Long-Haul Transport and Horse Health Risks

While today’s planes, trains, and automobiles make long-distance horse transport easier than ever , it’s important to remember that transport-related stress and illness can put horses in a precarious—and even deadly—scenario. Researchers in Australia recently took a closer look at the health risks related to long-distance horse movement.

“Equine transportation is associated with a variety of serious health disorders causing economic and emotional loses,” said researcher Barbara Padalino, DVM, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney Faculty of Veterinary Science.

Stressors associated with travel can include:

  • Isolation from herdmates;
  • Confinement;
  • Unusual noises;
  • Vibrations;
  • Balance issues; and
  • Heat or cold stress.

Such stressors initiate a hormonal response that causes the body to release an increased amount of stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline can cause an elevated heart rate and increased defecation and sweating, while cortisol can stunt the immune system, potentially making a horse more susceptible to disease and infection such as shipping fever (a pulmonary disorder that can develop into severe and life-threatening pneumonia).

“Considering how commonly horses are transported, there is a surprising lack of information regarding the types of injuries and transport-related diseases that they are at risk for,” Padalino explained. “This sort of information will help safeguard the welfare and well-being of horses during their travels.”

With the assistance of a commercial horse transport company, Padalino and colleagues collected information on 1,650 horses that took a 4,000-kilometer (nearly 2,500-mile) trip across Australia. The trip was divided into phases (ranging from 6 to 24 hours) with 12-hour rest stops interspersed; the total transit time was 85 hours with 36 hours of rest.

The team determined that:

  • 1,604 horses (97%) arrived at the destination with no evidence of pain, lameness, or other injury/disease process;
  • Six horses incurred minor injuries during loading or transport;
  • Eight horses were febrile (they had a fever) at the rest stops or at the destination;
  • Seven horses showed signs of colic at the rest stops or destination, all of which recovered;
  • Three horses developed enterocolitis (inflammation of the small intestine and colon) at the rest stops or destination and required hospitalization;
  • Six horses developed nasal discharge, coughing, and fever at the rest stops or destination. All six horses were treated medically and recovered;
  • Five horses were diagnosed with pneumonia at the rest stops or destination, all of which recovered after appropriate medical treatment; and
  • Four horses (0.24%) died or were euthanized due to travel-related conditions, which is lower than previously reported in abbatoir (slaughterhouse) studies.

“We also found that more severe transport-related problems occurred during longer transport periods and that stallions/colts, horses older than 10 years of age, and Thoroughbreds could be at an increased risk,” Padalino added.

Despite these low numbers of disease, death, and injury, the study authors concluded that long-haul transportation poses a risk for horse health and welfare and should not be taken lightly.

“These numbers were likely low because the trips were organized and managed appropriately, following the code of transportation and monitoring the animals regularly,” Padalino said.

As such, the team recommendedcareful management and monitoring during transport to minimize movement-related stressors and health risks.

The study, “Health problems and risk factors associated with long haul transport of horses in Australia,” was published in Animals (Basel).