 2020;10(1):160.

10. Purswell JL, Gates RS, Lawrence LM, Jacob JD, Stombaugh TS, Coleman RJ. AIR EXCHANGE RATE IN A HORSE TRAILER DURING ROAD TRANSPORT. Trans ASABE. 2006;49(1):193–201.

11. Stull CI, Rodiek AV. Effects of cross‐tying horses during 24 h of road transport. Equine Vet J. 2002;34(6):550–5.

 

About the author

Dr Isobel Entwisle (Equine Medicine)

Murdoch University, Western Australia

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