Expert: Transport Is an Equine Welfare Issue

An Italian researcher outlines the stresses high-performance horses face during transport and what horse owners and managers can do to help.

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Expert: Transport Is an Equine Welfare Issue
British Team gold-medal-winning dressage horse Valegro was transported via airplane to many international competitions during his career. | Dirk Caremans/FEI
Transportation isn’t just a major source of stress for horses—it’s also a serious health risk. By understanding risk factors and applying the latest scientific knowledge about the consequences of traveling, owners and professionals can help keep horses safer, healthier, happier, and better fit for performance after arrival, said a leading international expert.

“There are literally thousands of horses traveling around the world every day, for competitions, sales, breeding, and more, and we all really need to consider that transportation is a physical and mental stressor for these animals at every phase along the way,” said Barbara Padalino, DVM, PhD, associate professor of animal science in the Department of Agricultural and Food Sciences at University of Bologna, in Italy.

Padalino, who has spent the past 12 years investigating effects of transportation on equids, spoke on the topic during the 2nd Conference of the Avenches National Equestrian Institute (IENA), held Sept. 11, 2021, in Switzerland.

The Five Phases of Transport

Presenting results from a recent comprehensive review of her own work as well as that of other scientists, Padalino described the five phases of equine transport, each with its own risks and challenges:

  • In the Pretransport phase, horses might get moved to holding facilities or quarantine centers, and they could undergo obligatory or optional veterinary testing, Padalino said. Taking into consideration how humans handle, restrain, and isolate equids from their peers is important, but that becomes even more critical in this context because horses will associate those experiences with the transportation itself. In pretransport, horses might express their stress through signs of anxiety such as whinnying, pawing, or even shaking and trembling, she said.
  • Loading is an especially challenging phase for many horses, and stress and problematic behavior often build on prior experiences. “Loading fear comprises different stimuli, such as fear of entering an enclosed space, the height of the step leading onto the ramp, the instability and incline of the ramp, the darkness inside, and any bad associations with previous transportation and/or punishments during loading,” she said. Behavioral problems related to loading include refusing to load, freezing, rearing, pulling back, and tossing the head, among others.
  • During transit—the third phase—horses can experience total isolation, separation from their stablemates, forced proximity to horses they don’t know, overcrowding, rattling and other loud and unusual noises, vibrations, road bumps or air turbulence, temperature extremes, poor ventilation, thirst, hunger, and unexpected movements that require them to shift their balance constantly. And the longer the journey, the more magnified these issues become, Padalino said. When horses are in transit, they might scramble to keep their balance or even panic, paw the ground, kick the walls of the vehicle, or act aggressively toward the other horses traveling with them.
  • Unloading can require unnatural positions and movements, often leading to horses having to step backward and down without seeing where they’re going. Ramps can have different angles, and some can be slippery. Some transport methods don’t have ramps, meaning the animals must adjust their steps—sometimes blindly—to a sudden and different level. All these problems can be exacerbated in horses with any degree of lameness, which frequently goes undetected in subtle cases. When unloading, horses can refuse to unload, freeze, and jump over the ramp.
  1. The post-transport phase involves a change of environment, housing, and equine neighbors—all of which are likely to be very unfamiliar. The horses’ food might also change, and the water might taste different. If they’ve traveled far, they might even have to adjust to a different time zone. And horses could potentially experience jet lag, although researchers have yet to investigate that topic, she said.

Transportation Always Affects Welfare

Even when people do their best to ensure a good trip for their horses, transport is inevitably going to affect welfare, said Padalino. Still, knowing which criteria are most likely to be affected can help well-meaning transporters adapt the traveling conditions to reduce these issues to a minimum.

Specifically, traveling horses are at risk of welfare compromise in the following areas:

  • Freedom from prolonged thirst and/or hunger;
  • Freedom and ease of movement;
  • Freedom from injury and disease;
  • Freedom to express social and other natural behaviors;
  • Comfortable resting conditions;
  • Thermal comfort (air temperature); and
  • A positive human-horse relationship.

This doesn’t mean people shouldn’t transport their horses, Padalino added. It just means they should minimize such welfare issues both in degree and duration.

Transportation Always Increases Health Risks

Stress makes the immune system less effective in fighting diseases, so horses enduring the stress of transport are more susceptible to infections, said Padalino. Her earlier studies have also shown that travel makes horses more likely to spread disease to others.

Head position can make a significant difference, she said. Because horses usually have their heads tied up while traveling, their mucus does not effectively clear their airways as it would normally when their heads are down. This makes them more prone to respiratory diseases, especially pneumonia. Standardbred and Thoroughbred racehorses are as much as six times more likely than other horses to develop pneumonia after traveling; journeys longer than eight hours also increase the risk sixfold, she said.

Horses can also experience heat stroke, which is more than twice as likely to occur when access to fresh hay and water is limited or when vehicles are poorly ventilated, she said.

In addition, travel appears to increase the risks of laminitis, muscular problems, and gastric ulcers, said Padalino.

A veterinary exam pretravel can help pinpoint horses already showing signs of illness, she said, adding that, “If you let a sick horse travel, you will end up with a sicker one.”

Thorough cleaning and sterilization of the vehicle after transport to kill infectious microbes is critical, she said.

Horses can also sustain physical injuries during travel—sometimes even fatal ones. To reduce accident risks, horses should be well-trained and habituated to transport. Allowing them to learn from their dams or other horses they feel close to can help, she said.

Transport rigs should be thoroughly inspected pretravel for any signs of damage or faulty attachments. And drivers should be skilled in transporting equids, recognizing how to accelerate, decelerate, turn, and anticipate reactions of other drivers when horses are in tow.

Sedation, meanwhile, is almost always a dangerous idea, said Padalino. Horses should only be sedated during transport in extreme circumstances, such as severe illness or injury, and only under a veterinarian’s advice. Sedated horses are three times more likely to get injured during transportation, she said.

Arrival: Catching Up on Welfare and Health Compromise

Arrival is the moment of payoff for the price horses have paid for their journeys, said Padalino. As such, when horses get to their destination, they need to benefit from lots of rest in a low-stress environment, ideally in turnout. Horses that developed laminitis after transport were more than three times as likely to have been denied any kind of post-travel recovery period, compared to those that did not, she said.

In general, about 24 hours of pasture time with the ability to graze with the head down can help undo some of the health and welfare damage caused by travel, she said.

For the first five days after arrival, handlers should take horses’ rectal temperatures and listen to their lungs and intestines through a stethoscope once or twice a day to check for signs of imminent illness, she said.

Better Conditions, Better Rules and Legislation

As science continues to reveal the risk factors related to health and welfare issues in traveling horses, people can implement that knowledge to make transport as low-risk as possible, said Padalino.

This includes better training of both horses and humans involved in transport, as well as improving vehicles with, ideally, better lighting and wider bays that allow horses to maintain their balance and put their heads down, she said.

“Equine industry members need to be educated on equine transportation risk factors, best practices, and policies,” Padalino said. “Policing of compliance of the equine movements, with handbooks for the management of high-health, high-performance horse, should be implemented.”


Written by:

Passionate about horses and science from the time she was riding her first Shetland Pony in Texas, Christa Lesté-Lasserre writes about scientific research that contributes to a better understanding of all equids. After undergrad studies in science, journalism, and literature, she received a master’s degree in creative writing. Now based in France, she aims to present the most fascinating aspect of equine science: the story it creates. Follow Lesté-Lasserre on Twitter @christalestelas.

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