Shaping the future of animal health

Minimising Travel Fatigue

Long distance transport is stressful to some horses, particularly horses that suffer from “nerves” during travelling or in anticipation of competing. Nervy horses shake and tremble, working themselves into a lather, and drip sweat, which can all cause pre-competition fatigue, and obviously dehydration, particularly during hot weather.

Time of Travelling

Minimising Travel Fatigue in horsesTravelling in cool weather or early morning reduces the heat stress on horses generally, particularly in “nervy” travellers. Whilst this may be practical if you are hauling horses in a trailer or truck yourself, it may not be easily arranged with a commercial transport operator, and can be more expensive. Some owners like to transport a nervy horse over distances greater than 200km a few days before the event. However, the benefit of this has to be weighed against the upset of new surroundings in some nervy horses. If a single nervy horse is travelling, it may be worthwhile loading an extra horse on board as a quieter companion to help settle it down.

Method of Travelling

Generally, travelling in two horse trailers is more stressful to some horses, and they travel better in a large truck float in the company of other horses. Recent research has shown that horses travel with less stress when facing backwards, rather than to the front or sides. These studies indicated that peak heart rates were lower and horses did not move around as when facing backwards.

Preparation for Travelling

It is helpful to ensure that horses are given adequate electrolytes and fluids in hot weather. It is a good idea to check the skin by the “pinch test” to estimate the relative degree of dehydration at least two to three days before travelling. This allows sufficient time for absorption of the electrolytes, as well as the restoration of fluid balance. With the development of specially formulated rehydration fluids for horses, such as Recharge®, topping up with fluids and electrolytes is made more convenient and generally more effective. Some horses will learn to accept Recharge in water as a drink, particularly if they are heavy sweaters in hot weather, and are thirsty on return from competition. However, to ensure they take in the full dose, administer over the tongue, up to twice a day if a horse is a little tucked up.

“Top Ups” during Travelling

Ideally, horses should be offered water to drink every two to three hours during long trips in hot weather, and off-loaded every four to six hours for a walk and “green pick”, provided they are quiet and can be held safely on the lead. Alternatively, horses can be given half a biscuit of dampened good quality lucerne hay in a hay net, or slightly wilted green feed to pick at on the trip, then this will relieve boredom, settle the horse and provide some additional moisture. Lucerne hay can be dampened by wrapping in a wet (saturated) chaff bag for 2-3 hours and hung in a hay net at chest height, not higher.

If the horse is hot and sweating, sponge over and scrape off to aid cooling during the rest stop. Travelling at night is usually much cooler and longer spaces between rest stops can be made, whilst still providing relief from travelling and allow the animal to ‘stretch’ its legs.

During hot weather, open the front vents in an enclosed trailer to improve air flow and reduce inhaling of dusty, contaminated air. Intake of dust must be avoided during the trip, as this can increase the risk of respiratory problems, and “travel sickness” on long journeys, particularly after competition.

It is useful to provide shavings, sawdust or absorbent material on the floor, even between the holes in a rubber web mat, to soak up sweat dripped onto the floor and urine and moisture from droppings at the rear end. It will make it less slippery and reduce scrambling on the floor during cornering and stopping.

Settling Nervy Behaviour

In horses that are nervous travellers, many owners have found that a dose of 1000IU natural vitamin E, such as White-E® or White-E with Selenium®, each day for at least 7-10 days, helps fidgety horses to be less concerned about travelling.

A dose of Megavite-B® paste (B-Complex vitamins) may be worthwhile in horses travelling over long distances to keep them on their feed and reduce the metabolic stress of travelling.

On Arrival

If a horse is a particularly nervy traveller, or under hot conditions, it sweats and dehydrates during the trip, then 60mL of Recharge can be given over the tongue in the float before unloading. Once settled in the stall, a drink of cool water can be offered to provide the fluid base for the Recharge dose. After trips of two hours or more, it is a good idea to take horses for a walk on a lead for five minutes or so to help them loosen up before stalling them.

Management After an Event

Management after competing prior to the return journey is also an important consideration. Replenishing fluid levels lost in sweat is crucial to a horse’s recovery after an event and adding an electrolyte such as Recharge will help replace major body salt losses before travelling. Where the trip is over six to eight hours duration, then ideally the horse should be rested and given a light, damp feed, preferably overnight, before setting off for the trip.

Avoid Travel Sickness

Dusty dry feed offered during transport increases air contamination. Horses with underlying respiratory infection often have low grade lung damage and can develop a severe infection when dust or bacterial germs are inhaled deep into the lungs during hard exercise. Consult your vet about an immune stimulating preparation, in the three to five days prior to long distance travel.

Did You Know… that severe chest cavity infection or pleuropneumonia, can develop when horses are travelled over long distances in poorly ventilated trailers or enclosed truck floats. It is a very serious disease, with high risk of fatality or a prolonged recovery time requiring expensive veterinary care and medication.

Horses carrying the respiratory viruses may infect other horses during a long trip as they spread aerosol droplets carrying the virus under confined, poorly ventilated humid transport conditions. The highest risk occurs in horses travelling at the rear of the transport due to inhalation of heavily contaminated air. Other stress factors include excessive noise, cramped spaces, high speed driving, swaying trailers and lack of adequate rest stops.

The risk of lung and chest complications is increased if horses are unable to put their heads down to drain respiratory cleansing secretions during or after long distance transport.

What to look for….

For a few days after a long trip, particularly in a horse with a history of recent respiratory infection, observe the animal for signs of depression, loss of appetite, sweating due to fever (take its temperature morning and evening), panting in shallow, rapid breaths and symptoms of chest cavity pain – resisting movement, standing with elbows out and front legs wide apart, looking around at chest, coughing, pawing the ground and weight loss.

Key points to remember

  1. Ensure horses are cooled-out after exercise before travelling.
  2. Ensure the trailer or truck is well ventilated with an adequate air change rate but not too cold.
  3. Ensure trailer is level on tow bar. Drive steadily and smoothly.
  4. Keep back flap down – avoid dust.
  5. Do not tie the head too short. Provide dampened feed below chest height.
  6. Stop every three to four hours.
  7. Prevention is better than cure. Consult your vet about an immune stimulating preparation, in the three to five days prior to long distance travel.
  8. Implement measures to avoid Travel Sickness.


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